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Constitutional and Political Evolution in Nepal: Dangers of Federalism

Gautam Sen is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions at the Centre and in a north-east State Government.
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  • May 29, 2012

    Political turbulence does not seem to waning in Nepal. While some political parties want the continuance of the present Baburam Bhattarai Government with a basic agreement on federalism based on ethnic-cum-socio-cultural identities, others like the Nepali Congress (NC) and Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) [CPN-UML] want the Maoist Government headed by Bhattarai to resign and the issue of federalism to be resolved in the future. The Madhesis under the leadership of the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) comprising of five Madhesi-based political parties are, however, inclined towards the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) [UCPNM] with respect to identity-based federalism. Despite the apparent unity of approach on federalism and agreement on the creation of two provinces in the Terai and eight in the hilly and mountainous regions, there are differences between the UCPNM and the Madhesi groups (UDMF and the broader Madhesi Front) on the number of provinces to be created finally and their territorial composition. The political differences on territorial composition and delineation of the provinces have the potency to bring about a major rift in Nepalese society and polity.

    Nepal, for all practical purposes, has had a unitary state structure. The historical, political, geographical and emotional backdrop of the country and its people has been a contributory factor in this regard. Federalism in the true sense has never been a priority for the major mainstream political parties. No political movement for autonomy based on a federal democratic state structure had taken shape during the past many years. However, this does not detract from the fact that Nepal, as a federal country, may be more effectively governable from the developmental point of view, provided the provinces are carved out in such a way as to encompass socio-culturally homogeneous areas, provincial administrations are suitably empowered and the main political parties broad base their support constituencies. The irony of the situation is that despite the country having an administrative set-up consisting of five regions, 75 districts and 58 municipalities, development through the instrumentality of the state machinery has not been possible. As per the latest UN-sponsored Nepal Millennium Development Report, the variation in poverty has ranged from 1.9 per cent in the Kathmandu Valley to 37.45 per cent in the mid-west region and 22.3 per cent in the central region, indicating not only deprivation in large parts of the country but also skewed development.

    The success of the Maoist militant movement can be substantially attributed to sheer neglect and backwardness of the mountainous areas of western, central and northern Nepal and the concentration of political power in the hands of the earlier ruling coteries and oligarchies in Kathmandu and the consequent focus of economic activities in the Kathmandu valley. It is true that a number of Madhesis have been in the core of the Nepali Congress; in addition, there were others at the helm of the rump political outfits established at the behest of the erstwhile monarchy. However, these political elements did not work to articulate the social, economic and developmental aspirations of the Madhesis. The result was all-round discontent, deprivation in the far-flung mountainous areas of Nepal as well as a very low level of development in the Terai region.

    Against this backdrop, it is essential that a realistic political compromise be arrived at by both the pro- and anti-federalism political forces, so that Nepalese polity and society does not get further splintered. A modus vivendi that accepts the concept of federalism in principle as well as the devolution of administrative and financial powers in key well-defined functional areas is the need of the hour. Development of a much higher order would have been feasible even under the `5 regions, 75 districts` set-up, provided effective empowerment of the lower administrative units had been undertaken and the various ruling elites and dispensations of the pre-republican period had the political will to do so. Apparently, ethnicity-based federalism appears attractive, although competing ethnic pulls and pressures in a simmering and fractured polity as has been prevalent in Nepal for quite some time might as well undermine administrative coherence and effectiveness as well as the unity of the country.

    Knowing federalism as a concept is one thing and devising it as a system for implementation within a particular milieu is another. At this stage, turning back from the concept of federalism is not possible. While the Constitutional process has to be brought to some degree of finality, both the Maoists and the Madhesis may consider striving for political convergence with their political competitors, wherein adequate empowerment of units below the central echelon at Kathmandu is committed to and codified in a nationally accepted charter or as a preamble to the final Constitution.

    Gautam Sen retired from the IDAS and is presently serving as Adviser to a State Government.