Thursday, 6 May, 2021

Fostering Intergovernmental Ties

Mukti Rijal


The constitution of Nepal provides for a variant of cooperative federalism. The notion of cooperative federalism is very important in the sense that it emphasises mutual concurrence, collaboration, interdependence and co-existence among three tiers of the government- federal, provincial and local. While the intentions behind Nepal’s cooperative federalism have been broadly conceptualised as mentioned in the constitution, its institutionalisation has encountered a range of issues and challenges. In fact, creating a new institutional infrastructure for cooperative federalism dismantling centralised political and administrative apparatuses is not an easy task. It takes longer time than expected even if it is planned and managed carefully. This is the case in Nepal, too.

Orchestrated assertion
Moreover, recent developments indicate that strains have already surfaced in inter-government relations. The orchestrated assertion of the province chief ministers and ministers against legislative and administrative measures undertaken by the federal government time and again testify to it. Province 2 government, led by the Madhes-based party, has been at the lead to raise voices to oppose the measures taken by the federal government In fact, governing intergovernmental relations in a cooperative federalism is a very delicate and challenging task. Even in the countries where the state was born and created through the process of coming together of the separate independent or semi-independent states, managing federation and accommodating diversity has not been easier either. The dynamics of relationship between the centre and constituent units is not always very stable, plain sailing and smooth.
We have found that tensions between the states and federal administration led by outgoing president Donald Trump had undermined the strategies to fight the coronavirus surge in the US. Experts of federalism have commented that the relations between states and federal administration got worse since Donald Trump became president which peaked during the COVID-19 pandemic. Partisan polarisation rendered federal government unwilling and unable to address a range of pressing issues. Even examples abound in policy areas like immigration, climate change, education, and abortion, healthcare and so on where the US federal administration and states locked horn.
The context of Canada, India, the USA and Switzerland known as established federation in the world is not very different to that of the US where federal and sub-national governments conflict each other on several policy issues. Inter-governmental conflicts also occur when there are asymmetries and imbalances in the distribution of resources.
Furthermore, the likelihood of inter-governmental conflict is very possible in the context where federation is created through dismantling of the centralised states like in Nepal. Nepal's federation has been created through restructuring of the highly centralised unitary state structures. In such a context, perennial issues of conflicts pertain to be not only in the areas of boundary delineation, fixing sub-national government capital, civil bureaucracy adjustment but several policy areas including the resource distribution and transfers.
The then Indian Prime Minister late Jawaharlal Nehru had cautioned on the several issues that can jeopardise the administrative and territorial reorganisation of the federal states and constituent units. According Nehru, who had masterminded the building of federalism in India, "reorganisation of the states (provinces) should take not only linguistic and cultural matters but also other important factors such as preservation of unity, national security, defense, administrative advantages, financial consideration and the economic progress of each constituent unit as well as progress of the whole nation".
The seven provinces except for Province 2 have been created and demarcated in Nepal without satisfying any social and regional development yardsticks. This is partly because of the fact that the creation and delineation of the seven provinces has been carried out without adherence to any established principles and basis. In fact, it was, many analysts say, done in a haphazard and expedient manner. For the purpose of creation and delineation of the province, existing five development regions that had been in place for long even under unitary structures could provide clues and references to draw upon.
The five development regions could offer an established framework to delineate the provinces with some minor adjustments despite the fact that some sections would oppose tooth and nail alleging that it could be tantamount to going back to the deposed partyless Panchayat era. In fact, the five development regions shaped during the then Panchayat period were guided by and anchored to a vision of the spatially balanced axial development strategy.

Simmering tensions
What needs to be mentioned in this context is that the on-going simmering tensions between the centre and the provinces in particular could go deeper if sub-national interests are not properly listened and accommodated in line with the principles of cooperative federalism.
This may give rise to problems in the process of strengthening democratic institutions and delivering prosperity. Utmost care should, therefore, be taken to ensure that any decision taken in handling issues of federalism and dealing with sub-national government was carried out taking the views and interests of all the stakeholders concerned into account.
However, recent political developments both at the federal and provinces clearly demonstrate that the political actors across the spectrum are not committed to upholding the federal institutions, values and norms. Political infighting and conflicts have created instability and uncertainty both the federal and province levels impacting both governance and development. Unless political parties and leaders harbour broader sense of accommodation and tolerance, implementation of cooperative federalism will be a hard nut to crack.

(The author is presently associated with Policy Research Institute (PRI) as a senior research fellow.)