Dangerous compromises by Prashant Jha

Politics is all about managing conflicting interests. The process requires give and take from all sides, which then leads to some form of compromise. By its very nature, a compromise will not make everyone happy. But it has the merit of breaking a deadlock, and providing a somewhat durable solution to a problem since all major sides have presumably signed on to it. But this does not mean that the substance of the compromise, in itself, is always good. The peace and constitutional process has thrown up this basic dilemma. Everyone is impatient for a deal — any deal — that would break the impasse. But perhaps not enough is being thought about the implications of the deal that is on the table at the moment.

Think about the peace process, and the issue of integration and rehabilitation.

The strength of the Nepal Army (in the days when it was still Royal) went up from 45,000 to 96,000 in about five years. The present proposal of creating a directorate envisages a mixed force that will include 35 per cent former PLA combatants, 35 per cent NA soldiers and 15 per cent Armed Police Force and Nepal Police personnel. If all sides agree to integrate 6,000 Maoist combatants, the size of the mixed force will be around 17,000. That will take the NA’s strength upto 113,000. Add to it the demand of the Madhesi parties to recruit an additional 10,000 Madhesis in the NA — even if half of that is added, the NA will become a 120,000 strong force.

This writer understands and supports the need to integrate Maoist combatants as well as make the NA more inclusive to give Madhesis a stake in the state structure. But how does one reconcile this with a less remarked part of past peace agreements — ‘right sizing’ the NA? In other words, how do you add and subtract at the same time?

Having an army of this size is foolish on several counts.

First, we don’t need it. There is no possibility of a conventional war with either of our neighbours. A major nation-wide civil war is unlikely. And the political class will use the NP and APF, not the NA, to deal with low intensity conflict and disturbances, as they did in the Tarai in the past few years.

Second, we can’t afford it. Having a bloated army means liabilities for the state for an indefinite period. Salaries, uniforms, trainings, barracks, welfare for families, pensions will take an enormous toll on the state treasury. In these difficult fiscal times, countries all over the world, including those which are waging wars, are reducing their military budgets. We, on the other hand, will have to increase it.

Third, it is dangerous to have such a vast security apparatus in a nascent democracy which is struggling to find the right civil-military balance. The NA has operated largely according to the provisions of the peace accord, and the interim constitution. The army chief accepted the last government’s decision regarding promotions quietly even if he was not happy about it. And the NA does not represent a threat to democracy or the political system at the moment. But it takes decades of civil-military interaction to institutionalise the principle of civilian control over the armed forces. The process will become more difficult if the army is such a gigantic structure which is fairly autonomous in its functioning.

Integration is necessary for the sake of peace, and to recognise the military stalemate and PLA’s contributing to political changes. But politicians should also simultaneously commit themselves to downsizing the army, and come up with a specific roadmap of how they would do so.

Take another issue, where a similar bad compromise is being worked out — the form of government.

Maoist contempt for parliament and NC’s fear of a president who may turn authoritarian has resulted into an agreement on a ‘French system’. The president will be elected directly by the people, and is to be in charge of foreign policy and defence. The PM will be elected by the parliament, and look after day to day governance, budget and administration.

This is a recipe for chaos. There will be a constant tussle for power and legitimacy between the president and PM. An earlier column dealt with how the current framework of division of responsibilities will lead to policy paralysis (It’s complicated, TKP, Aug 3). But it bears reiteration that having dual centre of power has never worked in Nepal. There were tensions between the palace and elected prime ministers, and there has already been a tussle between a ceremonial president and the PM in the new set up leading to the latter’s resignation. This is not to suggest that a single authority be made all powerful. But there can be checks and balances in a system, without needing to cut the executive itself into different slices as is being envisaged. Adopting either a parliamentary or presidential system will be far better than creating this khichdi, which is particularly unsuitable in the context of Nepal’s ruthlessly competitive political culture.

There is also an evolving agreement on the mixed electoral system, and the broad nature of federalism. But an unnoticed aspect is how this will result in expanding the state machinery on an unprecedented scale. With both first past the post and PR systems, there will be a fairly big legislature at the centre even if it is not 601 MPs again. Having eight to ten federal units will mean having eight to ten provincial legislatures, and state civil services and security forces.

Federalism is necessary, and there is a good case to be made for expanding the state so that it can deliver services to the last person in the queue, and reach out to the remotest areas. But this has to be done rationally. The present scheme will lead to an increase in the number of politicians and bureaucrats whose bills will be footed by the government. Nepal is not quite the richest state around. And it is not clear whether adding layers of bureaucracy will actually make the system more responsive and accountable, or it will just mean more people getting a chance to loot public resources.

The best cannot be made the enemy of the good, and given the deep ideological and political rifts that mark the Nepali polity, having any broad compromise is a positive step. But the CA and the Special Committee will not be doing the Nepali people justice if they do not carefully think through the consequences of their proposal and what it means for the state in the long term.(from ekantipur)

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