Federalism is not an end in itself but a means for creating a more prosperous and just society. Nepal’s proposed new federal structure can and must embrace explicit objectives of reducing disparities among geographic regions and people of different communities and income groups. It must promote a more balanced regional development of the country, taking full advantage of our abundant natural resources, hydro-power, tourism potential, etc for the benefit of the whole country. It must not lead to narrow provincialism whereby each state jealously guards its resources for itself, but encourages shared prosperity whereby the hydro-power of the hills benefits the Tarai, agriculture potential of the Tarai benefits the hills and mountains, the tourism industry benefits the whole country, and so on.
Our federal set up must encourage opportunities for more equitable economic growth and social progress for all; protect our fragile environment, and harness the benefits of globalization that is now penetrating even the remote corners of Nepal.
Situated between two of the world’s largest and most vibrant economies, Nepal can and must seek to benefit from their prosperity by adopting pragmatic policies and avoiding any ideological dogmatism. Federal models that ignore this geopolitical reality and prospects for capitalizing on economic links with both of our great neighbors are likely to be short-sighted and self-defeating.
Forward, not backwards
Most arguments by defenders of identity-based federalism cite facts and figures of unequal opportunities and injustices of the past, and see the main justification for federalism as a vehicle for righting the wrongs of the past.
There is no question that Nepalese history is full of many unjust, discriminatory practices, including a shameful situation of state-sanctioned and institutionalized discrimination. However, no matter how deplorable, we cannot change our unjust past but can certainly build a more just future. The past is relevant only to the extent that we can learn some lessons from it and not repeat old mistakes. Like Nepal, every country in the world has some dark chapters in their history, along with some glorious ones. Constantly harping on the negative aspects of our past – 240 years of feudal rule, and other diatribes – only pollutes our minds and hearts, but does not offer us a blueprint for a more just and prosperous future. Our new federalism should be deliberately forward-looking and future-oriented, not a backward-looking reaction to the inequities and injustices of the past.
We must acknowledge and press for rectifying the injustices of the past, not by inciting vengeful retribution, or reverting back to the baise-chaubise kingdoms of the past, but by inculcating a new sense of unity for shared prosperity for all by harnessing the richness of our cultural and ethnic diversity in a forward-looking manner. Passionate advocates of identity-based federalism need to make a more reasoned and convincing case as to how it will bring future prosperity for all Nepalis— including to the most deprived and marginalized communities— in a rapidly globalizing national, regional and world economy of the 21st century.
As we can see from the long lines in Kathmandu’s passport and visa offices, Nepalese youth – of all ethnic, regional and religious backgrounds – are voting with their feet to go out and explore the world and aspire to be globally competitive citizens, not to revert to their ancestral enclaves.
Many proposals for federalism, including some endorsed by the State Restructuring Committee and the Constitutional Committee of the defunct Constituent Assembly, do not reflect a progressive, forward-looking vision of the future, but seem primarily intended to rectify some real or perceived injustices of the past.
Some proposals even smack of creating what seem like the economically unviable “Bantustans” proposed by the apartheid regime in South Africa, under its philosophy of “separate but equal” which was soundly rejected by Nelson Mandela and the ANC who wisely insisted on creating a vibrant multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society, where there would be no second class citizens in any part of the new South Africa.
Nepal too must guard against creating economically unviable, parasitical mini-ethnic states or disproportionately large and lopsided mega-states where some residents risk being second-class citizens. Let us remember that two wrongs do not make a right. In our effort to rectify the unjust inequities of the past, we must desist from creating new forms of segregation and inequalities that are likely to create resentment and backlash from other groups.
Focus on unity
The Maoist, and some ethnic and regionalist movements in Nepal tend to focus and emphasize what divides us – Madhesis vs. Pahadis; Bahun-Chhetris vs. Janajatis and Dalits; the self-appointed progressives versus presumed status quoists – rather than what unites us all as Nepalis.
But far from being progressive, this divisive approach is actually backward-looking as it tends to incite our restless, unemployed youth to look for scapegoats to blame for their misfortune on the real or perceived injustices of the past, rather than helping and mobilizing them to look for what unites us all as Nepalis to build a brighter future.
Nepal must guard against creating economically unviable mini states or lopsided states where some risk being second-class citizens.
Having experienced monarchy, one-party Panchayat system, multi-party liberal democracy, and a republic; and rule by the royalists, Communists, democrats, and even ethnic and regional parties in different combinations – most people of Nepal no longer harbor any illusions of any particular system or ideology ushering miracles and magical solutions for their development. As federalism has not been tried yet, catchy slogans and promises in its name tend to still attract many innocent and gullible Nepalis into imagining that perhaps that might be the one new system that might deliver us the elusive nirvana.
But increasingly, I sense a certain maturity dawning on Nepalis that there really is no substitute for pragmatism, hard work, rule of law and good governance to build a brighter future and sustainable development in larger freedom for Nepal, as for any other country.
Maximizing prospects for economic prosperity for all, not a zero-sum game of creating some new winners and losers, should be the guiding principle for restructuring the shape of the future Nepali state. Let us not forget that in the larger scheme of things, compared to many other countries and our own potential, the vast majority of all Nepalis – from the nominally privileged communities as all as the historically marginalized ones – are all poor and under-privileged.
Regardless of whether one comes from a nominally privileged community or the marginalized one, all Nepalis today suffer from weak rule of law, corruption, tolerance of impunity, too many political parties touting outdated ideologies and slogans as “progressive”, and radicalized and partisan trade unions. These are the main culprits for non-implementation of many progressive laws and policies that are in our books now. It is unclear as to how federalism, especially of the ethnic variety, can better tackle these problems.
There is a greater likelihood that federalism might actually make matters worse, if it replicates these fundamental flaws of the current Kathmandu-centric Nepali state into a dozen or more mini-Kathmandus. How the proposed federal structure will truly enhance better governance and increased prosperity for all must be the litmus test of Nepal’s future statecraft, with acknowledgment of the diversity of our identities as one element of an inclusive and egalitarian democracy.
The author is former Assistant Secretary-General of the UN
This is the third part of a five-part article. The next part will be published on Feb 7, Thursday firstname.lastname@example.org
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