Pie in the sky



Many pundits and politicians have prescribed, or justified their position for creating states in the emerging union of Nepal, with the Swiss model. Although Switzerland is an admirable economic and social role model for the long run, it is a wrong political frame of reference for federalizing Nepal now.

Of course, it is impossible not to be impressed by the success of a tiny country tucked in the Alps through the thick and thin of the turbulent European history. Today, this country enjoys the honor of having one of the highest per capita incomes and quality of life and being one of the most stable countries in the world.

Although it joined the UN only in 2002, Switzerland has maintained its international profile as a neutral country admirably. It is an active development partner of many developing countries, including Nepal, where it has helped build suspension bridges and promote agriculture and rural development. Home to the International Red Cross Society, Switzerland is also active in conflict resolution circles around the world, and its support to Nepal’s current peace process is substantial.

Because of such involvement, many Nepali politicians and pundits have visited Switzerland and come back impressed by the stability and progress of that nice little country. In my own experience, striking similarities between the two countries impress Nepali visitors: Both countries are hilly, landlocked, multicultural and multilingual, though the hills, cultures and languages of Nepal are much more numerous and formidable.

Differences between the two are equally striking. Switzerland has been a confederation of independent states, known as cantons, since 13th century though some cantons joined the union relatively recently, taking the number of cantons to 26; the modern Swiss confederation came into being only in 1848. Nepal has been a unitary state since its unification in 1768, only taking a step towards federalism now.

Switzerland’s population (7.8 million) is less than one-third of Nepal’s (26 million). Its per capita income, US $ 71,530 in 2010 according to the World Bank, is one of the highest in the world, while Nepal’s is one of the lowest at US $ 440. Switzerland hosts some of the biggest banks in the world and exports watches, machineries and agricultural products, while Nepal, which has a small service sector and virtually no manufacturing sector, exports labor.

The Swiss federal legislature has 246 members, 200 in the lower house and the rest in the upper chamber. Nepal’s Constituent Assembly has 601 members, and the parliament that will come into being under a new constitution is likely to have more than 400 members in two houses together.

Notably, the Swiss executive branch, known as Executive Council, has only seven ministries headed by seven councilors. In Nepal, you need a calculator to keep the count of ministries and ministers, so much so even Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai has acknowledged that that he does not know the names of many of his ministers. The political culture of Nepal is so corrupt and elastic that you could appoint without compunction as many ministers as you need to stay in power.

Rather than imitate a particular country, Nepal should devise its own model based on its political and economic realities.

The cantons are hugely asymmetrical in size. The smallest, Appenzell Innerrhoden, has less than 16,000 people, and six others have less than 100,000 population. The largest canton, Zurich, has 1.37 million people. Most of Nepal’s districts are much bigger than the cantons of Switzerland.

Each canton has a legislature comprising between 58 and 200 members. Their executive branch, known as Executive Council (like at the federal level), consists of only 5-7 members (or ministers), regardless of the canton’s size. Cantons make their own laws except for defense and foreign affairs and a few national jurisdictions.

While canton executive councils are akin to the state government of the US in powers and functions, they are closer in size to district development committees of Nepal, which usually have 11 executive members.

These similarities and differences raise several questions for Nepal. Will 11 states recommended by the State Restructuring Commission, or 14 states proposed by the Maoists, represent the identity of all ethnic groups? Does Nepal have the resources to make 11 states viable? Can Nepal follow the Swiss example of having only seven ministries at the center and 5-7 ministries at the state level?

The answer to all these questions is a big NO.

In a country of nearly 100 ethnic groups, six, eight, 11 or 14 states will not be able to do justice by reflecting their identity. Too many states will not be competitive; and a poor country with limited resources cannot sustain them fiscally and financially. Some pundits have argued that, since old Nepal is not fiscally sustainable now, it is all right if the fiscal situation worsens in new Nepal. That is a truly deconstructionist, if not destructive, attitude. May Lord Pashupatinath save the country from such pundits and politicians.

When states come into being, the same corrupt and elastic political culture as we witness in Kathmandu will take toot in them. If every chief minister of the state appoints as many ministers as the prime minister has, you would make a whole battalion of ministers. Add their secretaries, personal assistants and peons to the mix, and you would have a whole army of a small country. Every state assembly is going to be quite large as well to make them representative.

So the Swiss model is a pie in the sky for Nepal. Nepal will be better off devising its own model based on its political and economic realities.

Every country has its own realities to live with, its own evolution and history, its own culture and institutions borne out of long experience with myriad permutations and combinations to get to where they are today. You cannot just imitate some other country and expect to do as well. Neither could you put all the best parts of other’s experience and come up with a coherent constitution or system that works for you, as envisaged.

It reminds me a story I had heard as a child umpteen times. After creating so many animals, Lord Brahma wanted to create the most beautiful one of all. So he took the best part from all animals—the neck from a giraffe, eyes from a deer, legs from a horse, hump from a bull, and so on—and put them together. What emerged was a camel, one of the ugliest animals on earth, much to Lord Brahma’s chagrin.

In other words, you cannot pick and choose values and institutions from different cultures and backgrounds and develop something beautiful out of them that works without flaws. So Nepal will have to tailor a federal structure that fits its body politics and economic capacity.

That said, Switzerland could provide some guidance in one sense.

We could take a leaf from the Swiss cantons and covert our districts into states, as Sher Bahadur Deuba, former prime minister, had once said, with adjustments to reflect identity and viability. Devolve all the powers to them barring those related to defense, foreign affairs and a few cross-country jurisdictions like the power transmission line and mail service. Convert the district development assemblies into state assemblies and the district development committees of up to 11 members into the state executive bodies.

This will reflect the identity of most ethnic groups in Nepal. This will be economically viable, for there will be no additional layers of political and bureaucratic structures. This solution might sound radical or even whimsical, but it would be a far better option than those proposed by the Maoists, the UML, the Nepali Congress, and the State Restructuring Commission. And this can be done quite easily between now and the end of May when the term of the Constituent Assembly expires.

This is not my preferred option, but an elusive ideal solution should not be allowed to defeat a feasible solution. Only in this limited sense, the Swiss cantons could be a useful frame of reference for federalizing Nepal.



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