The bumpy road to federalism


Dipendra Bhandari

The road in front of the house I live in Sanepa, and one next to the school my six-year-old son goes to, was dug up for expansion two months ago. It has not been repaired yet.

In Kathmandu, it has become the new normal to turn a busy road into a dusty construction site for months, causing traffic snarls and sandstorms. It is dusty in the dry season and muddy after rains.

It will not come as a surprise if authorities say they have run out of budget midway, and the dug up road remains left open for more than a year. It would be too much to expect for only a 50m stretch of the road to be expanded a day, and that another section would be dug up only after the previous stretch is repaired. We do not have a culture of keeping people at the centre of planning.

The new Constitution, promulgated two years ago after decades of conflict, redefined the state-people relationship: from centralisation to decentralisation. But that has not changed anything in how authorities treat people. They still behave like rulers, not as service providers.

Federalism was supposed to shake up this status quo, but it did so only on paper. In reality, the bureaucracy is too obsessed with preserving its power, and is fighting hard to not let go of it.

As is clear, having a constitution promulgated by an elected assembly of the people is not enough to sort out the issues of governance. The near future is going to be a steep learning curve for politicians, bureaucracy and people alike. The course Nepal takes from here on will be defined by how the governments, people, the media and the party systems conduct themselves.

During the three tiers of elections last year, the main pitch of the NC against the Left Alliance was scaremongering. The spectre of autocratic communist rule was their only political agenda. People did not subscribe to the NC’s election propaganda, and it failed miserably. But the current state of politics gives us a lot of reasons to worry.

The first set of challenges comes from the federal system itself. The unique three tiers of federalism entrusts a lot of power to local governments, and they are already being assertive. But provincial governments are yet to take full shape, and they lack prior infrastructure and legal instruments. Everything has to be built from scratch. However, when they come into full form, they will certainly begin to look for their space, possibly clashing with the Centre and local governments on many fronts.

The tussle will rattle the federal system, and a strong central government may complicate the matter.

Another challenge is to prepare the people for the radical democracy we have embraced. Unless the system of governance learns to keep the people at the centre of decision-making and policy planning, and unless the people at the grassroots learn to demand that attention, democracy will not deliver.

The bridge between government authorities and people are the political parties and the media. And in a democracy, where public opinion should matter the most, this ecosystem becomes most vital for a healthy system to evolve.

So another set of challenges for Nepal’s democracy, as Princeton University professor Jan Werner Mueller puts it, lies with politics and the press. ‘It is media and party systems that are visibly failing in many countries and require systematic re-building,’ he writes in a Project Syndicate article.

Rebuilding Nepal is a daunting challenge. And unless we start demanding that our roads be built with people’s concerns at the centre, the road ahead leading to a better democracy is perilous.

Read also:

What federalism?, Om Astha Rai

Radically decentralised, Dinkar Nepal

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