Capitalism of capitalsNepal reels under yet another round of unrest caused by transport strikes and loss of life and property across the country; from Dhankuta in the east to Doti in the west, and almost half a dozen towns and cities in-between.
Nepal reels under yet another round of unrest caused by transport strikes and loss of life and property across the country; from Dhankuta in the east to Doti in the west, and almost half a dozen towns and cities in-between. The protests this time around by the ‘Aristotelian citizens’ are aimed to pressurise the government to pick ‘their’ particular city or town as the provincial capital (Nepal’s constitution recognises them as states, not provinces despite wider use of the latter term). The government is preparing to assign transitional working capitals in all seven states so as to enable these sub-national legislatures to begin their business. Despite the fact that final selection of the venue for state capitals have to be made by respective state assemblies, the underlying importance of such a pressure tactic is: once assigned it could make a case for retention. And, in a slight diversion, the crippling of normal life in a number of these cities is yet another vindication that Nepal’s language for political demands, unfortunately, continues to be thoughtless violence, not a meaningful yet peaceful bargain.
Creating a seat of power
No doubt, for federalism to be implemented, some cities must function as the state capitals. But in these protests, there is not even a distant consideration to federalism but pure capitalism. Since the raison d’être of a federal polity is to bring the ‘effective’ government closer to people, the selection of the state capitals, first and foremost, must ensure the improved physical access of the constituent population to the government services. Therefore, the decision on transitional, and later permanent, state capitals must be based not on vote-bank politics of some powerful politician or vested interests of mainly the trading community of the respective city, but with the view of whether it is the better suited locus for delivery of public ‘goods’ more efficiently than before.
But in these protests, it is pure capitalism, not federalism, that is ruling the roost. Winning a state capital naturally means increased population movement, better business opportunities, and thereby, increased profits to the businesses. From realtors, stationary retailers to local job seekers, each has their own objective to maximise as regional capitals grow as centres of the regional economy and seats of power. This is exactly where politicians are expected to save themselves from being a tool of vested interest groups and fanning these protests, and instead be able to decide in the larger interest of federalism and the country’s future.
The very narrative of choosing an existing city ‘with infrastructure and facilities’, mainly for a permanent state capital, is antithetic to the very philosophy of federalism. First, the city centres or trading hubs developed in the unitary system have had no consideration for administrative functionality. Planning, or lack of it, and service delivery from existing locations of these cities was, for all practical purposes, deemed a failure; the single logic that could establish the rationale of venturing into a federal structure. Again, thrusting upon them the load of the capital is an unthinkable proposition. These exercises abort the very possibility of diffusing urbanisation and distributing prosperity through specifically planned state capitals in more accessible locations.
Theoretically, the choice of federal architecture would eventually define whether Nepal’s devolution of state authority limits itself to bare sub-national federalism or extends itself to localism. Nepal’s constitution is more tilted to localism than sub-nationalism as it, at least in papers, gives several exclusive powers to the local levels. As the debate increasingly focuses on aspects of sub-national level functionality, in the process, it is gradually overshadowing the concept of local self-rule. There are examples of federalism, like India and Mexico among others, where the state authority has effectively devolved to the sub-national levels but failed to go beyond state capitals, barring a few powerful metropolises. Therefore, the federal polity in this set of countries has failed to empower the grassroots, lift the masses out of poverty, and create required democratic institutions at the local levels to replace bureaucratic red-tapism. On the contrary, the state capitals become so powerful that their political machinations often challenge the centre. The fact of the matter is: exertion of so much pressure to be named as a state capital is based on the presumption that the power and authority might just be concentrated here, instead of facilitating a balanced development approach that ensures equal prosperity whether a capital or no capital.
The escapist’s route
However, it was not unforeseen, at least by federalism experts, that the decision on state capitals were bound to be excruciatingly contentious, more because of capitalistic avarice than federalistic novelty. Instead of taking this issue head on, with technical support on the specifics of it, Nepal’s political class that drafted and promulgated the new constitution took an escapist’s route by leaving the state capital to be decided by the state assembly. Successive governments failed to devise convincingly realistic parameters even to choose temporary capitals, thus leaving room for unnecessary politicking and muscle flexing as seen today. Even after the announcement of temporary capitals by the government, which must come in a matter of days, such pressure tactics and politics are set to continue until the final verdict regarding fixed capitals is delivered to respective state assemblies.
For Nepal’s federalism to be a welfare enhancing polity, assemblies of both federal and state level must conceive a completely new paradigm for state capitals, and plan and develop fresh locations with appropriate infrastructural and architectural designs. It is not only because some cities have become controversial, it is also to spur a fresh round of urbanisation that alters village to town migration, distributes prosperity to a whole new lot of marginalised people, and gives rise to newer economic hubs. Therefore, the cities that state assemblies name as capitals shall still have transitional connotations until such a location is identified and developed.
Offices and residential facilities for the ministers, chief minister, and state chief among others have their own security and protocol sensitivities linked to the dignity and prestige of the nation. The modern office imperative to digitisation cannot miss this opportunity also. Both the government and protesting cities must appreciate the fact that federalism can only survive and hopefully thrive if and only if the success of federalism itself is put on top of all negotiating agendas.
Wagle, a founding editor of the economic daily Arthik Abhiyan, is an eco-political analyst