Feudal federalism

Federalism has become an ‘F’ word because Nepal’s politicians are reluctant to devolve power to provinces.

Feudalism noun /ˈfyudlˌɪzəm/

A social system in which people were given land and protection by a nobleman, and had to work and fight for him in return.

Federalism noun /ˈfedərəlɪzəm/

A system of government in which the individual states of a country have control over their own affairs, but are controlled by a central government for national decisions.

Nepal’s 2015 Constitution was the by-product of two constituent assemblies over nine long years of bitter negotiations. As this newspaper reported blow-by-blow at the time, there was prolonged deadlock over the style of federalism that delayed passage of the Constitution.

Having a constituent assembly election was part of the package that was agreed upon in the Comprehensive Peace Accord of 2006. Federalism was to be the antidote to feudalism.

This was not an unreasonable demand, although whether the country had to go to war to achieve it was debatable even back then. Nepal had been a feudal state under the absolute monarchy of the Shah and Rana dynasties.

When B P Koirala, as Nepal’s first democratically-elected prime minister, tried to institute land reform and dismantle vestiges of feudalism, he was deposed and imprisoned by King Mahendra in 1960.

The partyless Panchayat system for the next 30 years perpetuated feudalism, with the palace ruling by parcelling out favours in return for unquestioned loyalty to royalty.

The 1990 People’s Movement and the advent of a constitutional monarchy and restoration of multi-party democracy was supposed to change all that. But feudalism was not so easy to uproot — it continued within political parties, even as Singha Darbar replaced Narayanhiti as the centre of power.

When the Maoists launched their armed struggle in 1996, it was ostensibly to demolish feudalism once and for all and replace it with a dictatorship of the proletariat. The feudocracy was not going to hand over power willingly, they reasoned, which was why violence was needed to counter the structural violence of the state.

When the war got mired in a military stalemate after 10 years, the Maoists needed a face-saving achievement to show. Devolving Kathmandu’s  centralised power through federalism was one of them.

But the Maoists insisted on an ethnicity-based model of federalism with at least 14 provinces named after Nepal’s various racial groups. The Nepali Congress batted for a territorial form of federalism not much different from the Development Zones of the day, while the UML backed a hybrid model.

One of the ethnicity-based province demands was the case for ‘One Madhes One Pradesh’ to address the long-standing struggle of the Nepal Tarai for autonomy and respect from the state. This was a demand backed at one point by India, but fiercely resisted by the dominant parties in Kathmandu.

In the end, the Constitution was hurriedly promulgated after the earthquake in July 2015 that had a truncated Madhes province in the eastern Tarai. Even the naming of the seven provinces was so contentious that they only had numbers. New Delhi was not happy and punished Nepal with a 6-month blockade.

The first elections under the new Constitution for three tiers of government were held in 2017. The idea sounded great: power would be devolved from Kathmandu to provincial assemblies and local municipalities with the central government only acting as a facilitator and handling national needs like infrastructure.

But practice was far removed from theory. Provincial governments became proxies of Kathmandu, provincial assemblies were franchises of the main political parties. The bureaucracy and politicians at the centre were reluctant to yield political decision-making, revenue collection and control of police to provincial governments.

The provinces just became a mechanism for the centre to dispense jobs and patronage. The high cost of maintaining seven provincial governments and assemblies was a waste, and corruption got decentralised as well.

Except for Madhes-based parties and those in the provinces who benefit from patronage, there is not much public support for federalism. Public opinion appears to support the idea that it is an expendable and costly second tier of government.

On 20 November, Kathmandu mayor Balen Shah pointedly refused to cast his provincial ballots. The Independent Party’s Rabi Lamichhane did not either, and his party did not even field candidates for provincial assemblies.

However, the problem is not with federalism. It has become an ‘F’ word because it was never allowed to function as designed. And in that respect, Nepal is still a feudal state.