No one can resist an idea whose time has come. - Victor Hugo (1802-1885)
We are witnessing a tussle between two ideas: federating Nepal along ethnic lines similar to the 14-state model that state restructuring committee of the constituent assembly (CA)proposed; or, federating it in such that the Pahadi Bahun-Chhetri maintain their grip over Nepal. This tussle has been so fierce that it sank the CA.
Going by the space given to these two ideas in the popular press it appears that these ideas are somehow equal in terms of popularity. But empirical evidence suggests that they are not. One is an idea dear to the old guard, who are nostalgic about Nepal as they knew it. The other is an idea whose time has come. Let me provide some evidence of why I believe that the popular support lies for a model similar to the 14 states model that was passed by the state restructuring committee.
Evidence 1: The Maoists were the ones who dreamt up this idea, and they performed the best in the CA election. They performed so much better than what NC, UML and foreign organizations watching the election had expected that it was labeled a surprise outcome in the media. Some even claimed that this was because the Maoists had used unfair techniques. This argument doesn’t make sense because there is no reason to believe that the CA election was conducted in an unfair way, compared to the one in 1990. A more convincing argument is that the Maoists did better because their ideas were better. They were proposing radically shifting the power in Kathmandu to the villages, and empowering Janjatis and Madhesis by carving states so that the ethnic groups have majority in these states. They even had a map with the names of each state when campaigning for elections.
Evidence 2: While the Maoists were showing off their federal map, the NC, UML and RPP were confused. They never produced any map before running for election. They feared that if they did produce a map, it would cost them some votes. This showed that even NC and UML thought then that the popular support lay with the Maoist map.
Evidence 3: These seasoned political players realize that the tide is shifting. Even within the NC and UML, career politicians are willing to risk their status in the party to fight for an ethnic model of federalism. These politicians fear that the NC and UML’s ship is sinking, and are being led by captains who have lost their compass. Among the first ones to notice were Mahanta Thakur and Sharad Singh Bhandari. Following in their footsteps were Ashok Rai, and Ram Chandra Jha; both these men are important position holders in the UML party.
Evidence 4: The Maoists, Madhesis and Janajatis are already talking about forming an alliance for the next CA election. They want federalism to be their chief campaign slogan. Collectively, they could come up with a map and run for election based on that. There has been no such talk of alliance between UML, NC and RPPP.They NC, UML and RPP again fear that if they put a map on paper and run for election, they would do poorly. They would rather again try to confuse the electorate and try to engineer the outcome later.
Although there is compelling evidence that the majority of the electorate wants federalism based largely on ethnicity, there are also a large number of people who oppose it.
The Pahadi Bahun and Chettri fear a backlash from the Madhesis and Janjatis, especially if the states are named along ethnic lines. They know very well that just like the name “Nepal” has given them a natural advantage over others in the country of Nepal, “Limbuwan” will give Limbus an advantage in the state of Limbuwan, and Tharus will get an advantage in the state of “Tharuhat”.
The business community is concerned about the movement of goods and services across these newly formed states. Are these new states going to charge fees for passing through their states? This creates even more uncertainty in an already uncertain business climate.
The general public is concerned that federalism may exponentially increase the oppression that is done in the name of the government, since there will be more politicians to impose their views on people.
These are all valid concerns. But they are problems that can be fixed. The ethnic groups need to realize that it’s not revenge time. It’s a time for conciliation, and to plan for a better future—together. They need to give up their demand that the states be named according to their ethnicity. These states carved largely based on ethnicity should have neutral names. This is a fair compromise to make.
The new constitution needs to protect the right of individuals against oppression by anyone including the newly formed states. If the state is found guilty, the state government should be penalized heavily in fines.
As for the movement of goods and services, the constitution can guarantee the rights of the movement of people and goods without any sort of taxation.
The NC-UML-RPP nexus have blown the possible problems associated with ethnic federalism out of proportion. This has added to the confusion and has delayed what is inevitable.