Imagined divide

  • When it comes to federalism, identity and capability cannot be either/or bases
- Narayan Manandhar
Imagined divide

Jun 8, 2014-

A country that trades liberty for safety will deserve neither and lose both, goes a line paraphrased from Benjamin Franklin. This line, in a slightly different context, is quite applicable to present day Nepal. The debate here, however, does not quite concern security and freedom but the two determining factors of federalism, namely identity and capability/viability.

The last Constituent Assembly (CA) was so polarised between these two camps that, at the very end, the House was dissolved without drafting a new constitution. In trying to trade capability for identity and identity for capability in our future federal structure, we received neither and lost both. Instead, we ended up in more uncertain, insecure and prolonged political transition. This situation only benefited pro-Hindu, pro-monarchy, anti-secular and anti-federal elements in the country. Now, with a new CA in place, we have entered round two of the same debate.

Bases for federalism

The Committee on State Restructuring and Allocation of State Powers of the erstwhile CA identified viability and identity as the bases for federalism. Under the ‘identity’ criterion, five more determining factors were listed—ethnicity/community; language; culture; geographical and regional continuity; and history. The ‘capability’ criterion too had four more factors—economic interrelationships and capability; the status and potential for infrastructure development; availability of natural resources; and administrative feasibility. However, it is important to note that the committee mentioned ‘identity’ as the primary determining factor. The committee carved out 14 provinces with provisions for autonomous, protected and special areas to address the needs and interests of smaller groups and communities. The suggestions of the committee were said to have been approved by a majority in the CA.

At the end of 2011, the issue of federalism was handed over to the State Restructuring Commission. The commission members too were divided into two camps—majority and minority groups—reflecting, more or less, the above-mentioned two values. Both groups submitted their reports to the government. Though the report submitted by the majority group speaks of using ‘identity with capability’ as a determining factor, it too mentioned identity as a primary determining factor. It carved the country into 10 provinces with one additional non-territorial province to accommodate the interests of Dalits. The report submitted by the minority group contained six provinces with provincial names to be decided by Parliament.

The debate on federalism polarised the country to such an extent that the two factors to be used as the bases for federalism were seen to be mutually exclusive, either-or values. The proponents of the capability/viability argument accused identity-based proponents to be led by a secessionist mentality that would take the country back to the medieval ages of baise chaubesi rajyas. Similarly, identity proponents accused their opponents of being anti-federalists seeking to preserve the status quo under the garb of viability. In some way, the dominant ruling class succeeded in misinterpreting identity-based politics as ethnicity or caste-based politics. This was easier than trying to refute social inclusion and the empowerment of poor, excluded and marginalised communities.

How Nepal be governed?

Now, however, capability proponents seem to have suddenly come out of their deep slumber to provide reasons for why it is pointless in seeking identity-based provinces that are not viable economically, financially and administratively. They even pose a question: Can the nation sustain a large number of provinces? If this argument is elevated to a higher level, one can ask a similar question: Is Nepal a viable country to govern?

With a massive section of the population emigrating abroad, the country heavily dependent on remittance money and foreign aid, huge trade deficits, rampant corruption and bad governance, what is Nepal’s viability as a sovereign country? The issue here is not between identity and capability; it is between rulers and the ruled; the haves and have-nots; and between more equals and less equals. Had the rulers ever been aware of Kathmandu-centric development, in terms of human development index, fairly accessible districts in the plains, like Rautahat and Mohattari, will not be pitted against relatively inaccessible mountain districts like Bajura, Bajhang, Kalikot, Humla and Achham. In old days, Kathmandu meant Nepal and in modern days, Nepal has become Kathmandu. Due to the constant influx of migrants, indigenous Newars have been reduced to a minority group even within the Kathmandu Valley. Kathmandu’s centrality in Nepal’s development is the single most important reason why the country needs to go for a federal structure.

However, both camps agree that Nepal is a multi-language, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, diverse country. The difference between the two is over the emphasis on cause and effect. Identity-based federalists emphasise Nepal’s diversity as a causal factor for federalism. Capability-based federalists emphasise effect—it is because of the country’s diversity that it cannot be carved into single-identity or ethnic-based provinces. Like with a movie camera, one can zoom in and zoom out of the country’s demographic data. Nepal may be a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural country at a certain level of aggregation but the settlement of the country, at the micro level, still goes by ethnicity, caste, region and religion. Therefore, we have kami gaun, bahun danda, newar tole and muslim basti. The question here, what level of aggregation do we desire?

Status quo strengthened

With rare exceptions, one can clearly see who the proponents and opponents of identity-based federalism are. A majority of Adivasis/Janajatis, Madhesis and Dalits are in the identity camp while a majority of Bahuns, Chhetris and Thakuris are in the capability camp. Interestingly, Nepal’s demography is composed roughly of one-third from each of the three broad groups—Adivasi/Janajatis (identity based), Madhesbadi (region-based) and Bahun-Chhetris (status quoists). Therefore, without some kind of a coalition between two, it is near impossible to have a majority. Earlier, Adivasi/Janajatis and Madhesis were very much divided; therefore, it was easier for the remaining third to rule the roost. Even recently, the Madhesbadi demand for Ek Madhes, Ek Pradesh (‘One Madhes, One Province’) was used as a lever to create a split within these two factions. The possible displeasure of our two big neighbours—China and India—is used as leverage to create another split.

Now, the outcome of the second CA elections has bolstered the hopes, aspirations and strengths of the ruling class to not to bow down before pressure from identity proponents. The split within the Maoist party, with the Mohan Baidya faction—supposed to have a stronger agenda of identity-based federalism—staying outside the CA; the Ashok Rai faction, having split from the CPN-UML and performed badly in the elections; and the total disarray and disunity within Madhesi parties have all transpired to strengthen the position of capability proponents and unfortunately, also of anti-federalists. However, one should remember that in the last CA elections, the three big political parties—the Nepali Congress, the UML and the UCPN (Maoist)—incurred substantial losses in their proportional representation (PR) vote counts, reflecting an erosion in their identity politics. Save for a few Madhes-based political parties, all other smaller parties secured gains in their PR vote counts. This shows that the proponents of identity may be down inside Parliament but they are not completely out of politics yet.

Manandhar is a freelance consultant with an interest in corruption and governance issues

Published: 09-06-2014 08:45

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