Nepal’s pseudo-federalismLeaders and bureaucrats do not want to give up the power they have been holding.
Nepal is struggling to contain different views on federalism, as various tiers of government aspire to achieve individual agendas. This nature of governments has induced disputes and disagreements among the unit heads, slowly pushing Nepal into a failing state with restrained democracy and soft tyranny. Federalism was introduced in Nepal under completely different circumstances compared to other federal countries. Nepal’s federalism structure contrasts with India’s quasi-federal system; Nepal being one, yet separated.
The federalism model in Nepal separated the country geographically into seven sections, establishing additional governing bodies. With a greater number of controlling units, the clash of power and authority became inevitable. As the federated states clash for power, claiming to serve their people better, the exerted effect has made Nepal less democratised than ever.
Features of anti-federalism
While the provincial governments are against heteronomy, the federal Parliament still issues bills endorsing features of anti-federalism. The power to solve any issue remains in the hands of the federal government. For example, the Civil Servants Adjustment Bill, which allows the prime minister to appoint provincial secretaries accountable to the provincial governments, doesn’t represent the ethos of federalism in the Nepali context. This bill attempts to centralised power with a unitary mind-set, by keeping power within the central bureaucracy. Nepal’s transition is at a standstill as bureaucrats, business communities, the military and the police are reluctant to work in decentralised stations. This statecraft will not let emerging problems be resolved by inclusive local solutions. Hence, the true purpose of federalism in Nepal may never be attained.
Nepal had ample time to prepare for federalisation. It had two years before the 2017 elections to construct a federalism framework; and currently, two years later, the state is still in limbo about structuring a federal state. Last year, delivering a speech to the Provincial Assembly of Province 2, Prime Minister Oli spoke against the spirit of the constitution and federalism, provoking discontent and doubt against the federal government. Although Nepal is run by three tiers of government, there has never been a coordinated meeting among the government officials through which they can address and solve problems through discussions. This situation shows that Nepal does not lack resources to go federal, the problem is the mind-set of the leaders and bureaucrats who are refusing to give up the power they have been holding for years.
The feeling among provincial governments is ‘We need to act now, but how?’ Nepal is still struggling to demarcate the roles of each tier of government and their reach and limits. This instability may bruise our national image to the extent that no international summit or diplomacy might be able to repair the damage. As powerful countries are trying to put Nepal in their strategic orbit, it is struggling to balance them, in both the political and economic sense. The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act shows US concerns over security issues and American values in Nepal. At the same time, China is aggressively engaging in Nepal through economic means. Although the foreign policy does not differ from province to province in Nepal, foreign missions choose their hosts as per their political agenda.
China has been aggressively investing in building roads in Province 1, and its strategic play in the region is to connect the Nepal border with Tibet. Projects like the Olangchung Gola Highway will make goods available in Tibet more cheaply and easily rather than benefiting Nepal. It is comparatively more expensive for China to supply goods from the mainland to Tibet, and it is better to use the Nepali route. As Province 1 is argued to be Oli’s syndicate for Chinese aid, it might be yet another reason for Chinese investment being dumped in the region. In support of the argument, a Chinese envoy to Nepal said that China wanted to see stability and prosperity during Oli’s leadership.
Missions spreading US influence are mostly based in the Gandaki Province, the Far-Western Province, and parts of Provinces 2 and 5. These provinces have a low Human Development Index; people lack easy livelihoods and public security. The US-run development projects in these regions are principally designed to inject American values of human rights, security, inclusive and effective governance, and democracy. China and the US have adopted their own different approaches to intervene strategically in the seven provinces of Nepal.
Federalism is a relatively new concept in Nepal, and more time is needed to facilitate the sharing of power. The foundation of the concept has to be inclusively built adhering to our public interest and security. Although federalism has its downside due to our geopolitical landscape, Nepal has to start making efforts to exercise decentralisation by trusting its governing bodies. Any decision made by the federal government should have the interest and agreement of the provincial governments too.
Federalism in Nepal is a product of the Madhes Movement, which was launched to secure inclusion, representation and decentralisation. Nepal has adopted a federal system, but it will seldom be practiced until the current ruling class accepts this paradigm shift. While living in a multi-polar world, Nepal cannot afford to lose its well-wishers. Nepal has to remain pro-neighbours and maintain good ties with the US, too. Powerful countries may put Nepal in a trap and force it to choose sides, but it has to play a cohesive role and balance its relations from all sides.
Rai is a researcher at the Centre for Social Inclusion and Federalism (CESIF) Nepal.