6-12 February 2015 #744

THE ‘F’ WORD

If federalism is a fait accompli let’s try to minimise the damage that it will cause

JON APPEL
We Nepalis tend to underestimate our own capacity to muddle through. There were all kinds of predictions that if the deadline of 22 January for a new constitution was not met the country was doomed. Two weeks later we are still chugging along. Negotiations have come to a halt, the political discourse has got more belligerent, and each side is waiting for the other to blink first — but no one seems particularly bothered by it.

The people, who ddidn't have much faith left in the leaders anyway, are struggling to survive amidst much more immediate concerns of shortages of gas, electricity, water, petrol. There is almost a sense of relief that a looming confrontation over a constitution that will satisfy nobody has once more been put off.

In fact, the question being asked is that if a compromise is so difficult in this polarised situation, then maybe it’s not such a great idea to pursue the mirage of a consensus for now. All the parties seem to be willing to let things coast along for a bit longer, allowing time for a cooling off period to let behind-the-scenes negotiations resume.

The trouble is that things are not cooling off. In fact, the atmosphere has got even more poisoned with UML leader KP Oli hinting that the Maoist-Madhesi alliance can be bought off with Rs 10 billion, and the UCPN(M) leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal promising fire and brimstone in return.

Even more worryingly, there doesn't seem to be any backdoor talks taking place amidst all the posturing and sabre-rattling which is being dutifuly bannered in the talking head journalism format of the mainstream media.

Last week in this space we tried to figure out why negotiations on the constitution failed when it was so close to an agreement on 21 January. The conclusion is still that it was the dispute over a power-sharing arrangement in which disagreement over the five Tarai districts was used as an excuse. The  demography of the two districts in the west and three in the east were altered by Panchayat-era transmigration from the hills. The personal political ambitions of NC-UML leaders from these areas has got mixed up with Madhesi aspirations for federal provinces along the plains. State demarcation would also be of strategic interest to Nepal’s provinces vis-à-vis India if mammoth dams planned on the Karnali and the Kosi push through in the coming decades.

We have to be thankful the last-minute compromise being bandied about to partition the five districts VDC by VDC based on their population composition did not go through. This is where ‘give-and-take’ could have been a disastrous ‘lose-lose’ because of the danger of igniting ethnic pogroms in the two extremities of the Tarai.

Most political leaders say it is too late to backtrack from the concept of federalism. But they couldn’t be further removed from what the people actually think. Nepalis have serious misgivings about federalism. An authoritative nationwide public opinion poll by Interdisciplinary Analysts (IDA) confirms the figures from last month’s Himalmedia Public Opinion Survey 2015 that only one-fourth of Nepalis (26%) support federalism, but even they are against naming provinces after ethnic entities. And, a majority of pro-federalism Nepalis (53%) say geography must be the basis for creating federal units. IDA has disaggregated this data and found that a majority even in the plains and among Janajatis agree with the general population.

Do we really need federalism to have inclusive grassroots development and devolved democracy? Not necessarily, argues columnist David Seddon in the opposite page, and the veteran Nepal hand puts forward viable ideas on how devolution just needs to build in genuine inclusion in the Local Self-governance Act of 1999.

Let’s face it, federalism is the trophy the Maoist party needs to justify its ruinous conflict. Its leaders, most of them thoroughly discredited, need a new federal constitution to show the people that all that blood-letting and suffering was worth it. But comrades, read the writing on the wall: the people don’t want federalism. The only reason the top leaders of all parties now want federalism is because they see themselves as warlords of those future provinces.

If federalism is a fait accompli let’s try to minimise the damage that it will cause and maximise the benefits in terms of regional autonomy and decentralised decision-making. Let’s use it to harness natural resources equitably, create jobs at home and lift living standards. That is what the people really want, and that is what the negotiations should be all about.

Read also:

Solutions from within, Editorial

Why federalism?, David Seddon

Second thoughts about federalism, Om Astha Rai

Federalism revisited, From the Nepali Press

Frivolous federalism, Bihari K Shrestha

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