Consensus is the sacred cow of post-insurrection Nepal. After the 2004 “creeping coup” in which King Gyanendra took direct control of the government, the marginalized political parties and the Maoists found common cause in the goal of unseating the king. Once that was accomplished, they managed to stay aligned long enough to start a peace process and draft an interim constitution.
They made one terrible mistake then. Giddy from the success of cooperation, they enshrined consensus as the first principle for writing a new constitution for a federal Nepal. By doing so they sowed the seeds of the current deadlock on that constitution.
Power politics in Nepal for hundreds of years has been based on shifting alliances. In democratic Nepal, it isn’t just the parties that ally and vie but also factions within each party. It was completely unrealistic to think that that was going to change just because the monarchy was abolished.
Politics here is personal. Each party’s factions are led by charismatic figures who want to increase their prestige and be able to give favors to their supporters within the party. Parties routinely take months just to agree internally on policy positions. Between the parties, the personal nature of politics is multiplied. The leaders of a party that heads the government gain much more prestige and have much bigger favors to offer.
And the head of the main Maoist faction, Pushpa Dahal, still known by his nom-de-guerre, Prachanda, has to be able to declare the constitution a “victory” to strengthen his party, which was badly battered in the last election, and to maintain his position as leader. The same is true for other parties’ bosses, though Prachanda’s need is the greatest. He is playing the consensus card (combined with threats) to delay or prevent the Constituent Assembly from voting on the unresolved issues, a vote that he would probably lose.
But the biggest problem is that most political leaders understand consensus to mean, “Adopt my position and then we’ll have consensus.” During a brief time before and after the overthrow of the monarchy the parties’ interests coincided closely enough that they could agree. That’s no longer true on many critical issues: Everyone is still in favor of consensus, but they stick firmly to their positions.
John Adams said that compromise is the most important thing for a democracy. That would have been a far better word to adopt as a first political principle than consensus, and it’s something sorely needed in Nepal now.