13-19 June 2014 #711

The ‘f’ word again

Federalism is not about drawing boundaries but ensuring quality and prosperity

It’s that time again, when the Constituent Assembly is once more trying to take the bull by the horns and tackle the thorny issue of federalism.

The committee has finished its preliminary hearing, taking views of various political parties and their widely differing formulae on how the state should be restructured.

It reviewed what was agreed on in the last CA’s committee and tried to reconcile it with current thinking on the issue. From the looks of it, the parties seem to be ironing out their differences behind closed doors, but for public consumption they still have to stick to their various positions: 14 single ethnicity-based states with single Madhes, 12 states and double Madhes, or seven provinces with geographical nomenclature. Which means, don’t believe the alarmist headlines every morning, one insider told us the parties are mostly posturing.

Chitra Bahadur KC of the Rastriya Jana Morcha, one of the most eloquent opponents of not just ethnicity-based federalism but any kind of federalism, has come around to accepting federation. The UCPN(M) seems to have got the message from the electorate, and is secretly pulling back from its demand for single-ethnicity provinces. Although if we interviewed Pushpa Kamal Dahal tomorrow, he would vehemently deny that.

While parliament is stalled and all the main parties are paralysed with power struggles, behind the scenes work is going on to find a compromise acceptable to all. It is as if, by design, the parties are being sidetracked to be preoccupied with Baburam vs Prachanda, Deuba vs Sushil, Madhav vs Oli so that they will be too distracted to interfere with a federalism deal. Just as well, because if we decide on future state structure on the basis of short-term political horse-trading, it would be a disaster.

The big difference with 28 May 2012 and today is that the tables have turned in the balance of power in the CA: the opposition is now the ruling coalition, and the Maoist-Madhesi alliance is now in the opposition. Those in favour of single-ethnicity federalism had a majority in the CA last time, and in this one it is those opposed to it who together with other smaller parties have a two-thirds majority. The two positions seem to be cancelling each other out.

What is important is not that we have a directly elected presidential, parliamentary or mixed system, but whether or not democratic fundamentals are protected, and accountability ensured. Federalism should help raise living standards of all Nepalis, and not lead to perpetual conflict over natural resource sharing and wasteful duplication of state machinery that we cannot afford.

Care has to be taken to balance local self-governance and political autonomy with the need to preserve national unity. Let’s hope that unlike last time, the parties won’t indulge in political grandstanding, and that cooler heads will prevail. There is an emerging consensus on just six  provinces (plus Kathmandu) that will balance and safeguard ethnic and linguistic diversity within them and redress their sense of exclusion.

Whether or not these provinces are named after a particular ethnic group is not as important as whether all ethnicities within that province are treated equally. Name it 'federalism' or anything else, the crux is that political power and economic decision-making should no longer be the monopoly of the pampered and discredited rulers in Kathmandu alone.

After coming so far on the peace journey since 2006 with demobilisation and disarmament of the Maoist militia, their golden hand shakes and reintegration into the national army, two elections and thousands of hours spent on the draft of the new constitution, we just need to muster the political will to find a win-win formula on federalism.

As long as we agree that the constitution will guarantee autonomy, prosperity and equality, what we call the new provinces will just be semantics.

Read also:

Pause, play, repeat, Trishna Rana

Constitutional déjà vu, Damakant Jayshi

The architecture of democracy, Bihari K Shrestha

Misinformed, misunderstood, Anurag Acharya

Federal expression, Editorial

Federalism by any other name, Editorial

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