Is it time to abolish federalism in Nepal?

Public opinions on social media platforms and in media outlets have been divided in favor of and against federalism

Nishan Khatiwada

  • Read Time 3 min.

Kathmandu: Practically, Nepal’s federalism is only three years old.  The country was declared a federal democratic republic by the first Constituent Assembly in May 2008. But the real federalization process started after the promulgation of the constitution on September 20, 2015, followed by elections held at three spheres—local, provincial and federal levels—as per the new constitution in 2017, and after the governments were formed in all three spheres in 2018. As such, Nepal’s federal structure today has 761 governments in three spheres—753 local governments, seven provincial governments and a federal government.

But even before these governments have served the full five-year terms, questions have started to be raised about the need and relevance of federalism.

The political actor to raise the question most recently has been the President of Bibeksheel Sajha Party, Rabindra Mishra. On July 26, Mishra unveiled a public appeal to scrap federalism altogether by restructuring and strengthening local bodies and to settle the question of secularism through a national referendum.

Even since, public opinions—on social media platforms as well as formal news media outlets—have been divided in favor of and against federalism.

While a section of the society has sharply criticized Mishra’s proposal as regressive, a huge number of people have defended him by saying that Mishra was actually exercising his right to freedom of expression and that his call for scrapping federalism is right and valid. Mishra’s anti-federalism proposal seems to have resonated with many Nepali citizens from the mountains to the hills to the Tarai plains.

While those who have been opposing federalism since the very beginning have welcomed the proposal of Rabindra Mishra others believe scrapping federalism is an unthinkable proposition.

“As the political party which has been opposing federalism since the very beginning, we are happy to see that leaders like Rabindra Mishra have seen our point and we welcome his proposal,” said Durga Paudel, a lawmaker from Rastriya Janamorcha Nepal, a communist party whose leaders, including Chitra Bahadur KC, have been vehemently opposed to federalism since 2008. “We opposed federalism because we knew this was a bish brikshya [poison plant],” she said. “More we allow this plant to grow, more harm it will do to the country.”

Paudel argues that federalism is not the agenda of any of the political parties here. “This imported concept was projected as our own by the interest groups and it was allowed to take root,” she said. According to her, federalism has proved to be the most unsuitable and the most expensive system for Nepal. “In three years, our position has been vindicated.  Federalism has proved to be the most expensive system we have ever had,” she argued, adding that federalism is not suitable for Nepal politically, economically, socially, geographically and in terms of Nepal’s population composition. “This system will never be successful in Nepal. If we try to force its implementation further it will put Nepal’s future at risk,” she said. “The sooner we get rid of this burden, the better it will be for the country and the people.”

While leaders like Durga Paudel vehemently oppose federalism and have welcomed Rabindra Mishra, Madhesi leaders do not see it that way.  Instead, they see the current model of federalism as incomplete and want more autonomy for the provinces, even redrawing the boundaries of the federal provinces. “We shed blood and sweat for federalism. Hundreds of people died to make federalism a reality. But the federalism that we have today is only in name,” said Laxman Lal Karna, former minister and a lawmaker belonging to Mahatha Thakur-Rajendra Mahato faction of Janata Samajbadi Party Nepal (JSPN).

Karna demands a more powerful federalism system.  Provinces need to be given more powers and resources to enable them to function better, he said. “We cannot imagine scrapping federalism. Federalism should stay in much stronger and more functional form instead.”

Observers say scrapping federalism will be tantamount to unraveling the current constitution itself. “Federalism and secularism are core components of the new constitution recognized as such by the preamble itself. To make an attempt to alter this basic structure will be like an attempt to invalidate the constitution itself,” said Jivesh Jha, an LLM graduate in Constitutional and Administrative Law from Uttaranchal University, Dehradun, who has written several critiques on constitutions of Nepal and other countries in South Asia. “It will send the message that we have failed to implement the constitution. Either we have to begin with the premise that this constitution is no more relevant for Nepal. Or if we believe that constitutionalism is still to be upheld, we need to implement its basic values such as federalism,” Jha added. 

According to him, federalism should be given more time so that people can see how well or whether it benefits them. “To scrap federalism before it has been fully implemented will not only give the message of the failure of the political class to abide by the constitution it will also set a dangerous precedent for the future,” Jha said. 

“We are already known as a country that changes its constitution every few years, without allowing any constitution to be implemented fully.  Scrapping federalism might lead the country to another era of political turmoil,” Jha added.