The F word

Federalism has failed not because the system is flawed, but because Nepal’s politicians have

The chief ministers of all seven provinces met last week in Hetauda to discuss their next step to pressure the federal government to devolve political power to their provinces. 

In a unique cross-party show of strength, the provincial leadership presented a joint memorandum to Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal in Kathmandu. Some of their demands were to transfer control of the police force, pass the long pending federal civil service law, hand over ownership of provincial infrastructure and natural resources, and last but not least, allow them to collect their own revenue.  

This is not the first time the provinces have expressed their collective grievance. But Kathmandu, under various governments since the first elections under the new Constitution in 2017, has just been making empty promises. 

Indeed, Nepal’s main political leaders who were themselves the architects of the federal constitution are loath to devolve political power that they have decentralised to local governments. Even their own party structure is wholly centralised not just in the central committee in Kathmandu, but in just one elderly alpha male in each party.

That Nepal’s leadership is lukewarm towards federalism is no big secret, they are unwilling to loosen their grip on power even to their own party leaders in the provinces and municipalities.

Eight years after the establishment of a three-tiered system of government following a prolonged deadlock over the style of federalism that delayed the passage of the post-conflict 2015 Constitution, Nepal’s provinces are largely functionless. 

For many Nepalis, the perception is that federalism is a corrupt and costly experiment that has failed miserably. Indeed, they have spent a fortune building luxurious lodgings for the provincial leadership in the upscale Bhaisepati neighbourhood.  

In Nepal, federalism did not just signify devolution of power, but also the people’s sense of identity and belonging, and the participation of those historically excluded from the political process. This fact was reflected in the opposition of the people to the naming of Province 1 as Kosi, and their demand for it to be renamed Kirat Limbuwan.

This is not a new struggle. The Madhes movement for federal restructuring after the decade-long armed conflict actually served as a catalyst for the establishment of the provincial system. The Maoists insisted on an ethnicity-based provincial model and the Nepali Congress was for a geographical delineation. The UML backed a hybrid model. 

The Maoists have historically taken credit for the transformation of the governance system that allowed for the reflection of identity, while the UML and the NC have sought to maintain the status quo even after the establishment of federalism. 

Prime Minister Dahal has directly interfered in provincial governance, which in this year’s case served to further inflame social unrest in Kosi

For outsiders looking in who are removed from the nuances in Kosi, Madhes, and Sudar Paschim, and are only involved in Kathmandu-centred discourse, provincial governance and federalism have thus just become a burdensome extension of central politics. 

Federalism will once more become an election issue in the 2027 polls as political parties succumb to the temptation to adopt regressive, conservative, and populist rhetoric to appeal to disenfranchised voters.  

Bad mouthing federalism has become a favourite pastime for parties like the royal right RPP, which has simultaneously fed and fed off the public’s disenchantment with governance to call for the abolishment of federalism and the reestablishment of a Hindu monarchy. 

Ironically, the party fielded the second-highest number of FPTP candidates to contest provincial elections in 2022.

Meanwhile, the new and independent Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP) which did not field candidates for provincial elections in 2022, may not say it is against federalism in so many words, but has called it “useless” and “enabling corruption”. They have proposed to make the provincial assembly and parliament smaller.

The provinces today are indeed proxies of Kathmandu —seven mirrors which reflect the political incompetence of the central government instead of being fully functioning autonomous units. 

Nepalis have been quick to blame federalism when it is the politicians who have refused to let go of their control. The system of governance is not flawed, politicians that keep provinces on a tight leash are. 

Nepal’s provinces are not incapable of fulfilling their function, they have not been allowed to explore their roles and responsibilities. Throwing out federalism is not the answer. 

To dismantle federalism is to undo the years of work it took to promulgate the Constitution and to overlook the struggle, sacrifice and hard-earned achievements of countless people during the conflict that preceded the Constitution. 

In order for Nepal’s democracy to truly function, federalism must be given a chance.

Shristi Karki