Exclusionary inclusionMarginalisation of the country’s small ethnic groups is a tragedy of modern Nepali politics.
A decade and half is not long enough to pass a final judgement on a new political system. But some inferences about it can certainly be drawn. The country adopted the proportional representation (PR) system in state organs after 2006 changes in order to mainstream minority communities and historically marginalised groups. However, in this time, nearly half of the ethnic groups in the country have had no representation in the federal legislature—two Constituent Assemblies and one federal parliament. According to a yet-to-be-published report of the National Inclusion Commission, a constitutional body, as many as 62 of the 126 ethnic groups in the country have never been represented in Parliament. Among these are communities like Kusunda, Nurang, Raute, Kalar, and Lohorung.
The PR system was introduced after rigorous debates. The goal, again, was to reimagine Nepal as home to a highly diverse society and to end age-old discriminations. Yet what we see is that political leaders follow the system not because they believe in it but only because they are legally bound to do so. Even when people from the marginalised communities are represented, most often, they are the near and dear ones of the traditional political elites who have controlled Nepal's politics since 1990. This was also amply evident in the May local elections, when political parties circumvented the provision of women’s mandatory representation by forming political coalitions: while individual parties must abide by constitutional norms, there are no such restrictions for coalitions.
This time, on the eve of the federal and provincial elections, the political parties have again doled out tickets mostly to the members of traditionally dominant groups. They have continuously ignored the communities that are sparsely populated and scattered across the country; in other words, the groups that are electorally insignificant. Yet in doing so the political parties undermine the very spirit of the new federal setup that above all should prioritise inclusion of the biggest possible swath of the population: Why change the old system if the underrepresented communities will continue to be excluded? The first Constituent Assembly was hailed both at home and abroad as one of the most inclusive in the world but successive legislatures have been less and less reflective of the country’s diverse population.
As per the 2011 census, among the 62 unrepresented communities, three have less than 1,000 members each: Kusunda (273 people), Nurai (278) and Raute (618). Yet, in the new federal setup, the members of these groups have as strong a claim for representation in state organs as the demographically dominant groups. Perhaps the biggest tragedy of today’s Nepali politics is that its top leaders have failed to internalise the inclusive spirit. Thus, in a way, the same forces that brought about the progressive changes in 2006 are now actively undermining them. Otherwise, if our political class is committed to inclusion, it is not difficult to find a middle-way out. For instance, if it is not possible to ensure the representation of all these numerically small communities in the legislature at once, perhaps they could be represented on a rotational basis. This isn’t rocket science.