Finally, the dissident Janajati leaders of the CPN-UML broke away from the mother party to build a house of their own. It seems they were pushed to the brink by the leadership that viewed them as inanimate beings: balls, bamboo husks, dirt in the elephant’s body, festering boil and so on. These ugly metaphors do not only project the dissident leaders as scourge and diseases, but also deny them human attributes. Given this, their defection was a foregone conclusion. But now that they are set to form a political force of their own—the proposed Federal Socialist Party (FSP)—the future course seems fraught with challenges, largely because of their avowed mission: ethnic-identity based federalism.
On the surface, it looks like a mass base is being created in favor of ethnic-federalist forces. There are already two alliances in place, ostensibly to push ahead with the agenda—the Federal Democratic Alliance (FDRA) headed by Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Federal Democratic Forum (FDF) headed by Upendra Yadav. With the Federal Socialist Party (FSP)—likely to be headed by Ashok Rai—in the offing, a triumvirate of ethnic-federalist forces will now be formed. And if the Janajati dissidents from Nepali Congress join the bandwagon, this will build a powerful force to advance ethnic federalist agenda. But things are far from simple. New twists have crept into the federal narrative. And as the grounds on which these alliances are built are shaky and fragile, cracks might soon appear.
ETHNIC FEDERALISM CHALLENGES
Our rigid stand on ethnic federalism is sure to waste few more years. We need to strike a workable compromise on the issue.
To begin with, the commitment of these forces to ethnic identity federalism is questionable. Take FDRA. It was formed to ward off the mounting pressure from opposition parties to displace the ruling coalition from Singha Durbar. Hence, once the current government is replaced, FDRA’s relevance will come to an end. Also the UCPN (Maoist), the most trusted ally of the ethnic-federalist forces and the foundation block of FDRA, has flip-flopped over the federal issue. FDRA coordinator Dahal has openly disclaimed his party’s loyalty toward ethnic federalism. Of late, Dahal is talking about economic viability and inclusion as the basis of restructuring. And given UCPN (Maoist)’s track record of compromising with its stands, it won’t be a surprise if the party drops the ethnic-federal agenda altogether. When this happens, ethnic forces will lose a backbone.
One could still give the benefit of doubt to the Upendra Yadav-led Federal Democratic Forum (FDF), the alliance of fringe Madhesi parties and Janajati forces, comprising of some disgruntled leaders. But FDF seems to have come to counter United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF), a camp of ruling Madhesi parties. Given Yadav’s long rivalry with Bijay Kumar Gachchadhar, the key leader of UDMF, it is possible that all Yadav is trying to do is counter Gachchadhar’s monopoly in Madhesh politics. Moreover, Madhesi parties have a history of sacrificing the party agenda at the altar of power. Among these parties, even minor issues regarding leadership can lead to the fall of the alliance like the proverbial house of cards.
This brings us to the newest ethnic-federalist force, the proposed FSP. What looks like the surge of ethnic revolt is actually the outcome of the deep humiliation Janajatis faced in the UML. There is no doubt that UML is a Brahmin dominated party. But what is also true is that Ashok Rai’s current fame and standing is the result of his long association with UML. He had been given ministerial births more than once and it was UML that catapulted him to the post of vice-chairman in the party. It is possible that Rai’s aspiration to become the chairman of the party would not be fulfilled if he stayed on. Breaking away and forming a new party would open avenues for this prospect. Seen in this context, his breaking away from the UML looks more like the outcome of his ego clash with the leadership and also smacks of opportunism. As for Janajati dissidents of the NC, unlike UML, the NC leadership has refrained from bashing them in derogatory terms, thus leaving enough room for further dialogue.
And while FDF and FSP may remain loyal to the identity-based ethnic agenda, they will have to contain Indian and Chinese concerns vis-à-vis federalism in Nepal. Recent developments show neither India nor China will back the idea. Janajati revolutionaries may combat it by saying “who are they to dictate what system we adopt?” But in a country where the formation and unseating of governments and even appointments of top posts are influenced by these neighbors, it would be naïve to expect non-interference from the southern neighbor (and lately the northern neighbor) on the crucial decision of carving out federal states, which will have long-term repercussions in bi/trilateral relations between the three countries.
All these factors could weaken ethnic federalist forces like FSP and FDF. Moreover, no federal agenda, ethnic or non-ethnic, is going to succeed unless it wins the support of a larger constituency. Perhaps aware of this reality, some Janajati leaders have started to give priority to the issue of national unity and inclusion of marginalized and vulnerable Brahmins and Chhetris into their federal discourse. Ashok Rai’s repeated assurances last Thursday that his party will remain inclusive and that it is against the disintegration of the country points to this. This is a welcome sign but far from reassuring. If they are to take into their fold Brahmins and Chhetris, they have to concede some of their demands regarding names, border delineation and number of states, in which case they may have to face the wrath of radical ethnic cadres who have been demanding states exclusively ethnic in nature. Thus in time, they may have to come around to a multi-ethnic identity based model. In this case, the splits and alliances will be proven a misguided move.
Yet another tough challenge will be establishing the indispensability of ethnic states during polls. They will have to link up the idea of federalism with social needs such as jobs, economic prosperity, infrastructure development, education and health. And this time, it is going to be much tougher than in 2008. Back then, promises of new Nepal, secularism and federalism held considerable public appeal. But in these four years, these concepts have become stale. Now people are unlikely to succumb to empty promises and esoteric idea of ethnic-federalism.
So what should the ethnic-federalists do? Compromise is the answer. It is clear that the agenda of federalism stalled all political and development process for four years. The rigid stand on ethnic federalism is sure to waste a few more years. Despite the differences, we all have come around to agreeing on issues such as the need for social justice, addressing concerns of all communities that have been historically exploited and discriminated, inclusiveness, pluralism, multiparty democracy, multi-nationality, multi-ethnicity, proportional representation among others. What if we try to achieve these goals without resorting to federalism for once? What if we exploit the cultural bonds that have kept us united for centuries? What if we agree on multiple-ethnic identity based states, if at all we must go federal?
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