Monday, August 31, 2015

Federal bogey

This appeared in Republica on August 24, 2015.

Just when people were expecting a statute of their own promulgated after a long and wrenching transition, the bogey of federalism once again threatens its existence. The unresolved issue of state restructuring had curated the first Constituent Assembly before it was able to give birth to a constitution. The same fate seems to be awaiting the CA-II. Federalism is turning out to be the ride of the tiger for major political parties, without any logical solution in the offing. It has generated a million mutinies with divergent and often mutually exclusive demands that cannot be met to the satisfaction of all.
Much of the blame for the present imbroglio lies with the major parties. Rather than taking expert advice on the sensitive issue of state restructuring, the Big Four syndicate randomly drew boundaries and haphazardly cut and pasted existing districts to new provinces. People at the grassroots, with attachment to their lands, were understandably angry by this and demanded united development regions and districts.They want their provinces to prosper and for that they need transportation routes, something the current delineation fails to address. The important components of identity and capability of federal states too have not been satisfactorily incorporated.

Influential leaders carved provinces and drew boundaries not with any pious motive but for their short-term electoral gains. This gerrymandering has let loose petty regionalism and communalism that will dictate our future political course. More offensive is the top leaders' stance in the face of violence across the country. Rather than genuinely try to bring the disgruntled forces to talks table, they have been issuing empty statements for calm. There are hints that the leaders themselves have been inciting "Akhanda" and "Tharuhat" movements and using their cadres to ignite emotions, thereby inviting police crackdown.

Leaders' indifference to commoners' death only goes to show that they want a statute at any cost, whether or not that is acceptable to a large section of the population. After all, the 16-point deal and the super-fast drafting of the problematic statute based on it had no other motive than facilitating change of power.

In this context, questions regarding federalism should be raised. Why is federalism necessary for the country? How would it ensure equal representation of all communities? How is it any better than effective decentralization? Are the provinces being carved with Nepal's geo-strategic location in mind?

Federalism, although not the magic bullet as some claim, is also not a pure evil as certain sections of intelligentsia believe. The underlying idea is to eliminate backwardness, underdevelopment and povertyof the regions outside the national capital. The centralized state has always been apathetic to the genuine worries of mofussil. People outside Kathmandu valley have to come here even for minor administrative works. Federalism would facilitate self-rule and local empowerment.

But the federal idea in the country focused more on identity than economic viability with prosperity of provinces as its cornerstone. Deliberately ignoring the co-existence of multiple ethnicities in a single region, certain forces aggressively pitched for provinces with single identity with priority rights. In the charged atmosphere, the divisive voices of "us" against "them" reached a crescendo that sought to completely exclude "them" . There was no substantial effort to cool things down and bring communal harmony. This is the reason some people consider federalism as a design of the foreign elements to rupture national harmony.

As if to prove that federalism will indeed sound death knell of communal harmony, influential Madheshi leaders have been poisoning the environment. Quitting the sovereign CA to raise their voices in the streets and issuing inflammatory statements have made things worse. Rajendra Mahato says the Madhesh will impose blockade of goods to hills. Upendra Yadav keeps telling the Madheshis that hill folks are the sole source of their misery. Amaresh Kumar Singh threatens to break Madhesh away from Nepal if every single Madheshi demand is not met and challenges the home minister to put him behind bars for his barefaced remarks.

More brazenly, disgruntled Madheshi leaders announced compensation of Rs 5 million to potential martyrs in Madhesh movement. This open call for martyrdom like some terrorist outfit shows that Madheshi leaders take the people as stepping stone to their political ambitions rather than look to genuinely solve problems in Madhesh. Moreover, it shows that they want the conflict to snowball to unmanageable proportions, rather than seek compromise solutions. General Madheshis might not share their leaders' antagonism against hill folks but some excitable youths can be puppets in the hands of these exclusionary leaders and help prolong the conflict.

Despite the conflicts it has generated, the reality is that federalism has charted a certain course from which the country cannot back down. It would have been better if this sensitive issue had been taken to a referendum. But in light of what has transpired so far, the leaders have their task cut out. They should take expert advice in state delineation. Unfortunately, they have never given serious thought to it. This process will take some time and the promulgation of constitution will be deferred. But that is the risk the leaders should take.They should not fix a date for the constitution that they cannot honor. There is no point in making a constitution that will have to be changed after a short period. There is also a need to make people aware that federalism rather than the unitary state structure will institute inclusivity.

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