Formation of the Federal Democratic Republic Alliance (FDRA) under UCPN (Maoist) chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal last Wednesday has brought the issue of pro-and anti-federalists back to the fore of political discourse. On the surface, the nation looks set to be divided between the federalist and anti-federalist camps again, much like in the run up to May 27. But much water has flown under the Bagmati Bridge since, and it is hard to draw a clear line between federalists and anti-federalists, especially when three differing views on federalism are emerging.
Unlike in the past, we have staunch anti-federalists, moderate/reluctant-federalists or anti-ethnic federalists, and staunch ethnic federalists now. The future course of federalism will largely depend on how these forces will play out in national politics. Despite Dahal’s claim that FDRA will broaden its scope and force the opposition to come around ethnic federalism and despite the likelihood of dissident leaders from NC and UML joining the FDRA’s agenda, the truth remains that the first two—anti-federalists and anti-ethnic federalists—have become consolidated and assertive, while the last category will still have to struggle to prove its merit.
Staunch anti-federalists comprise of royalists, Kamal Thapa and his loyalists, communist leader Chitra Bahadur KC and his National People’s Front. This camp has strong emotional backing from people across the board. Though powerless to alter the political course, it commands significant support from, in KC’s own words, the ‘silent majority’ of the people frustrated by constant bickering among big political parties. The biggest advantage for this camp is that a significant number of the urban intelligentsia is with it. This includes scholars, writers and journalists, who recognize the faults of the unitary system but who believe that federalism is not the solution to the ills of centuries-long misrule. It believes the solution lies in effective decentralization of power, proportional representation of all marginalized communities in the state organs and establishing the rule of law. In the post-May 27 political equation, it is emerging as a force to reckon with.
The Nepali Congress and CPN-UML—the then anti-federalists and reluctant-federalists until recently—have now transformed themselves into willing federalists of sorts (one could call them moderate federalists or anti-ethnic federalists). NC officially expressed its aversion to ethnic federalism through its district chief conclave held in Bahrabise of Sindhupalchowk at the end of last month. And by whipping the dissident leaders with the baton of disciplinary action, CPN-UML has joined hands with NC.
Indications are that the Mohan Baidya-led CPN (Maoist) will tilt toward the NC/UML camp instead of joining FDRA. After his return from Beijing last month, Baidya and his colleagues seem to have changed their tenor on ethnic federalism. According to media reports, Baidya received clear instructions from China to support an economically viable federal setup. All this will put staunch ethnic federalists at a disadvantage for several reasons.
First, the argument that ethnic federalism could invite communal disharmony is hard to write off. When states are named after a few ethnic communities, leaving hundreds of others out, resentment could follow and result in ethnic tension. Further, the demand for one Madhesh province in the entire plain, but multiple provinces in the hills and the mountains, has added credence to the skeptics’ claim that this is a scheme to disintegrate the otherwise united entity of Nepal.
Second, staunch ethnic-federalist forces—especially UCPN (Maoist) and Madhesi parties in power—are losing credibility. They have failed to deliver to such an extent that they have almost become an anathema to development and rule of law. To add insult to injury, Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai—the self-avowed advocate of ethnic-federalism—has come under public scrutiny after a (yet-to-be verified) media revelation that his party and he harbored secret relations with India during the insurgency era. This has nearly proven that the Madhesi-Maoist coalition can go to any length to please the southern neighbor, even if that means putting national unity at stake.
In this grim context, economic viability, effective decentralization, national unity and territorial integrity arguments are becoming even more persuasive. With a tacit nod from the president to this school of thought, anti-ethnic federalists will have more leverage than their adversaries.
Anti-ethnic federalists could become more overpowering once they attain power. After Baburam Bhattarai steps aside—now only a matter of time—the next government will probably be led by the NC, which will obviously advance the anti-ethnic federalist cause. And if it treads sensibly, especially in terms of governance and service delivery, it will have a lot of room to claim that change can be possible even without federalism. Federalism had come as a promissory note when it did. At a time when this promise is proving to be elusive, if the next coalition can make the state’s presence felt by delivering essential services and sprucing up the law and order system, it will have a clear edge over its opponents.
So what should pro-ethnic federalists do? There are two options. One, not compromise on ethnic-federalism. But for this, they will have to convince people how it is economically viable, how a few ethnic states will address the concerns of over a hundred ethnic minorities, how it will be inclusive and, above all, how it will keep the social fabric intact.
The tug of war between pro and anti-ethnic federalists is likely to enhance the danger of federalism becoming a ploy to push the country into instability.
Two, discard ethnic-federalism and come around to the agenda of federalism alone. In this, they may have to compromise on issues of names and numbers of provinces and agree on few states. But this will exert pressure on others to accept federalism.
The first option is fraught with risks. For one, the issue of federalism cannot be settled by closed-door agreement between parties. Now it has to be decided through an election, of whatever nature. And during the next election, anti-federalists and anti-ethnic federalists will perhaps share a common ground by forming alliances to push the ethnic-federalists to the margin, in which case, the latter will have much to lose.
In the second option, the ethnic federalists may have to give up some of their claims but will still have something to gain. If they stick to federalism, they will garner positive public support. And once federalism is instituted, they can exploit the system to seek special constitutional and political rights.
Else, in the tug of war between two types of federalists, the very issue of federalism will get lost. For anti-federalists, this will be a moment to celebrate, for the moderate and anti-ethnic federalists, there is nothing to lose. And given its unsuitability, the country will get rid of the prospect of ethnic-federalism too. But the danger in this scenario is that the issue of federalism then could become a mere ploy to push the country into another cycle of instability and violence. We have wasted four precious years haggling on federalism. We cannot make federalism a bargaining chip for many more years to come now.