DANGERS OF FEDERALISM: SUITORS FOR DAUGHTERS

Suitors for daughters  
 

MURARI SHARMA

We will be carrying a different country’s passport in our own lifetime, said a retired secretary friend of mine in a recent conversation. “It is better to become a duly wedded wife than a mistress,” he added. By recommending too many economically unviable states, the State Restructuring Commission has taken the Nepali people several steps closer to my friend’s prediction on passport. 

The wedded wife and mistress perform the same function for their partner, the retired former secretary said, but the wife has some rights while the mistress does not. When I told him that a mistress enjoys more freedom, he said it is freedom to be used and discarded and the Nepali people would be better off without such freedom. 
The secretary’s words mirrored people’s frustration at the inability of the politicians to keep the house in order and suggested that a mess at home attracts intervention from outside. Indeed, unsustainable federalism could force some erstwhile Nepalis to carry a foreign passport. 

Politicians have deeply disappointed the people. It has been more than six years since the seven party alliance and the Maoists signed the comprehensive peace agreement. It has been six years since the People’s Movement II forced then-King Gyanendra to restore the dissolved parliament and hand over power to the movement’s leaders. And it has been four years since the people elected the Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution. 

None of these things has come to fruition. The peace process is still incomplete and shaky, as the Maoists have been dragging their feet on the modality of integration of their combatants and provoking unrest among those who have opted to go back to civilian life. 

Despite several commitments, the Maoists have not disbanded the Young Communist League and have not restored the properties they seized during the conflict to their rightful owners. Rather, they have been trying to validate the illegal land transactions they enforced under the threat of arms. 

Political stability has become a mirage. Three governments have come and collapsed in three years and the fourth one is teetering on a precipice. The opposition parties have already called on the Baburam Bhattarai headed government to resign. Maoist-affiliated militant laborers and students have closed down factories and schools. Other parties have given up too much with too little in return and their youth wings have begun to imitate their Maoist counterparts. 

Given Nepal’s geopolitical status and political division, federalism could very well be a force for disintegration.

The constitution is far from being written. There are still dozens of unresolved issues, including the most contentious ones related to the form of government and the country’s restructuring. The Maoists want the presidential system; the Nepali Congress is fighting for the parliamentary system; and the CPN-UML is pitching for a French style mixed system. Consensus on this issue has been elusive. 

The most delicate and dangerous issue of all is restructuring of Nepal as a union of states, and main parties are far from a consensus. The Maoists want 14 provinces, the UML 10 and the Nepali Congress seven. And the majority members of the State Restructuring Commission have approved 11 provinces while, according to the minority, six is more viable. 

But their claims are false. You cannot meet the aspiration for identity of more than 100 ethnic groups in Nepal by creating just 11-odd states. And there is no way a poor country that hardly raises enough revenue to pay the leaders and bureaucrats of one government will be able to support one federal and 11 state governments. 

Contrary to popular notion, federalism is not a panacea for a divided nation like Nepal. It is a means that could be used to keep the country united as well as to disintegrate it. Given Nepal’s geopolitical status and political division, federalism could very well be a force for disintegration. 

Federalism has been successful in some countries more than others. The US is one of the successful examples, barring the rift between the north and south over slave trade culminating in the civil war in 1860s. The first 13 independent British colonies decided voluntarily to form a union in 1776. Most other states joined the union voluntarily as well. Alaska and Louisiana were purchased from Russia and France respectively. Other states were acquired by force from Spain, Mexico and the UK. But most other unions are involuntary.

Federalism has not been an unblemished success in countries with a different evolution. Soon after the separatist movement of Northern Ireland was resolved, the UK is once again gripped by the fear of a breakup. Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond has promised to hold a referendum in 2014 to let the Scots decide whether they want to become independent. His Scottish National Party secured majority in the state assembly on the manifesto of holding the referendum. The main grievance the Scots have is that they have been giving too much to London and getting too little in return.

Canada is always on the throes of Quebec lurching towards independence, even though Ottawa is giving more to Quebec than receiving from it. Belgium is having troubles between Flemish and French-speaking populations. India has had its fair share of problems with the Khalistan, Kashmir, several northeastern provinces. The Nigerian union has its own trouble with Biafra, which continues today as the recent Muslim uprising there demonstrates. 

All these countries have not yet broken up, because some are rich enough to buy out the minorities to remain in the union while others are powerful enough to prevent secession, despite external support or provocation. Nepal has neither resources nor power. 

It is likely to disintegrate not because of federalism, but because of unsustainable federalism. Once 11 states are created, the revenue will not be enough to run them, plus one federal government. The states that have no money will try to extract resources and concessions from Kathmandu. If Kathmandu complies, other states will revolt. If it does not, then those short of resources will. 

These disgruntled states will seek help from one of the neighbors to exert greater pressure on Kathmandu and those on the border sides will threaten to secede. The neighbors will try to fish in troubled waters for territories or the use of Nepal’s natural resources. Western benefactors eager to proselytize and divide Nepali society will, directly or indirectly, support the secessionist movement. 

Blind nationalism is bad, but lack of nationalism is even worse. The former eats up the country from inside and the latter opens the country for outsiders to gobble up. Too many leaders already wear foreign support as their badge of honor and travel to foreign capitals to get blessings to become prime minister and ministers. It will happen more in the states when they emerge. 

There might be no shortage of Quislings in Nepal. Some of them might want to trade sovereignty for position and money in a new arrangement. In a corrupt society, money matters more than anything else. 

A friend who worked for a joint venture bank in Kathmandu before migrating to the UK told me that, when he was with the bank, Nepali leaders shouted slogans about nationalism all day and went to a foreign embassy staff to collect cash at night. The embassy used to draw tons of cash from the bank for this purpose, he said. 

As a long time civil servant, I have watched many Nepali leaders up close. They are prepared to sell their dignity and honor even for an invitation or a scholarship. Some seek instructions from the ambassador of the country of their loyalty before they go to cabinet meetings and brief the envoy as soon as the meetings are over. They pass confidential papers to foreign embassies. Many times, I have felt that our leaders care more about a friendly country than about Nepal. 

Despite all this, I do not think any of the neighbors wants to wed a poor, rugged, recalcitrant, and aid-addicted woman who cannot keep her nose clean. However, her young and promising daughters will find suitors willing to marry them. And this will force some, if not all, of the erstwhile Nepalis to travel on a different country’s passport, unless the political leaders make federalism economically viable. 

murarisharma@gmail.com

 
   
Published on 2012-02-07 01:10:09
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