Why Rastriya Swatantra Party should shed its ambivalence on federalism

We should not turn back the clock and bring Nepal to a form of semi centralized system even though many stakeholders, including the RSP, are correct in pointing out the shortcomings of provinces.

Simone Galimberti

  • Read Time 6 min.

Can it be possible that the party made up by smart people, successful entrepreneurs, practitioners and intellectuals, get it so wrong about federalism? Last week, the Rastriya Swatantra Party officially endorsed a “federalism minus minus ’ model that could be actually seen as a “decentralization plus plus” one. In a snapshot, the party officially endorsed a system that, essentially does away, in substance, with the provinces as powerful and key hubs that bring decision making closer to the people.

Now the formal position has some caveats that actually look more like “save faces”. Binod Ghimire in a an article for The Kathmandu Post, explains that, according to Mukul Dhakal, the party’s general secretary, there are two options. “First scrapping them outright or having a provision of electing one representative who can take charge of the entire province in close coordination with the federal level”, explains Ghimire. “The provinces have turned out to be places to manage dissatisfied leaders and cadres who don’t get opportunity at the federal level”, Dhakal shares in the article. “We neither need provincial assemblies nor the Cabinet”, he is further quoted.

Frankly speaking Dhakal’s proposal is not really clear. Apparently, it is still being discussed and details are still missing. It is also strange that, after months and months of discussions, the RSP does not have a very clear outline of the shape of governance envisioned for Nepal. It almost seems that there is some confusion within the party and the interview given on Monday by Santosh Pariyar for The Kathmandu Post, the Chief Whip of the party, seems confirming so.

Its headline seems to row back on the last week’s announcement. “RSP in favor of functional, economically viable provinces” it reads.  In the interview that is also interesting because Pariyar also addresses the issue of inclusivity of his party, there is an attempt to explain that federalism is not bad in itself. Rather, according to Pariyar, in what resembles to a more nuanced approach to the issue, what is not sustainable is the fact that “provinces are just replicas of central units”.

The same level of corruption and disfunctions that are often found there is reflected at provincial levels.

After reading the interview, what emerge is not an outright condemnation of the provinces but rather a denouncement of the overall political culture that is still prevalent in the country. If this interpretation is correct, then, the RSP should come up with a detailed blueprint. While the general electorate might not be fond of technical aspects, any serious political party and I believe the RSP is one, must master the small nitty gritty of such a complex realm of policy making.

Instead, the political paper presented by Rabi Lamichhane last week and upon which Dhakal’s declaration must be referred to, apparently lacked depth and it was too vague. Then why rushing to adopt it as the new official line of the party?

Why not using the document just as a so-called “non-paper”, an unofficial, working document that would be used to further the debate within the party? Because what Pariyar said in the interview for The Kathmandu Post is quite different from Dhakal’s views. The latter’s proposition is quite radical and for many, including myself, regressive. Instead, Pariyar’s position is a less disruptive, less of a rupture with the current framework. Perhaps the mistake was in the messaging, the way the paper presented by the party founder and uncontested leader, Rabi Lamichhane, should have been explained to the media in a different way, in a much more nuanced fashion. If this were the case, then, the party should have come up with some “talking points” that each of its senior members should have stuck to when addressing the press.

Another reading can also be made and this is more problematic. It is very possible that the hasty announcement was made as vague as possible, simply to capture people’s attention and their overall dissatisfaction with the current status of politics. Was it a mere coincidence, someone might be intrigued to think, that the Lamichhane’s political paper was intentionally released just after few days of a mass rally of people’s discontent with republicanism, secularism and federalism?

Such intention would be seen as a cunny masterstroke by the RSP to ride on the wave of popular discontent, something that, at the same time, would resemble a form of smart populism and demagogy.

Certainly, one could assume that the party is still divided. While, there is unanimity in criticizing the current provinces and their “modus operandi”, at the same time there are different opinions within the RSP.  Pariyar could emerge as the leading figure within a more ‘federalist” faction of the party. Considering that he comes from a minority group that has been discriminated and oppressed for centuries, he might still be attached to the idea of federalism as the only platform to empower the most disenfranchised segments of the populations.

After recently attending the “International Conference on Federalism, Devolution of Power, and Inclusive Democracy in Nepal and Asia” organized by the Kathmandu University School of Law (KUSOL), I came out with two key messages. First: “Long life to the provinces”.  Despite the challenges faced by them, the hurdles encountered in executing their duties and obligations, provinces play and should continue to play a major role in transforming national politics. As explained by a vast number of presenters the main reason why provinces are underperforming is the lack of cooperation and support from the Federal government in Singha Durbar.  Then it is also true that not even a semi progressive constitution like the one adopted by Nepal can change the political culture of those involved in politics.

Trying to propose a real, new alternative with a drastic change in the way politics is conducted, a change based on competence and technocracy, these were the key tenants, the raison d’être of why the RSP was created and why people had put trust on it.

Is the party losing out its own mission?

Working out a cooperative framework between the center, the provinces and the municipalities, is one of the most difficult things to achieve.  Lamichhane is correctly cautious in not demanding, not yet, any changes in the Constitution though sooner or later, such changes will be inevitable. What is not inevitable is to turn back the clock and bring Nepal to a form of semi centralized system even though many stakeholders, including the RSP, are correct in pointing out the shortcomings of provinces.

Yet they all got wrong with the diagnosis as many political observers have also shared.

Provinces’ way of working, their governance and mechanisms can be improved and should be changed in future when the conditions will arise and make this process feasible. I take it as an act of responsibility by the RSP not to call for a revision of the constitution now. If such process would be rushed now, then regressive forces might prevail.

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal is a strong supporter of a model of federalism where provinces would play a central role. He should be encouraged to truly strengthen model as he recently announced that Provinces’ powers will be boosted. Federalism is a complex system, certainly not perfect but it can deliver, with the right conditions. I would expect a party like the RSP not to rush to quick conclusions about it but rather to come up with a comprehensive and detailed proposal on how to make provinces stronger, practically and most importantly, technically capable of reversing their underwhelming performances.

If it is about reducing the number of provincial level’s ministers and have less of them but more powerful and more competent, then, this would be a proposal that would have a lot of merits to be discussed. The bottom line is that there is no federal system around the world that does not foresee the role of an intermediary level of power between the center and the local bodies. It could also make sense talking about reforming federalism to bring clarity on the number of subjects that are currently shared responsibilities and are co-managed by more than two levels of power.

Provinces’ way of working, their governance and mechanisms can be improved and should be changed in future when the conditions will arise.                        

These are technical “stuff” but what Nepal needs now is a strong reaffirmation of the solidity and robustness of the rationale that brought the country to adopt federalism. This was my first take-away from the conference.

The second is related to inclusion and what Pariyar, the Chief Whip of RSP, is trying to bring in his own party. Over the discussions, it was clear that federalism, because it’s replicating the formula of power of the center, has not been a “game changer” for the most deprived minorities, including the Dalits. Achieving an inclusive politics is a responsibility that Nepal should entrust not only to federalism because the implementation of this vision with its ideals, goes well beyond that. On both counts, I wish the best to Pariyar, and to all other Nepali citizens who are not afraid to pursue their dreams of a better Nepal even if these are not so convenient and might cost some of their political capital.

Views are personal.