Federalism is a multidimensional concept. It is not possible to discuss each of its facets in the limited space available here. Thus, of its many dimensions, I will limit myself to discussing only one: management of center-state and foreign relations in a federal set up.
Federalism is not simply about creating provinces, giving them new names and new demarcation. It is also about developing new center-state or center-periphery dynamics, a relationship that empowers the periphery without undercutting the raison d’etre of the center.
From the domestic and sustainability perspective, it presupposes a balanced transfer or distribution of power and resources from the center to the provinces. This would mean, first and foremost, a comprehensive and holistic examination of available resources, their acquisition and management, including required institutional support, accompanied by sustained and informed debates within the future CA (or legislature) and across the country, with the participation of representatives of all social groups.
Another crucial aspect of federalism is to preempt the skewing of center-state relations. It is important to empower provincial, district and village level units through introduction and enforcement of good governance components. But in no way should such periphery empowerment efforts contribute to weakening of the center.
A powerful and influential center and economically thriving, socially harmonious and tolerant provinces are important conditions for federalism. Federalism has endured in India thus far because of a strong and powerful center. To a great extent, this is also true of the US.
Weak leadership at the center will naturally give rise to belligerent provincial leadership. Such a scenario will have catastrophic national and international implications. Examples of failure of federal states across the world for lack of harmonious center-state relations are aplenty. The federal structures in Pakistan, Nigeria and in many other countries are in jeopardy as a result of weak centers.
Managing international and neighborhood relations effectively is yet another important aspect of federalism. Needless to say, international and neighborhood relation management would perhaps be one of the biggest challenges for Nepal in the new federal set up. As it is, Nepal’s international credibility is very low, thanks to our leaders’ inconsistent and incompetent behavior at home and abroad, and also because of a lack of national consensus on foreign policy issues. These issues deserve as much attention as any other aspect while deciding the contours of federal Nepal.
But this all-important issue that is so vital for the success of a federal state has been pushed to the sideline. As of now, there has been little effort to formulate a long-term foreign policy template in light of the emerging challenges.
We seem blissfully ignorant of the fact that a peaceful and prosperous Nepal is possible only when we develop internal resilience and work at improving the country’s image before the rest of the world. Whereas internal resilience development would call for political stability, democracy consolidation and leadership of highest order; consistent, credible, balanced and bold handling of foreign policy issues are the important desideratum for the projection of a healthy image externally.
Therefore, federal Nepal’s foreign policy must be informed of, and guided by, the attributes cited above. Moreover, a foreign policy that enjoys national consensus has to be forged on a priority basis. Such a policy document must remove all inconsistencies and ambivalences that in the past may have hindered our progress in bilateral, multilateral and international relations management.
Furthermore, such an exercise must place relations with our immediate neighbors, India and China, as its top priority. The management of neighborhood relations in the ethnic-dominant provinces in the hills and the Tarai would obviously be an uphill task and as such, will call for new strategic and pragmatic thinking.
Already, China is reportedly ill at ease with such a political setup; it fears such states may be tempted ultimately to work against its interests in Tibet. Again, the fear expressed in some quarters that states in the Tarai may come under greater Indian influence (which may not be in the long-term interest of Nepal) is credible.
For all these reasons the center has to be extra careful in handling these concerns. It should be seen as making sincere efforts to allay the genuine concerns of our neighbors and looking to minimize the inherent risks of a federal set up. This is the reason why the center should be calling the shots when it comes to foreign policy issues. In no way should the provincial governments be allowed by the center to trespass into the foreign policy domain. Yes, some new and inexperienced provincial leaders in power may be tempted to work against the interests of any one of our neighbors; only a powerful center can nip such efforts in the bud.
Then again, to maximize the benefits by minimizing the risk, the center must prioritize long-term agendas and constructive bilateral engagements, based on a new vision and thinking. On the basis of this new vision, there has to be a beginning, sooner than later, towards the establishment of a new framework of Nepal’s relations with both its neighbors.
Placing our own supreme national interests at the center, such a framework should be based on building a genuine partnership, a partnership that would, among others, help consolidation of democracy and democratic institutions and expedite economic development. In this regard, in order to reap maximum benefits in the long run the focus should be on harnessing Nepal’s abundant water resources for mutual economic benefit and on promotion of greater interface between our people, intellectuals and entrepreneurs.
LEARNING FROM MISTAKES
A weak center in a federal set up will struggle to forge good neighborhood and external relations.
In one of his stories, famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes says, “It is always better to learn wisdom late than never to learn it at all.” We must also grow wise from the failure of the CA. Political parties must have learnt by now that they can engage in the politics of brinkmanship at their own peril and at the peril of the country.
As we move ahead, we must bear in mind that effective neighborhood and international relations management would be impossible through a perennially weak and embattled center. The essence of federalism, therefore, lies in our ability to empower both the center and the periphery so as to foster happy and amicable center-state relations at home and to forge healthy and fruitful ties with neighbors and other international actors. This would ensure adequate protection and promotion of our national identity, independence, sovereignty and integrity, and contribute to socio-economic development of each federal state. A new opportunity presents itself before our leaders; one would hope they sit together and think over these issues with a cool head.
The author is Former Chief of Protocol, Ministry of Foreign Affairs