Notes for Presentation to Conference on Nepali Constitution

I have been active in Canadian politics, law, and public life for thirty years, have been the leader of the opposition and  Premier (First Minister) in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, was the founding Chairman of the Forum of Federations, an international NGO dedicated to federal governance, and am now once again a Member of the federal parliament of Canada and the Liberal Party’s spokesman on foreign affairs, having been elected ten times to  federal and provincial parliaments.

So what I have to say is not necessarily true but it is certainly the product of experience.

When I last spoke to  a Nepali audience, the focus of my remarks was the question of federalism.  I reminded people that a famous philosopher once asked three questions:

“- if I am not for myself, then who will be for me ?

– but if I am only for myself then what am I ?

– and if not now, when ?”

Let me use these three questions to frame the rest of my remarks.

The first question is about recognizing the simple fact that all politics starts with the individual – the individual citizen, with his or her own responsibility.  But the first question is also about two broader trends in political life.  The first has to do with markets and the role of private enterprise;  the second with the persistence of the politics of identity, be it family, region, tribe, or ethnic group.

We can see two seemingly contradictory trends at work – “globalization” driven by economic forces that create innovation and change.

The second is the persistence of local politics.

We call this trend “glocalization”.

My observation would be that like many countries Nepali politics has, over the last fifty or sixty years, been dominated by the struggle for independence, and then by the question of the economic and political model to be followed.

Worldwide the debate is no longer capitalism versus socialism.  It is really what kind of mix between these two ideas do we want, how do we create jobs and growth in a sustainable way, and how do we use public policy – the forces of government and politics – to do that most constructively, in co-operation with the forces of the market and broader civil society.

A few points emerge around the world.  Education and innovation go together, which means education is a key economic policy.  Natural resource development has to be sustainable.  And political structures have to get closer to the people, which is why there’s such a continuing interest in constitutions and federal type structures.

Let’s now turn to the second question.  if  self-interest had not been set aside the country would not have been born.

You in this room know far better than I the costs of over-indulging individual and sectional interest.  From where we watched in Canada the country has seemed on the edge of a conflict that could have spiralled out of control.  Even as it was thousands have died unnecessarily in fighting that has persisted for a long time, often unreported and unrecognised in the western media.

But there are other, less obvious costs.  Many of you will be familiar with the expression we all hear on the London Tube – “mind the gap”.  It’s an important reminder.

“Mind the gap” means paying attention to the growing gap between rich and poor, within countries and between countries.

“Mind the gap” means paying attention to the growing gap between regions of the country, between people hiding behind age old barriers of caste, language and ethnicity.
“Mind the gap” means paying attention to the gap between the people and the politicians, that if left unaddressed is a sure fire recipe for even greater cynicism, mistrust, and lost opportunity.  If constitutional debate goes on too long, or seems to involve a preoccupation with abstractions by competing elites, it will quickly be discredited in the minds of the people.

“Mind the gap” means paying attention to  the gap between what we say and what we do.

“Mind the gap” means paying attention to all too critical space  between our brain and our mouth (for politicians an often fatal mistake !)

While these gaps go unattended, other countries that pay attention to them will succeed in attracting investment, in making growth happen.

Dysfunction can’t continue.

How can Nepal become a more prosperous, trusting, and sustainable society ?

It is not just about processes and programmes.  It is about leadership, creating the habits of trust and confidence that will make a difference, and the institutions that reinforce these habits, at both the national and the local level.  It means fighting corruption, the cancer that gnaws at trust and is the great and insidious enemy of the rule of law.

I am very self-conscious about being an outsider in this gathering, and while I have followed events in Nepal with great interest, I am hardly an expert.  But you must have invited me here for a reason.  So let me make a few simple points.

While some of the gap has been narrowed between the parties, everyone in this room knows there are competing rivalries and ambitions which create mistrust.

You have to put these on hold for a while to get certain issues resolved:

-getting clear agreement on the rules of the game for the next election

-giving clear, unambiguous direction to individual Ministers to achieve the elements you decide are the most critical for the country.

Some guidelines in this process:

-Do not set dozens of priorities.  Stick with a few.

Do not ask a partner in negotiation to do something he can’t do or achieve.

Conduct all proceedings with civility and trust, and insist that your staffs do the same

– Hold regular sessions where you assess how you’re doing.  Feedback, dialogue, discuss, execute.  Give clear responsibilities to particular people to get the work done.

– Always leave something on the table in a negotiation.  You’re going to be back, and it’s not a “winner takes all” game.  Make your negotiating partner look good, and as you change the culture he will do the same.

And so we come to the third question “if not now, when ?”  There’s always an excuse to deny a problem and to delay dealing with it.  But it gets worse !!  Leadership is about having a vision of the future and how you want to achieve it.  It requires humour, a thick skin, persuasiveness, and persistence.  Great leadership is not about force, or “getting my way”.  Mandela, Gandhi – these examples of goodness, humility and effectiveness are all around us.  Your deliberations are of great importance.  Sitting at the top of the world, with two large neighbours around you, Nepal is a country of great strategic significance.  May your ambitions be tempered by humility, your determination be guided by grace, your efforts be crowned with success and your achievements be marked by wisdom.

Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.