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Deferring the Difficult

Federalism is Not the Answer to Nepal’s Problems

Nirabh Koirala (koiralanirabh@gmail.com) is at the Centre for South Asian Studies in Kathmandu, Nepal and Geoffrey Macdonald (gpmacdonald@gmail.com) is a consultant at the United States Institute of Peace and taught political science at Grinnell College, United States. 

Federalism in a complex multi-ethnic society like Nepal cannot address the issues of exclusion and centralisation of power. While a healthy debate about federalism is welcome in Nepal, the need of the hour is to strengthen grassroots institutions. 

In June 2015, Nepal’s major political parties brokered a historic deal on the long-stalled constitution drafting process. The agreement outlined a 16-point framework for resolving some of Nepal’s most contentious constitutional issues, including its federal structure. Since the fall of the country’s two-century-old monarchy in 2006, federalism has been a hotly debated issue among Nepal’s minority groups. The term “federalism” was only included in the 2007 interim constitution after the Madheshi Janadhikar Forum, a party from the historically oppressed southern region, lit the original document on fire in protest.

However, the vibrant debates on federalism since 2006 have unnecessarily delayed a new constitution. The specifics of a proposed federal structure have beguiled lawmakers, who have been unable to reach a consensus or move past the issue. Even in the new constitutional draft currently being discussed in the constituent assembly, controversial proposals regarding fundamental rights and women’s citizenship have been overshadowed by the debate over federalism.

This stalemate is particularly destructive because federalism alone will not solve Nepal’s political, social, and development problems. The excessive focus on federalism has obscured more necessary reforms for local governance. To be truly transformative, Nepal’s new constitution must devolve power beyond the provincial level to order to empower local communities.

Addressing Exclusion and Centralisation

Nepal has two primary deficiencies: exclusion and centralisation. The exclusion of Dalits, ethnic groups, women, and other underprivileged groups from the political mainstream has plagued state and society relations in Nepal for a long time (Geiser 2005). Yet concurrently, the political establishment itself has not extended the reach of the state beyond Kathmandu. As Mahendra Lawoti argues “the Nepali State is highly centralised and has given local governments very little power and virtually no responsibility for delivering services (Lawoti, 2003).” State centralisation coupled with ethnic exclusion was an important driver of the Maoist insurgency in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The amended interim constitution in 2007 attempted to address these problems. It declared Nepal to be a “Federal Democratic Republic” and called elections for a constituent assembly that would ensure an “inclusive” Nepalese state. Yet the 2008 constituent assembly could not resolve the issue of federalism or produce a new constitution. Key sticking points, such as the number of provinces, the boundaries (whether geographic or ethnically based), and provincial names, exposed the challenge Nepal’s newfound dedication to inclusivity poses to existing power structures: ethnic and caste groups that benefit from the status quo have opposed dismantling skewed political structures.

The 2014 constituent assembly was similarly paralysed by the discussion of federalism until April’s devastating earthquake, which served as a catalyst in the constitution writing process. The Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML)—two parties closely associated with the political status quo—negotiated the recent compromise deal with the Maoists and the Madheshi Janadhikar Forum. The agreement, though, delayed the demarcation and naming of the federal provinces of Nepal—decisions that will be fraught with extreme contention. As Nepali political analyst Prashant Jha notes, the proposed deal ensures “the constitution is contested from Day 1, it will be burned on the day it is promulgated (Sharma, 2015).”

Federalism Hijacked by Ethnicity?

Yet the current excitement and impending controversy over the 16-point plan and draft constitution are misplaced. The appeal of federalism has become emotionally tied to ethnicity and primordial identity. For its proponents, federalism will distribute power away from Kathmandu and into federal states drawn around concentrations of ethnic groups.  In turn, these newly empowered groups would be able to guarantee their cultural and linguistic autonomy, reversing centuries of oppression.

Though laudable in theory, there are significant practical impediments to ethnic federalism in Nepal. With current district demarcations, no federal province—even in Madhesh, a southern area with a distinct cultural identity—has a majority ethnic group. The extreme dispersion of ethnic groups in Nepal undermines the primary benefit of federalism in divided societies, turning marginalised national minorities into local majorities. Ethnic federalism generally requires regionally concentrated ethnic majorities or strong pluralities, which Nepal simply does not have.

Along with spoiling the basic premise of ethnic federalism, Nepal’s dispersed ethnic heterogeneity will also undercut several specific features of provincial power distribution. Linguistic autonomy is essential for ensuring the cultural rights of historically maltreated ethnic groups, but selecting an official provincial language in highly heterogeneous provinces will be difficult and controversial, if not impossible. Furthermore, demands for ethnic reservations for leadership positions (for example, the position of chief minister in the Madhesh—or “Mithila-Bhojpur” being reserved for a Madheshi) are weakened by diversity: why should provincial minority groups, also marginalised, be excluded from power?

Finally, two-level federalism will likely not solve Nepal’s structural problems of governance. Strengthening federal-level governments while continuing to disregard local and municipal bodies risks replicating national-level pathologies at the province level. In the current political environment, which lacks any discourse regarding local governance, federalism might usher in a scenario where politics is re-centered to state governments but grassroots democracy and service delivery see no change. New state government elites could capture resources at the local level, undermining the original purpose of federalism. Indeed, The Asia Foundation notes that, due to the long-standing absence of local level elections, localities have experienced “ethical degeneracy in local politics that seeks short-term individual benefits at the cost of longer-term public welfare, and deeply undermines formal procedures of governance” (The Asia Foundation, 2013). The problem would likely continue under the current plan.

Strengthening Decentralised Governance

Ethnically based federal states would undoubtedly be a substantial improvement over the status quo, which denies Nepal’s multi-ethnic character and excessively concentrates political power in Kathmandu. However, Nepal’s political elites need to recognise that federalism is only part of the answer. India’s three-tiered federal arrangement, which vests administrative powers in village assemblies, provides an important template for navigating the complexity of governing a heterogeneous populace. 

In Nepal, there needs to be a constitutional commitment to strengthening decentralised governance, potentially through multiple-level federalism that empowers local communities and integrates rural Nepal into the institutions of democracy. Non-territorial linguistic autonomy should also be considered for groups at the sub-provincial level, which would guarantee language rights in local schools and cultural institutions. 

More fundamentally, grassroots capacity building is needed to improve Nepal’s development. Elite power sharing between the central and federal governments must be complemented by a process of local empowerment: only access to quality education, healthcare, and basic services can lift the masses out of poverty in the long-term. Federalism alone cannot guarantee that the truly marginalised will see a change in their situation. Only restructuring and strengthening grassroots democracy can rectify the deep-rooted culture of political corruption and elite collusion in Nepali localities and improve service delivery to Nepal’s rural poor. 

References

The Asia Foundation (2013): Political Economy Analysis of Local Governance in Nepal,  Kathmandu: Asia Foundation.

Geiser, Alexandra (2005): Social Exclusion and Conflict Transformation in Nepal: Women, Dalits and Ethnic Groups, Working Paper 5, Bern: Swisspeace, accessed on 30 July, http://www.swisspeace.ch/fileadmin/user_upload/Media/Publications/WP5_2005.pdf.

Lawoti, Mahendra (2003): Centralizing Politics and the Growth of the Maoist Insurgency in Nepal,  Himalaya, The Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies, Vol 23, No 1, accessed on 30 July 2015, http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1358&context=himalaya.

Raghavan, V R (2013): Nepal as a Federal State: Lessons from an Indian Experience,  Chennai: Center for Security Analysis.

Sharma, Bhadra and Ellen Barry (2015): Earthquake Prods Nepal Parties to Make Constitution Deal, New York Times, 8 June, accessed on 30 June, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/09/world/asia/earthquake-prods-nepal-parties-to-make-constitution-deal.html?_r=0

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