After Constituent Assembly’s sudden demise on the midnight of May 27, politicians are competing among themselves to point fingers at each other in order to vindicate their stands and distance themselves from the fiasco. Anti-federalists are reveling in ‘success’ and pro-federalists are mourning. The general public, battered by the incompetence of the leaders to chart out the statue in time, are up in arms against the leadership across the country. Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Prime Minister Babauram Bhattarai’s effigies have been burnt in Tarai. The political climate is headed towards uncertainly.
While the NC/UML camps hold Maoists as the main culprit, Maoists and Madhesi parties see NC and UML’s status-quoist attitude as responsible for landing the country into this mess. None of these competing claims, however, are entirely true. The truth is that the cause of today’s uncertain politics is federalism—its ill advised handling, flawed understanding, unfounded fears and lack of informed public debate. As a person that has discussed the unsuitability of federalism for Nepal in these spaces before, I was sure it would be the hardest knot to untie, but had not imagined it would kill the aspirations of people in a flash.
The issue of numbers and names of the provinces had taken centre stage during last-ditch efforts by top political leaders to arrive at some consensus on May 27. While Maoists and Madhesis rooted for federal provinces based on single ethnic identity, NC and UML stood against it. But it should be noted here that in principle, both NC and UML had made state restructuring their party agenda back in 2005-06. Given this, the political polarization on federalism was unfortunate.
May 27, however, will not mark the death of federal agenda. In all likelihood, it will become the bargaining chip for leaders to influence the voters and garner votes in the next elections. The NC and UML camp will claim they wanted accommodative federal provinces and had proposed multiple-identity names. They will blame the Maoist and the Madhesi parties for sowing seeds of discords in the country in the name of ethnic empowerment. In sharp contrast, pro-federalists like Madhesi and Maoists will go to the electorate with claims that they wanted to bring autonomy and right to self-determination and had proposed single identity federal provinces; accusing the NC and UML of wanting to maintain status quo and allowing the current power structure to continue.
This tug of war between the two camps will confuse people further, pushing the federalism discourse to the point of absurdity. The onus, in such a scenario, lies more on pro-federalists. If they are indeed sincere about federalism, they should give up on their demand for identity-based federalism, for the longer they root for it, the fiercer the voice against federalism will get. But if they drop it, anti-ethnic federalists will have to agree on federalism at least. Here are a few things federalists could do.
First, as I have argued in this space before, people need to be educated on federalism. People, especially from Madhesi and Janaji communities, have understood federalism as a weapon of vengeance against Brahmin and Chhetri population. For a large of mass, federalism is a ladder to get to the top to suppress the current dominant class. This misguided notion had resulted in violence on the media during NFIN’s bandas. Though it may look like an attack on the press, the underlying factor is the hatred against Brahmins and Chhetri (BC) establishment. It must be noted that most of the journalists who were manhandled or whose motorbikes were set ablaze in the attacks belong to these communities.
When general secretary of NFIN, Angkaji Sherpa openly threatened to “finish off” Brahmin and Chhetri journalists at the Reporter’s Club, it further fuelled antagonism. The Janajatis and Madhesis turned so hostile against the media because they have been schooled to look at everything from the faulty lens of castes. Hence, there is a clear need to educate people and explain that federating is not dividing the country but drawing of new administrative units to decentralize power from the center to the margins. Why not tell the people that a federal unit is much like local government units of the VDCs and municipalities, where heads of such units are elected by the people, where the heads have adequate power and, most importantly, where people of all castes and creed live in harmony?
Two, we need to localize the discourse on federalism. So far media discourse on federalism has concentrated on global experiences—talking about the form of federalism in USA, India, Switzerland and France etc. Our focus now should be on how a federal unit, say for example, Madhes, will function. How it will channelize its natural resources, use its capital for the people of the province, share resources with and from other states and the likely problems that may arise. Every group with federal agendas should be given space in mainstream politics and media to explain the economic viability, state of natural resources and demographic sustainability of its proposal.
Three, we should change the structure of our discussions. Despite all the discord, real or imagined, there still is sense of empathy between people of different castes. When confronting the mass, Janajati leaders admit that they do not feel all the Brahmins and Chhetris are well-off, that there are thousands of them in the Mid-west and Far-west who bear the brunt of poverty and neglect. Similarly, Brahmins and Chhetri leaders acknowledge that Janajatis and Madhesis have indeed been treated unjustly by the state and that needs to change. The problem with such admissions is that they often come only as footnotes of debates. It is time to recognize what have so far been footnotes should actually be the preface of negotiations on both sides. This is crucial because communal disharmony, which has the power of ripping the social fabric apart, is very hard to maintain in a country like ours where no ethnic group is in majority and where each is dependent on the other for survival.
We need to educate people that federating is not dividing the country but drawing new administrative units to decentralize power.
Take the example of Kathmandu. Non-Kathmandu residents, who largely comprise of Brahmins and Chhetris from outside the valley, depend for their shelter on Newar locals in whose houses they usually live on rent. And for many of Kathmandu’s Newars, this tenant population is a key source of income. This form of inter-dependence is pervasive across the country — from the high hills to the valleys and plains.
Thus, if we are to institutionalize federalism, we must shed all inhibitions and biases, explore its pros and cons openly and take it to the people. If the people do not want it, it should be discarded. If it keeps becoming the bone of contention like in the past one year and derailing the process, people will soon get disillusioned with it and start looking at a unitary state as a safe haven. And this will go down as the greatest setback to the nation. email@example.com