I am often asked what my preferred model of federalism is.
I am for a federal model that gives higher priority to building a brighter future for all Nepalis than just seeking to right the wrongs of the past. I am for a model of federalism in which no Nepali will be a second-class citizen anywhere in the territory of Nepal. I am for a model that will enable all Nepalis to harness the power of globalization for their common benefit. I am for a model that will not lead to the centralized power of Kathmandu being “decentralized” and replicated in half a dozen or a dozen or two dozen federal states, or “autonomous regions”, but devolved to 10,000 local communities. I am for a model that does recognize the importance of identity, but where identity alone is not a primary factor for state restructuring.
We all want to see Nepal’s top leadership in all our political institutions of state - the legislature, judiciary, executive branch, civil service, security services, etc. reflecting the great diversity of Nepal’s population. But I remain unconvinced that a primarily identity-based federalism is the right or the best way to achieve that goal.
Empowerment from below
Frankly, I am less impressed by symbolic representation of a handful of people from nominally marginalized communities at high levels of political and administrative leadership, and far more interested in effective affirmative action measures to ensure a more equitable representation of all Nepalis, especially in local governments, among teachers, health workers, and in availing business opportunities - with priority for the historically most deprived and marginalized groups. That would help build a strong foundation for breaking the glass ceiling, which deprives people of equal opportunity for leadership positions in state and non-state institutions.
Whenever possible, I am for using such objective criteria as the level of poverty and human development index instead of people’s surnames and ancestry as the basis for affirmative action quotas. I am for a model that helps the largest number of the poorest Nepalis get a higher standard of living in the fastest possible time-frame.
I would not judge the worth of federalism by how quickly someone from a historically marginalized community gets to become a Chief Minister or a Chief Secretary or a Chief Justice, but how quickly the vast majority of poor and deprived citizens can be lifted out of poverty; how quickly we can establish a level playing field for people from all communities to start small businesses, and how quickly and effectively we can end discrimination against Dalits, women and other discriminated groups.
I am more keen to see 50,000 Madheshi women being trained and posted as primary school teachers in the currently overcrowded schools in Terai, than one Madhesi academic becoming Vice-Chancellor of a state-run university. I am more keen to see 20,000 more Dalit nurses, than one Dalit leader becoming Minister of Health. I would be happier if we helped upgrade the quality of education in 500 Madrasa schools than having one Muslim politician as Minister of Education. I would be happier to see proactive arrangements made for greater use of local vernacular languages in the earlier grades of primary schools, in local courts of laws and administrative services that people avail locally in their villages and districts, than trying to pack the National Academy with political appointees to fulfill ethnic or regional quotas.
I would be happier to see a proactive recruitment policy to ensure greater ethnic and caste diversity at entry level posts in such traditionally male Bahun-dominated state institutions as our Supreme and Appellate Courts, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, than appointing a few protégés of political party leaders from certain ethnic and Madhesi communities as Judges and Ambassadors.
Of course, the above are not either-or propositions. We should be able to do both simultaneously. But priority should be given to creating a large base and a strong foundation for broad-based inclusion rather than tokenism at the top.
In Nepal, we have seen many Madhesi Ministers and Janajati leaders behave exactly like those from the so-called Pahadi Bahun-Chhetris elite when it comes to lining their own pockets and serving their party interests than uplifting the living standards of those communities that they claim to represent. Yes, the symbolism of inclusion at the top is important, but just having a few more Nepali Mayawatis, Rabri Devis, Lalu Yadavs, Narendra Modis or Bal Thackerays leading our future federal states is not very reassuring. As we have seen in many countries, and in Nepal itself, such tokenism at the top is not decisive in changing the lot of the vast majority of the underprivileged and excluded.
To build a faster and stronger foundation for breaking traditional glass-ceilings in a more sustained manner, I am for offering generous scholarships and training opportunities to talented students from marginalized communities in colleges and universities, and time-bound affirmative action and proactive recruitment policies favoring historically deprived groups, but without compromising on merit and essential qualifications.
What is my identity?
In all the identity-centric debate, we must not forget that while the human quest for prosperity is eternal and universal, identity changes over time, and depends often on the eyes of the beholder. Taking my own case, probably most militant advocates of identity-based federalism would put me in a box that identifies me as a Pahadi, male, Hindu, Bahun from the western hills of Nepal. According to their worldview, I would be congenitally doomed to defend only the interests of these groups, and incapable of defending the interests of women, Dalits, Madhesis, Janajatis and other deprived groups.
But most people who have known and worked closely with me would view my identity in a completely different manner - as someone who has devoted all of his professional life fighting for the rights of the most deprived women and children of the world; advocating rights-based approach to development; and mobilizing resources for the poorest and most deprived peoples, countries and communities.
For me personally, the only identity that matters, and that I am proud of, is that I am: 1) a human being, 2) a Nepali, and 3) a citizen of the world. All other identities are either accidentally inherited or given to me by others, and are meaningless in terms of the values and principles that I subscribe to. And I am pretty sure that my changing identity is not an exception, but represents a growing trend in Nepal.
Young versus old Nepalis
With the influence of globalization, now rapidly penetrating even the remote corners of Nepal, I notice that most upwardly mobile Nepali youngsters, like their counterparts around the world, increasingly identify themselves more with famous international sports clubs, music bands, and film stars than with their ethnic deities or local folk songs. Their parents are more keen to teach them English than their own mother tongue. They aspire to travel abroad for study and work, rather than to return to their ancestral lands. This is increasingly true for most Nepalis regardless of their ethnic, linguistic, caste and geographic backgrounds.
We certainly hope that all Nepalis will continue to be proud of our diverse cultural heritage, but a nativist tendency to try to focus or limit our children’s horizons to our ancestral ethnic, linguistic and geographic enclaves in the name of identity-based federalism would be a regressive step that our younger generation is likely to reject in the long-run.
My preferred model of federalism is one that corresponds to the aspirations of our younger generation, not to the bitter complaints and divisive rhetoric of Nepal’s passing generation.
The author is former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations
This is the fifth and final part of a five-part article.