The Interim Constitution of Nepal––a document of consensus among the key political players then and the main protagonists now––as amended, declared Nepal to be “an independent, indivisible, sovereign, secular, inclusive federal democratic republic State”. Why then did disagreements over federalism lead to the demise of the Constituent Assembly (CA), which represented the aspirations of the Nepali people to be governed democratically under a constitution drafted by their own elected representatives? Someone diagnosed the problem long ago––”Nepal became committed to federalism without actually having a large consensus on what it means in practice”. Fancy, fear and functionality (3Fs) represent different stages of the federalism discourse, now stuck at nature, names and numbers (3Ns).
THE FIRST F
The Madhes movement became the rallying point for extending the state restructuring theme of the People’s Movement to the demand for federalism. Clause 6 of the agreement signed between the government of Nepal and Madhesi People’s Rights Forum on August 30, 2007 states “While restructuring the state, an arrangement of a federal governance system comprised of provinces (Pradesh) with autonomy shall be made by keeping sovereignty, national unity and indivisibility of Nepal intact.” Demands for federalism came as a natural reaction to the over centralization of political power and economic resources in Kathmandu. But, like many other political slogans, it was also projected as a panacea to all problems rather than a well-thought out strategy for building a democratic, peaceful and prosperous nation.
Politics today relates little to the happiness of the people who want to enjoy the fruits of their hard work in peace, security and dignity, and who believed in the promise of a sovereign, independent, democratic, peaceful and prosperous Nepal. Is such a Nepal in the making? Why then do scholars talk of Nepal collapsing and the president and political leaders themselves warn of Nepal becoming another Afghanistan?
Without a clear vision for the future, how can there be any agreement on restructuring the state or federalization of the country? In the confusion, genuine demands for dignity and rights, better recognition and livelihoods, durable peace, new constitution, free/fair election, good governance and economic transformation with better utilization of internal resources and foreign investment are getting lost. However, amidst the diversities of caste, class, language, religion and region and despite the undeniable poverty, illiteracy and injustices of the past as well as the current chaos, the culture of co-existence and tradition of tolerance is holding Nepal together.
With the ethnic, linguistic, religious and regional diversities getting tainted with extremist ideologies, combined with widespread poverty and slow growth, people are wondering how long it would take before Nepal is torn apart. Such anxieties are leading to the fear of federalism, lending support to those who have always seen it as an instrument of division and rejected its need. If federalism continues to be the main cause of prolonging the current transition, making people’s livelihoods more difficult, how else will they view the federalism agenda? And yet, is it possible to abandon it without creating more conflict?
In its conceptual-philosophical realm, a state can be defined as federal if it meets some simple criteria––there should be at least two orders (tiers) of government, central and regional (provincial-state-cantonal) or local (municipal); each of the tiers is constitutionally defined and has some autonomy with clearly defined functions and devolved powers and there should be an arbiter of the constitution, the courts, in case of disputes between the centre and the lower units or among the constituent units. Federations are also of many varieties––centralized, decentralized, parliamentary, and presidential, with many or few units. For a federation to be functional, some fundamentals must be clear, including the nature, names and numbers of the constituent units, constitutionally defined division of powers and functions, acceptance of diversity, minority rights and rule of law, fiscal arrangements and economic viability, nature of the state itself and its political institutions and legal regime.
Applying these features to the Nepali debate on federalism, there is an agreement among the main political parties on many of these aspects, including division of power and functions, economic viability, revenue collection and sharing, form of governance, the legal regime and of course the democratic and inclusive nature of the state. The only remaining issues are the 3Ns (nature, names and numbers) of the constituent units. With the UCPN (Maoist) moving away from its initial demand of single ethnicity-based provinces now, should the political parties allow the remaining 2Ns (names and numbers) to keep them divided, risking what has been achieved so far?
Creating a democratic, peaceful and prosperous nation has never been an easy task. Physical terrain, ethno-cultural diversity and location make Nepal an intricate laboratory of state formation and nation building. There are new complexities of conceptual-philosophical and practical-behavioral issues the state restructuring work must take into account today. The multiple undertaking of state restructuring as a nation building, peace building and constitution drafting exercise makes the task of federalizing Nepal even more complex. With political will, however, parties should be able to agree on names and numbers. But if it is felt that more homework is needed, then agreement on a transitional arrangement should enable the parties to institutionalize what has been agreed upon so far and hold elections under a national consensus government.
Federalism is certainly not the panacea to all of Nepal’s ills, but it is neither possible nor desirable to return to the over-centralization of political power and economic privileges of the past. So, terming federalism as the main reason behind the prolonged transition that is pushing Nepal to the brink of failure is pointless because the Interim Constitution has already declared Nepal a federal republic. Agreement on a functional federalism with manageable number of provinces that reflect our common identity to strengthen peace and democracy is the best way forward. This requires the federalism discourse to move away from its current focus on creating multiple power centers. If thought through well, federalism can be a catalyst for the peaceful and positive transformation of Nepal’s politics, economy and society by creating a culture of real devolution of power and privileges, enhancing people’s access to the services of the state and making politics more transparent.
The author is a former diplomat. The article is excerpted from a paper presented at a seminar, Federalism-Learning from the Indian Experience, organized jointly by the Centre for Security Analysis-India and Centre for South Asian Studies in Kathmandu last week