Monday, 6 December, 2021

Implementing Federalism In True Spirit

Kushal Pokharel


Ever since the endorsement of federalism by the Interim Constitution of Nepal 2007 that was promulgated after the end of the Maoists insurgency in Nepal, the debate around federalism as a suitable political system for the country continues. Purported as a panacea for the socio-economic and political evils grappling the nation, federalism was established as a predominant political narrative in Nepali polity. Against the backdrop of a deescalating civil war and the constitutional breach of powers by the monarch, the agenda of a federal republic gained greater currency in the political circle including the general public. Ranging from the formation of a just and equitable society to the tall promise of prosperity was on offer.
However, with a series of events unfolding in the last 13 years in Nepali politics, many questions have been raised over the practice of federalism. Five years after the nation got a new constitution, not much progress has been made in strengthening this system. Empowerment of the states and local governments through resources and more importantly necessary laws is not in the priority. For instance, state governments are still without their own civil administration and police, which are working under the directives of the federal government. In the absence of the endorsement of federal civil service bills, many positions at state and local levels are still vacant. A couple of states, namely state 1 and state 2, which have endorsed their police laws haven’t been able to expedite the recruitment process in the absence of federal police law.

Real picture
Be it the case of poor coordination among federal, state and local governments or the pressing challenges in the autonomous functioning of the newly constituted governments at the state and local levels, the real picture is contrary to the painted portrait. While the federal government has been receiving vehement criticisms for its unwanted interference in the constitutionally devolved power of the two other tiers of government, the state and the local governments have also been accused of not performing well. In the absence of a proactive role of the state and local lawmakers, the process of institutionalising federalism has entered into a difficult terrain. Focused on increasing budget for their constituencies by pleasing the central authorities, their intentions have been bitterly exposed.
Noticeable is the fact that some legal proceedings are also underway as a result of the heightening conflict among the three tiers of government. In the latest round of incidents, the row over the declaration of the capital surfaced in newly named Lumbini state which witnessed some wild protest at its assembly meeting by the opposition lawmakers. More importantly, a large section of the businessmen belonging to the ruling Nepal Community Party and some civil society organisations were miffed by this decision.
Although the declaration of the capital and name of the state 5 secured more than two-thirds of the votes, this has reignited the question of whether the decision pertaining to the name of the state and the capital had to be made earlier. Since its inception, delineation of the states have been a contentious issue let alone their name and capital. As the issue was settled hastily without bothering about the future scenario, critical challenges continue to emerge. In this regard, a former Prime Minister who had also championed the idea of federalism has publicly expressed his dissatisfaction over the manner in which the states were created. He described this as the replica of the former administrative division.
What is noticeable here is that the spokesperson of the main opposition party immediately criticised the vandalism. But the ground reality captured by the TV footage was pretty different. This also speaks of the growing rift between the leaders at the central and state levels further signaling the worsening intra-party relations.

With over a decade since Nepal became a federal state, there can be no excuses for the ill-preparedness and growing failure to make federalism a success. Having said that, a proper orientation for working under the federal setup remains missing. In general, neither the local level policymakers nor the central and state leaders seem to have a better know-how of operating in the federal model. A handful of leaders who possess the knowledge and technical know-how of federalism have failed to disseminate their learnings at a wider scale. The politicians and policy makers have not yet shed their centralised mindset and embrace the spirit of federalism in letter and spirit. It is imperative to build robust federalism structures and culture to make this system functional and result-oriented.

(Pokharel is a social science faculty and a researcher.