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Missing the deadline

Himalayan blunders

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COLLISION COURSE: An activist shouts slogans demanding the resignation of PM Bhattarai

For more than two decades, Nepal, a resource-rich, impoverished country wedged between China and India, has teetered between paralysis and upheaval. Its people have witnessed the transition, in 1990, from an authoritarian Hindu kingdom to a constitutional monarchy;the massacre of members of the royal family in 2001 by the heir to the throne;a decade-long civil war between Maoist insurgents and the government that ended in a faltering peace agreement in 2006;and the removal of the monarchy altogether in 2008.

Since the civil war ended, after the loss of more than 16, 000 lives, a stalemate has ensued as each party caters to caste, class and ethnic divisions instead of national unity. Many politicians are manoeuvring to get their hands on money from foreign aid, tourism and hydropower;even the Maoists have become crony capitalists. Meanwhile, the bureaucracy, army and police - historically dominated by privileged social groups that never held them accountable - are becoming even more politicised and corrupt.
Although Nepal is no stranger to crises, the one currently seizing the country risks turning it into a failed state. On May 27, the 601-member legislature, which had been directed to write a new constitution for what is now a democratic republic, missed its deadline for the fourth time since it was created in 2008. Hours before the deadline, after the Supreme Court refused to grant another extension, the Maoist PM, Baburam Bhattarai, dissolved the legislature, known as the Constituent Assembly, and scheduled nationwide elections for November 22. Although averting imminent political disaster, the call for elections is likely to produce an even more divided legislature.

The fitful struggle to develop a constitution both epitomises and exacerbates the country's ethnic, religious, geographical, caste and class divisions. More than 90 languages are spoken in this country. Buddhists and Muslims are sizable minorities among the largely Hindu population. Lower-caste people and rural residents have been historically marginalised;the grievances run deep. However, instead of unifying the country, constitution-drafting has become a frenzied contest to secure privileges for one's own community. With most institutions malfunctioning and the system of patronage deeply ingrained, bribery and political connections rule the day. If the culture of impunity is not uprooted, neither the elections nor a new constitution can deliver Nepal from slipping further into civil chaos, poverty and lawlessness.

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