21-27 August 2015 #722

Over-fermented federalism

Crafting a federal state is a lot like baking the perfect croissant
Bidushi Dhungel

No one does fine cooking like the French. By ‘fine’ I mean delicate, balanced, and aesthetically unparalleled. Take the croissant, for example -- 27 layers of fermented yeast dough, each separated by a sheet of butter and rolled like a honeycomb, which is raised or ‘proofed’ until the size doubles and it jiggles perfectly, before it is baked in the oven to a perfect golden brown colour.

To the average mind, the croissant is just dough shaped into a crescent moon with lots of butter. But anyone with a penchant for baked goods can tell from a glance and the first bite of a croissant how experienced and/or well-trained the baker who made it is and how incredibly difficult it is to get the darned thing right. The dough cannot be over-kneaded, cannot be too moist, the butter must stay unmelted throughout the rolling and preparation process and leaving them out to proof for slightly too long will cause them to completely deflate and collapse when baking in the oven.

In other words, croissant-making is like federalism-making.

The delicate nature of both, the visibility and impact of every tiny error in the final product, the triumph of getting it right and the lack of any acceptable substitute make the analogy surprisingly apt. In Nepal’s case regarding federalism, what we see is a serious case of over-proofing. Ideas and personal thoughts regarding the federal agenda have been fermenting and developing for far too long. It has got to a point of no return, with no one willing to back down now that the time has finally come to reveal the end result.

The desire to carve out states according to identity, capability, or not to carve them at all is felt so strongly by so many people that the debate is now deadlocked. The issue of identity in particular is something which everyone seems to now have a very strong opinion about. People with no interest in politics or the constitution are becoming vocal on federalism and the constitution. The entire process has taken so long and people have been held hostage to this unending debacle such that it has forced them to develop extreme feelings regarding what should happen. In theory, that more people are getting ‘involved’ in the process is wonderful. Unfortunately, involvement is not creating a debate, but rather a conflict, one which it seems is increasingly without solutions.

In turn, these very well-developed opinions, which were unnecessarily allowed to ferment over the past eight years, seem set to create an intractable situation often leading to violence. If one thinks back to 2009-10, the public mood was based on the idea that the Constituent Assembly (CA) would decide on a suitable federal structure, and that would be that. If any structure was agreed on then, there would have undoubtedly been some opposition and dissent, but nothing close to the scale we are seeing today. In essence, at the time, the spirit, hope and togetherness of the Jana Andolan was yet to wear off and that was perhaps the only genuine window of opportunity to push through something as fragile as federalism. As the years passed, so did the belief in many of the promises of the agenda for ‘change’, including federalism.

Bahuns and Chetris in western Nepal had a penny-dropping moment and realised they too wanted a stake in the pie, causing a widespread north-south federal agenda to develop. In fact, in the aftermath of the Jana Andolan, for a few years, many people (mostly Bahuns and Chhetris) were apprehensive about publicly disowning or disagreeing with the 14-state model which came out of CA-1’s State Restructuring Committee. They didn’t want to be seen as ‘anti-federalist’, ‘regressive’, ‘status-quoist’ and as a voice of ‘the oppressor.’ But over-time that fear wore off and as people began to become more vocal, the polarisation became more evident. As governments changed and they heeded the demands of the majority, the promises which were made to minorities were going to be broken. Promises for self-rule, entire states and rights that are barely enjoyed in even the most developed democracies were handed out to groups as though the government was King throwing gifts at the subjects. The agreements of the past were obviously going to come back to haunt the leadership.

The question now is how to get through this federalism debacle without more death and violence, and without allowing the entire agenda and process to collapse entirely. The incidents of police firing at protesters are a worrying sign. Instead of brushing off protesters as being politically motivated, the state and citizenry would do well to acknowledge that the grievances are genuine and while political motivations are a reality, the emotional and irrational are also dangerously real.

It’s like we’re waiting while the croissants are in the oven to see if they can still be salvaged, despite having sat out in the open for far too long. One can only hope they won’t end up bitter, flat, burnt rotis.



Federalism, republicanism and secularism, Anurag Acharya

Vox populism, Editorial

Reckless federification, Editorial

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