22-28 August 2014 #721

Federal fundamentalism

Question the merits of federalism and you are accused of committing blasphemy
Bihari K Shrestha
When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was addressing Nepal’s Constituent Assembly-Parliament recently, he must have wondered about its sheer size. His country is 40 times bigger than Nepal, but has only 543 members in its Lok Sabha.

The CA2, like its earlier model, remains a national embarrassment and this pampered and profligate assembly must be terminated as soon as possible. This has become a matter of urgency because the CA2 is stuck in the same rut as CA1 over the issue of federalisation.

To assuage the growing impatience of the people, the CA2 is said to be hurrying things up by inheriting the work completed by CA1. But in the case of federalisation, that assurance is fraught with even greater danger, primarily due to the extreme frivolity with which the UCPN(M)’s Pushpa Kamal Dahal, then head of State Restructuring Committee, had handled the issue.

To recap: in November 2011 Dahal abruptly departed from consensus-based course in his committee, won over the seven UML members by agreeing to their demands of Sherpa and Mithila provinces, and voted down the NC and its 7-province model with his own 14-province formula of which four were created at the spur of the moment ‘in a span of a mere half an hour’ according to news reports on 26 November 2011.

The absurdity of the 14-province scheme was highlighted by the inclusion of a province named ‘Jadaan’ in northwestern Nepal. While the new region of that name remained exotic for a while, the people living there were livid because they thought the word ‘Jadaan’ was derived from the Nepali word for locally-brewed beer, implying that it was going to be ‘the province of the drunkards’.

That is how ad hoc and flimsy the whole federalisation agenda has been from the beginning. For the Maoists, ethnic autonomy was a slogan designed to help in recruiting fighters for their revolution among educationally and economically disadvantaged Magars of the Rapti Zone. No Maoist, including Baburam Bhattarai, PhD, has made any credible analysis as to what federalisation entails in terms of governance structures and their costs. And just how would it contribute to enhancing the well-being of the chronically impoverished people of Nepal?

Similarly, the other two major parties, the NC and UML, never talked about the need for federalisation during their 1990 revolution and thereafter. It was only in 2006 that their total alienation with the people forced them to cohabit with the Maoists on condition that they converted to federal fundamentalism. While the NC and UML can boast of more educated people in their ranks, they too have not written anything objectively on the subject. What we have is only lip service. Therefore, in order to rescue the constitution-making process this time around, it has become morally imperative for these parties including the Maoists to urgently disavow federalisation once and for all.

As for the leaders of the Madhesi parties -- including those who once called New Delhi “the Mecca and Medina of Nepali politics”, threatened a blockade on Kathmandu at Birganj, kept mum when an Indian diplomat in Birganj exhorted them to “make the Tarai burn”, and lately branded their defeat in CA2 polls as “India’s defeat” -- still have to tell their fellow Nepalis how a man from Jhapa would have more in common with another in Kanchanpur and not with their immediate neighbour in Ilam.

As things stand, Nepal’s geography would yield extraordinary value-added only if dealt with in harmony with its unique diversity. For instance, the Chure problem can be solved only by dealing with its east- west strip in its entirety. Similarly, the irrigation benefits for the west Tarai regions and electric power for the entire country can be generated only by damming parts of Dadeldhura and Baitadi for Pancheswor project, or Doti, Dadeldhura, Baitadi and Bajhang for the West Seti project.

In short, while capitalising on one’s comparative advantage is the lifeblood of economic progress and people’s prosperity, in the case of Nepal it makes sense only if its unique geography is taken as an integrated whole. After all, Nepal did not need to federalise to become an internationally-recognised model for community managed forestry and top MDG achiever in child and maternal mortality reductions among developing countries. They happened due to devolution of authority to elected user groups. And despite these successes, question the merits of federalism today and you are accused of committing blasphemy.

We have proved that grassroots democracy and self-governance work, we don’t need to experiment with something called ‘federalism’.

Read also:

Reckless federification, Editorial

Federalism for the sake of it, David Seddon

Inclusion by any other name, Anurag Acharya

The architecture of democracy, Bihari K Shrestha

Federal expression, Anurag Acharya

Constitutional déjà vu, Damakant Jayshi

Divided we don’t rule, Editorial

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