Un-centralising the federal structureKathmandu’s rulers have yet to learn the ABC’s of devolving power to provinces
Nepal’s 2015 Constitution took two elections and more than a decade to write. Even then, it did not address a groundswell of identity consciousness and demands for autonomy.
Some of these were overlapping claims for ethnic, linguistic, religious, cultural and geographical belonging. During this sometimes-volatile process, the one factor that moderated the discord was the move towards inclusivity.
There is a Maithili saying in Nepal’s plains “चले थे हरि भजन को, ओटन लागे कपास”. It means ‘No matter how lofty your goals, keep yourself busy with the small details.’
Eight years after the Constitution was promulgated, and after the second elections under the federal system, we are still trying to make federalism work. It is a work-in-progress.
It is not enough for Nepal to be declared a ‘federal’ republic. The essence of federalism is to include Nepalis who have historically been excluded in the political process. The people want devolution that grants their province autonomy to make their own decisions.
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Yet, even after the November 2022 elections in which a sizeable section of the electorate cast protest votes against established parties — and despite affirmative action provisions in the Constitution — provincial governments are anything but inclusive. All seven provinces recently nominated Chief Ministers, but where are the women? Where are the Dalits and the Indigenous people?
The movers and shakers in the provinces already have access to the corridors of power at party headquarters in Kathmandu. It is the people at ground level, those kept out, and those without connections who want grassroots government.
The process of putting together provincial governments directly reflects the wheeling dealing and patronage at the centre. This means governance will once more be a challenge, and without it there is no hope for the neglected and left-behind.
It is not just the Madhes that needs federalism. Having an autonomous local government brings representatives closer to the people — no matter which province. Party cadre also get to practice the exercise of power and show accountability.
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But by far the most important function of federalism is that it is effective in delivering appropriate and locally relevant development with accountability.
But November’s election threw up people’s representatives who do not like federalism, and some who want to abolish it. One cannot just turn federalism on or off with the flick of a switch. It does not work like that.
The exclusionists reject principles and ideas of devolving decision-making to local governments, and want a shortcut to political power for themselves and their cabal by trying to make a self-fulfilling prophecy that federalism is an expensive white elephant.
Rejecting devolution is rejecting democracy. After all, democracy is not just a state governing mechanism, it is a social ideology, even a philosophy of national life.
The Constitution has tried to put the country on track to true devolution to provinces, but dog-eat-dog politics has been derailing this exercise.
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This week is the anniversary of the Madhes Movement that allowed Nepal to move towards federalism. The second Movement was mediated by India, and in the third, it started showing who is boss.
Indeed, India’s role in Nepal’s political evolution is hardly hidden. But lately, one sees a drop in interest in Madhesi sentiments not just in New Delhi but even in Patna or Lucknow.
Recent political undercurrents are eroding the gains of the Madhes Movement. The relationship between Madhesi leaders and their electorate is being eroded fast, and unless there is new commitment to the cause, it could see a complete reversal.
That is because there is now no relation between what is promised at election time and what is accomplished. An anti-incumbent wave is also sweeping the plains. Those who espoused extremist views, took up arms, or were separatists have decided that a middle political path is a better alternative.
Those who used to be moderates have therefore had the rug pulled from under them. There is now only one kind of politics in the Tarai: one that reflects the interests and aspirations of citizens.
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Conservative forces are trying their best to roll back the gains of the Movement, and within the Madhes the big national parties are also elbowing their way into the fray. Both will ultimately undermine the Madhes agenda.
What the Madhes wants is respect for its language and culture, genuine inclusiveness, sustainable development, streamlined access to state services. But the comforts of power have made Madhesi politicians status quo-ists, they are wallowing in the political muck of their own creation.
In the coming decade, Madhesi politics is set to change. A new post-1990 generation is coming of age which has seen both struggle, and its futility. The new generation is aware of the factors keeping the region back, it has understood the geography of Nepal and the place of the plains in it.
This new generation has a very clear idea about the political-economy of the borderlands. Their slogans are different, and so is the way they look at politics.
The Nepali nation state is now at the crossroads. It cannot look back, it must forge a more progressive path ahead. For that, friends of federalism must work to make the provincial political structure deliver. And the pre-requisites are inclusiveness and good governance.
Chandra Kishore is a Birganj-based political commentator. This is his second monthly column BORDERLINES in Nepali Times. @kishore_chandra