Disagreement over the nature of federalism was a main cause for the failure of Nepal’s Constituent Assembly, and it is likely to dominate the next election campaign. The debate on this subject has generated more heat than light, and has been more divisive in Nepal’s current politics than perhaps any other issue. It merits some dispassionate analysis.
Highly exaggerated claims are made on the virtues and demerits of federalism by its proponents and detractors. Proponents see federalism—especially its identity-based variety—as the solution to all of Nepal’s ills, especially the widely acknowledged discrimination and injustice against many of Nepal’s historically deprived and marginalized communities. The anti-federalists see federalism leading to disintegration of Nepal.
I happen to think that federalism is neither a grave threat to national unity and integrity as its detractors fear, nor a panacea for all our social ills, political exclusion and economic inequity, as its true-believers proclaim.
Federalism Not Universal
Let us be clear that, unlike democracy, human rights, non-violence and pluralism, federalism is not a universal value or norm, but a political choice. So support or opposition to it must not be treated as progressive or regressive, but a pragmatic/strategic choice. Perfectly intelligent, reasonable and progressive thinkers can justifiably take a position in favor of federalism or against it, or for differing models of federalism.
In Nepal’s highly polarized political discourse these days, there is a tendency to simplistically categorize people as supporters of change or of status quo based on their views on federalism, or types of federalism. The Maoists, some Madhesis and Janajati activists tend to make sweeping remarks that all critics and opponents of their favored model of federalism are inherently feudal, elitist, and status quoist. Curiously, some Western diplomats and academics seem to buy this simplistic characterization. The truth is more complex than this simple black and white stereotyping.
Federalism is one approach among many, to structure a state and to respond to its people’s aspirations. Of the nearly 200 sovereign states in the world, only a small minority—about two dozen—have adopted some kind of federal model. If federalism were such a great model and a harbinger of a prosperous society, many more countries would have chosen that model. And among those countries that have chosen the federal model, there are as many examples of success as failures, especially in developing countries. Understandably, Nepali political activists and academics tend to cite selective examples that suit their preference.
Myth of multi-ethnic societies
There is a widespread myth that federalism is particularly suited for multi-ethnic societies. If that were the case, the vast majority of African states with their great ethnic diversity would have adopted federalism, instead of just three or four which certainly are not shining examples for Nepal to imitate. Indeed, of about two dozen federal states in the whole world, only a handful are identity-based, and most of them are examples of what not to do than what to emulate. With such mixed global track record, it takes a great leap of faith to presume that ethnic federalism will be a success story in Nepal.
Interestingly, Latin America’s “pluri-nationalist” movements, from which some Nepali academic advocates of ethnic federalism derive their inspiration, have generally not opted for identity-based federalism as a solution to their centuries-old discrimination and exclusion. Instead, they have opted for more effective affirmative action, social safety-nets, and proactive measures that seek to secure equal opportunity by creating a level playing field for all, which I strongly support.
Of the 27 members of the European Union, only three follow federalism. The experience of most countries in Europe shows that federalism is not a prerequisite for a thriving democracy, economic prosperity, or social justice. Indeed, the EU today is actually moving towards a borderless super confederation, a far cry from some Nepalis’ quest for ethnic Bantustans.
I am personally agnostic about federalism, but support its choice as enshrined in Nepal’s Interim Constitution and endorsed by the very first meeting of the now defunct Constituent Assembly. But in a democracy, citizens should be allowed to express their views freely in a peaceful manner. So the views of those who are passionately supportive of or opposed to federalism must not be stifled or derided.
Frankly, outright opposition to federalism is now the view of just a small vocal minority in Nepal. All the major political parties have accepted federalism—some enthusiastically, others reluctantly. The real issue now is agreeing on what kind of federalism we need and want. This needs to be discussed in a calm, cool and rational manner, not with hot-headed emotions and street agitation.
The Maoists’ strong advocacy for identity-based federalism with a large degree of autonomy and even the right to self-determination must be viewed with great skepticism as a tactical and opportunistic ploy. Throughout history, all Communist movements of the Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist variety have sought to institutionalize a highly centralized state under the control of their ‘vanguard’ Party. Once secure in power, we should not be surprised if Nepal’s Maoists emulate what Lenin and Stalin did—when they betrayed their promise of self-rule and autonomy to the various ‘republics’ and ‘nationalities’ of the Soviet Union, and instituted one of the world’s most centralized states.
The aspirations of many Madhesis and Janajatis for identity-based federalism are more genuine, and deserve greater respect. But their expectation of what identity-based federalism will deliver to their constituents, and to Nepal as a whole, tend to be instinctive, emotional and faith-based rather than evidence-based. In all the plethora of write-ups justifying identity-based federalism, I have not seen any evidence-based or convincing arguments as to how that model will deliver greater prosperity to large numbers of poor and marginalized Nepalis.
Most arguments in support of identity-based federalism refer to better prospects for some historically deprived groups to land senior government jobs—in the civil service, the executive, judiciary and legislative branches of government and in security services. While this is an important consideration, senior government jobs can never be the path to prosperity for large numbers of people in modern economies. This is an old state-centric view that is likely to inflate the size of our future governments by creating a parasitic state with over-staffed sinecure public-sector jobs, as in Bosnia where I understand up to 80 percent of national budget goes to pay for the salaries and facilities of government officials.
Experience world-wide –even in socialist countries like China and Vietnam—shows that only a thriving private sector-led economy can produce jobs and combat poverty in a sustainable manner, while the government plays a strong regulatory role, and assures basic services, infrastructure and social security.
Worldwide experience also shows that if we have good governance, progressive laws, and effective affirmative action, any system—whether federal or unitary, parliamentary or presidential, can work to bring about a just and prosperous society. The challenge for Nepal is to design a federal system that will ensure good governance, economic prosperity and social justice, and not to blindly assume that federalism will deliver these to us. A badly designed federal system could actually worsen the inequities and injustices of the unitary system, while opening the door for regional warlords and sectarian strife, if we are not careful.
The author is former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations
This is the first part of a five-part article. The next part will be published on Jan 24 (Thursday)