Nepal's Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi's decision to become prime minister has been by and large welcomed but its actual impact will be felt once the modalities are clearly enunciated between the political parties and the apex court. It will also help in allaying both constitutional and political fears.
For India, that can only mean good news. Since the dissolution of the Baburam Bhattarai government in May, 2012 after four years of wrangling and repeated extensions for the Constitutional Assembly, there appeared no solution in sight. The decision of the chief justice to head the non-partisan government came as a relief since when Maoists emerged as the biggest party in the 2008 elections, they lead the country into a state of terminal decline.
The Constituent Assembly failed to finalise a Constitution by 2010 and voted to extend its own term four times.
The experiment has proved to be costly – political turmoil with four unstable governments in four years. Nepal was without a functional government since May 2012, thanks to the stand taken by the country's two main parties, Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML, who continued to defy the Bhattarai government's every decision.
In a country where opinions are sharpy divided and voters deeply polarised, all decisions are likely to find more opposition than supporters. Now even the chief justice's move is under the scanner. Which is surprising because it has the blessings of all four important parties – the Unified CPN-Maoist, Nepali Congress, Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) and the United Democratic Madhesi Front.
Some opposition to the plans are based on the failures of the Constituent Assembly to get their act together. That could be used skilfully to make a point and may guide the dynamics of the elections in favour of the Federal Democratic Republic Alliance, an alliance of Maoist and the Madehsi parties. Their calculations are based on typical vote bank politics: the Maoists are strong in the hills and the Madhesi parties in the terai. It is a potent combination which can form a government since their interests in no way clash with each other.
In the process, could the judiciary, sucked into a political vortex, loose its impartiality and credibility. Officials say this problem has been taken care of: the chief justice will temporarily vacate his position as head of the judiciary to head the electoral process. Once elections conclude, he will automatically be relieved of that responsibility. Until such time though, as a temporary charge, the Deputy Chief Justice of Nepal will be elevated to that position.
To remove the inevitable clouds around his motive, the chief justice has categorically stated that he has no personal ambitions but has just stepped in to resolve the political and constitutional crisis. Observers believe that his fairness and impartiality remains intact.
The more serious problems are political. The scale and intensity of infighting in parties like the Nepali Congress and the CPN–UML is a matter of intense concern. At the moment, it looks very difficult for either to keep their flock together. That is bound to lead to further fragmentation.
According to Nihar Nayak, research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), opposition parties have more grass root support. "Mainline political parties are scared of the opposition because of their poor performance while in the government. This is also because of their lack of grass root support,'' he says.
But there are others like defence analyst Major General (Retd) GD Bakshi who believe that there is a lot happening under the surface which may not be evident at the moment. "There is a long term negative effect which is eroding institutions and will divert Nepal from the path of growth and progress. The army and the economy have been at the receiving end of this political turmoil. While the army has conducted itself well even in the worst crisis, its much-required modernisation and training have gone for a toss as they have no help from the government.''
The inflation in Nepal is hovering in the region of 9 to 10 per cent which has made life for its people very difficult. Political uncertainty is one of the major reasons for the economy going into a tailspin.
Furthermore, Nepal's interim constitution bars judges, including the chief justice from assuming any role which is not of a judicial nature without the prior consent and approval of the judicial council – something Chief Justice Regmi has not done. That too will require a constitutional amendment.
Most believe that while the new appointment is a step in the right direction, it is not likely to ease political complications. Even if allowed by political parties to preside over the elections, it would require a herculean effort on the part of the government machinery to conduct elections in remote areas which could take days to reach. Time is clearly running out for conducting the elections before May-end or the first week of June, before the monsoons, scheduled to reach sometime in the first or the second week of June.
But even cynics concede that any step towards forming an elected government is a step in the right direction. This will help to stabilise and streamline the government machinery which is in a stand still since years, if not decades. A stable elected government is in the interest of the entire neighbourhood, particularly India which has old cultural and historical roots with its Himalayan neighbour.