Federal restructuring of the state has emerged as an important commitment in Nepal’s constitutional process. If the constitution is not promulgated in time or a decision on federalism is deferred, serious unrest could follow.
Nepal : Identity Politics and Federalism , the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines the political challenges to the establishment of a federal system and the risks if the process fails. The drafting of a constitution by the Constituent Assembly and designing a new political structure present Nepal with a chance to address many decades of pent-up grievance.
“Federalism is not simply the decentralisation of political power”, says Jacob Rinck, Crisis Group’s South Asia Analyst. “It has become a powerful symbol for a wider agenda of inclusion, which encompasses reforms to guarantee ethnic proportional representation and a redefinition of Nepali nationalism to recognise ethnic and cultural diversity”.
But of the three major parties, the Maoists are the only one to give full-throated support to federalism and the establishment of ethnic provinces; their credibility as a force for change depends on it. Both the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) have agreed to federalism in the spirit of bargaining; neither of them owns the agenda. Behind the official positions there is significant resistance, backed by substantial popular opposition to ethnic federalism in particular. Many fear they will lose out from reforms.
Deferring crucial decisions on federalism, or stalling the constitutional process altogether, could be tempting for those opposed to change. The risks are hard to calculate. A failure to address the core demands of ethnic and regional activists will resonate widely with communities in the eastern hills and the central and eastern Tarai. In both areas, the confluence of widespread politicisation and established networks of increasingly frustrated activists could lead to serious unrest.
“The structure emerging from the Constituent Assembly, federal but with a strong centre, offers a feasible compromise”, says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “Official recognition for Nepal’s cultural diversity, language rights and representation in state bodies would meet major aspirations of excluded communities, while strong individual rights provisions would assure those who fear future domination in ‘ethnic’ provinces”.