Fallacy of federal façadeSince Maoists raised arms two decades ago, Nepal’s political course for the first time looks convincingly optimistic. Scheduled polls, for local levels in Province 2 on September 18, and two phases of simultaneous voting for provincial and federal legislatures on November 26 and December 7 are expected to sail through. This is primarily due to lately dawned wisdom in the Rastriya Janata Party Nepal (RJPN), a coalition of Madhes-based parties.
Since Maoists raised arms two decades ago, Nepal’s political course for the first time looks convincingly optimistic. Scheduled polls, for local levels in Province 2 on September 18, and two phases of simultaneous voting for provincial and federal legislatures on November 26 and December 7 are expected to sail through. This is primarily due to lately dawned wisdom in the Rastriya Janata Party Nepal (RJPN), a coalition of Madhes-based parties. After boycotting two phases of local level polls, the RJPN agreed to participate in remaining polls of the local, provincial and federal levels, ‘suspending’ all its protest programmes.
Of course, urgency of geopolitical imbroglios like Doklam compelled New Delhi to build a renewed rapport with the Kathmandu establishment, even at the cost of temporarily sacrificing the Madhes interest which had become India’s cardinal foreign policy instrument vis-a-vis her Nepal operations for the past several years. The Nepali Congress (NC)-Maoist Centre (MC) coalition deserves due credit for wading through the political mess and placating the RJPN to create a credible atmosphere for much awaited polls. Hopefully, this coalition survives to see the birth of the first elected Parliament under the republican federal constitution.
Successful completion of all these polls will not only elect people’s representatives to all levels of government, they will also put several political parties with radical-sounding political agendas to rest. The extent of popular support manifested through ballots will also determine the very future of many outfits. At the centre of such a crucial test is none other than the RJPN itself. If it fails to elect a reasonable portion of representatives at the local level in its putative bastion, Province 2, it will suffer a terminal loss of face. Similarly, an inability to elect a convincing number of lawmakers to both provincial and federal legislatures would push its agenda of amendment in the constitution—principally to effect new delineation of provincial boundaries and increase representation of Madhesis in state organs—to the backburners.
CPN-UML’s unyielding stance against the constitution amendment would also be tested, particularly in elections held in Province 2. The general people’s perceptions on UML’s ‘nationalism’ and the RJPN’s allegation that the UML is ‘anti-Madhes’, would hopefully be settled by these polls. It is important to note here that the UML has become the leading party in terms of seats won and votes garnered in the last two phases of local elections in six provinces. It now has the challenge of maintaining this lead.
Apart from this, the poll outcomes will also indicate the direction in which Nepali politics is headed in the medium and long run. The completed local polls attested that Nepal is irrevocably heading, for all practical purposes, towards a two-party rule system, with NC and UML commanding popular support far ahead of other smaller or newer parties. The electoral performance of the RJPN would put another equally important question to rest: is there a political future of a regional party in Nepal’s federal realpolitik? At the philosophical level, in view of the multitude of ideologically unpalatable poll alliances that have been created or are in the offing, it is not unsafe to argue that Nepal is quickly heading to an ideology-less political order. Classical thinking suggests that the first victims of such politics would be the ideals and integrity in political deal-making. In fact, our recent experiences confirm these hypotheses.
Federalism beyond democracy
These elections will put Nepal’s democracy back on track. Democracy is a necessary precondition for the functionality of a federal system. It means our political, moral and societal value systems must be reoriented to a more matured response to policies and issues than required for a normal, functional democracy without a federal set-up. The size of the government will also be far larger in a federal system than otherwise. This has two parallel implications. One, the cost of the government would surge. Two, people’s access to decision-making through their increased number of representatives, at least in theory, would rise substantially. The trade-off is that improved efficiency in delivery of public goods must be able to offset or justify such increased costs of the government owing to the federal system.
Therefore, it is crucial to understand that a federal facade alone does not establish the raison d’être of adopting a federal system. It must be justified by improved provisions of public goods and enhanced effectiveness of public service delivery. This is exactly the point where Nepal’s federal polity risks a corrosive failure. If the absolute lacklustre performance of the local governments during their 100 days in office—and the ensuing public anger—is any indication, Nepal’s ability to manage federalism has already started to tatter. In the short run, such failure could be blamed on the inadequacy of laws or unwillingness of civil servants to be posted to local levels. But there are far deeper issues involved.
Four key issues immediately come to the fore. First, deliberate perfidy of the state, including the main opposition in Parliament, to enact suitable laws in a timely manner (such as in the case of the Federal Fiscal Commission) is repugnant. This mind-set will only increase the size of the government, not the functionality or efficiency of it. Second, the topmost political leadership largely appears confused on what federalism entails, and lacks the acumen and will-power to make decisions. Third, the elected representatives seem more preoccupied with their autonomy and rights than their duties and responsibilities. And fourth, no decision maker in any political party or among the elected representatives is ready to accept the reality that they suffer from an utter lack of knowledge, skill and expertise to take decisions under a federal scheme. Even worse, nobody seems psychologically prepared to learn. All and sundry in Nepal seem oblivious to the fact that federalism by its very concept is a shared rule; any aberration would prove that it is a mere fallacy.
Wagle, a founding editor of the economic daily Arthik Abhiyan, is an eco-political analyst