26 April-2 May 2013 #653

Federal expression

Indications are that elections (when, and if, they ever happen) will essentially be a referendum on single-ethnic federal provinces

As a country, Nepal seems condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. We need to take to the streets to restore democracy every couple of decades or so because democrats emulate the demagogues they replace as soon as they get to power. Revolutionaries take the country through a ruinous conflict saying the suffering is a necessary part of attaining utopia, but when they get to rule they behave like oligarchs.

The Maoists used feudal injustices in Nepali society to fuel their revolution. The argument that the 1990 People’s Movement was unable to take the country forward was a persuasive one at a time when there was widespread disillusionment with the democratic parties. The oppressed had to rise up to overthrow the oppressors, they said, and used the grievances of downtrodden ethnic groups, women, and neglected areas of the country like the far-west to recruit fighters.

Later, they successfully used an overtly ethnic platform to garner votes in the 2008 elections. The party’s manifesto carried the promise of autonomy and self-governance for neglected ethnic groups and this translated into the proposal for single-identity federal provinces in the last elections. This was patterned after the Stalin-Mao model of provinces named after ethnicities, but which didn’t really have any power in an over-centralised communist command structure. Today, Janajati leaders have all been disappointed by Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal trying to play both sides and going progressively lukewarm on federalism.

Dahal resorted to usual doublespeak during his trip to Beijing last week where he assuaged Chinese concerns about the possible fragmentation of an ethno-federated Nepal by explaining that he was actually for ‘federal centralism’. His hosts must have been puzzled by this oxymoron and reminded of Mao’s own notion of ‘democratic centralism’.

Geo-strategically, there is concern both in China and some sections in India, that an untested experiment with federalism could seriously destabilise Nepal. The main reason we failed for four years to write a new constitution was because of the disagreement over the nature and extent of federalism. Even the compromise formula that the political parties had settled for in the afternoon of 28 May last year could have been disastrous because it would have left radicals on all sides dissatisfied. Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai probably did Nepal a favour by dissolving the CA and announcing new elections.

Nearly a year later, we are still planning to have that election. And we are poised to repeat history because the new CA will probably get stuck on the same old issue of federalism. Nothing has really happened in the last 11 months to bridge the gap between the positions of those for and against single-identity federalism. From the statements of politicians and ethnic pressure groups it is clear that the elections will essentially be a referendum on federalism.

Year after year since the last elections, surveys have shown that most Nepalis, including those from various ethnic groups, have misgivings about identity-based federalism. What they really want is development that is hastened by effective decentralisation and autonomy that redresses the historical lack of say of the marginalised in governance. The fear is probably that future provinces named after a single ethnic group may lead to internecine violence.

That needn’t be so. If we can ensure that the names of provinces are only symbolic and no ethnicity will have priority rights within that province, the election could be a way to finally finding a formula for federalism acceptable to all in the next constitution. But for that we need the political parties to abide by an electoral code of conduct not to fan communal flames during the campaign period.

It is because of the sins of our past rulers that we need to address the pent-up grievances of marginalised communities by recognising their identity while devolving political decision-making to the new provinces. It would have been best for development and the economy if the provinces had contiguous Mountain, Hill, and Tarai belts within them. But that may not be politically possible now.

However, we must remember that federalism in whatever form will guarantee development. We can only hope that history will not repeat itself and keep Nepal poor even after we carve up the country into those eight or so provinces.

Read also:

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