Federalism History and Challenges in Nepal

By Kundan Kumar Jha

Federalism is a form of government which is composed of two or more levels of governments. The key feature of federalism is decentralisation of political power so as to establish a political order between multiple states and one centre. Federalism enables the regime to address historic and contemporary inequalities, discrimination and marginalization in a diverse, multicultural and multiethnic nation like Nepal. The rise of federal states transfers the political power to the local level and allows greater flexibility for governance and thereby accelerating the development at local level. In essence, federalism provides the avenue for diversity to reconcile with each other through self-governance and discourages the  threat of conflict and war within the nation.

Federalism acts as an instrument for realizing the aspiration of ethnic and regional population groups. It provides them rights to deal with diversity within the national territory. Federalism is the dominant political trend which allows explicit constitutional guarantees for sub-state authorities. Over 56% of the world’s democratic citizens (those living in states with multi-party competition) live in federal polities at the outset of the twenty-first century. The wave of decentralization has been often referred to be the symbol for good governance. This form of government ensures effective development as per the needs and requirement of states entity.

Three-level government – federal, state/provincial, and local government is common to all federal systems; however, the place and role of local government in those systems vary markedly. The form of practice differs where some local government is a constitutionally recognized sphere of government whereas in others it is merely a competence of the state-provincial government. The form may differ largely within different sphere of such federal government but the basis of such government is generally associated with the common agenda of securing rights of diverse groups within the nation. However, the concept of decentralization and federalism have raised numerous questions in developing countries.

Optimistic theories, starting with Montesquieu and continuing through modern welfare economics, stress advantages of information revelation and accountability in more decentralized governance structures.  It can lead to more efficient and less corrupt government which can further ensure rapid growth at the same time. However, critical aspect of such governance can also leads to exploitation of resources and lead to limited growth and higher corruption in terms of developing nations. At the frontier of research today, the scholarship is attempting to come to terms with a broader variety of intermediate political systems now occurring than the single traditionally-known mixed structure of the federal state. This suggests that different political system has been examined to have better vision on how such federal states operates and to find out the basic mechanism behind such states.

Diversity of our nations was forged through migration of mongoloid groups from the north and the east, and Caucasian groups from the west and the south. The unification process in 1768 set the stage for gradual imposition of hill ethos, Nepali language and Hindu religion. Unification process led to the formation of the Hindu Kingdom of Nepal prior to which each small kingdom had its own system of governance. Over a period of time the local systems were slowly annihilated or replaced by centralized governance system. The unitary government led to the suppression of local identity, local aspirations and cultural and social diversity.

The diverse socio-cultural environment and religious traditions were unified and assimilated but the social integration neither intent nor compulsion hence four Varna and Thirty-six  Jat was euphemism. The Hindu caste system got codified in the national legal code in 1854. The first codified law of Nepal (Muluki Ain) was adopted in 1853 A.D. Muluki Ain served two critical purpose – instrument to ensure socio-cultural order, hence political and economic supremacy of Tagadhari (high caste Hindu male who wear ‘Janai’ as a symbol of high stature in society) remained entrenched. The inequality based on geography was prevalent in Nepal since 18th century which is why now Nepal needs federalism to address the historic inequality.

The federal model of new Nepal was initially propagated by Nepal Terai Congress when they asked for an autonomous Terai province in 1950s. Nepal Sadhvavana party demanded for a federal model of government with five provinces after the elections in 1992 in the House of Representatives. The interim constitution of 2007 was amended for the third time which made the constitutional provision for the federal republic. This aims at uniting already geographically united Nepal which can lead the country towards sustainable development.

The interim constitution of Nepal 2007 brought the concept of state restructuring which adds political, economic, social and cultural issues to the list of issues in the Preamble of the Interim Constitution to be resolved through state restructuring. The foundation which was put forward in the 90s was at peak during madhesh movement after the promulgation of interim constitution in 2007 which resulted into introduction of federalism. The reasons behind Nepal’s need to adopt federalism are the people’s political aspirations, wishes and demands. The very concept of sovereign people of a sovereign state has contributed to the demands of federal state in Nepal.

The diverse community desire for identity and inclusiveness to establish equal stake in developmental activities as well as to increase the representation and participation has played key role to the development of Federalism in Nepal. However the challenges ahead are immense for small economic state like Nepal. Identity and capability must be taken as the basis for creation of federal units in Nepal which can lead into formation of strong federal states that can contribute to the development. The constituent assembly (CA) declared Nepal to be a federal republic on 28th May 2008 in its very first meeting.

The Committee for Restructuring of State and Devolution of State Power of the Constituent Assembly proposed fourteen states, majority of which were based on ethnicity which was one of the initial measures taken for recommendations of state. However, this concept hardly came under any sort of major political debate since it was almost impossible for government to think about fourteen states considering Nepal economic condition. Federalism was now common agenda for many political parties in Nepal but its structure still remained a very challenging aspect for political parties. The major political parties expressed their commitment to the positive restructuring of the states. The downfall of monarchy was key to development of federalism in Nepal. At the time of the twelve Point Understanding, Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the Interim Constitution 2007, the political leaders were not clear on how they would restructure the state. This concept was cleared after Madhesh Andolan in early 2007 which suggested that state structure will be a federal one.

The failure of political party to resolve issues regarding federalism saw reversal of fortunes in the result of 2103 CA election with the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), the largest party in the first CA, coming in third and the Madhesi parties losing unexpected ground. Political aspirants in Nepal have not been able to understand the basic structure upon which the foundation of federal state can stand on its own. The lack of open political discourse had in fact made it more difficult for common people to understand the basic agenda of federal state. Conceptually, unitary and centralized states are different. However, in the case of Nepal, these two concepts are heavily mixed by political parties in Nepal. This has lead into conflict within different political unit of the government. The challenges lie within the conflicts that the concept of federalism has brought with it.

Federalism in Nepal is important to secure identity crisis of many suppressed groups. This adds to the value of belonging and at the same time secures national interest. A sense of identity can be a source not merely of pride and joy but also of strength and confidence.

Now that constitution of Nepal 2015 has decided to go for seven federal states from eastern region to the far western region of Nepal its challenges lie within implementation. Nepal faced serious problems soon after promulgation of the constitution with many groups still unsatisfied with the constitution. We must be aware of challenges that the country might have to face during its initial days of implementation of its core agendas. Federal state structure and design has been highly criticized by different ethnic groups within the country. Violence within certain states has led into formation of different agitating groups which can push the country towards civil war. Nepal’s identity of a peaceful nation has been questioned by different nations in the world. Federalism was always meant at securing peace and spreading prosperity but the current situation in Nepal has altered the scenario against federal states which must be understood immediately to solve current crisis in the country.

Federalism has played a key role in development of many nations across the world. It requires a proper system of governance that can lead to the formation of effective federal states. The concept of federalism is old but at the same time it cannot assure peace and prosperity to every nation unless internal issues are understood properly. It may lead into development whereas at the same time it may also lead into chaos if not dealt with properly. Nepal is a developing country and measures for development must be initiated if country has to survive of its own. The concept of federal state can put forward the voice of many suppressed group and help them gain their identity but at the same time if such measures are not addressed properly it can lead country into disaster. We must be able to see the challenges ahead in order to secure our national interest and more importantly national integrity.

National integrity counts for national power so it becomes important for a nation to remain united to protect its sovereign status. Federalism promises inclusiveness which is important for any nation to grow. It promotes development of skilled manpower and hence important for overall development of a nation.

Kundan Kumar Jha is a third semester student at Tribhuvan University, Masters program in International Relations and Diplomacy.