Sunday, April 20, 2014

Frolicking Around This F-Word

Having squandered months squabbling successively over the legitimacy of the president, timeliness of local elections and loyalties of Nepali civil servants holding permanent-resident status in other countries, the political class finally seems to have returned to the F-word.
Two events have coalesced to revitalize federalism as the core of the national discourse: the release of a new opinion poll showing its continuing importance and efforts by the Maoists and madhes-based parties to forge a new alliance to advance the agenda.
The opinion poll affirms that more Nepalis support the idea federalism than those who don’t. But that equation changes significantly when you start throwing in specific qualifiers like ‘ethnic’.
For some, the notion of ethnic federalism has always represented a slippery slope towards the dissolution of Nepal as the sovereign embodiment of statehood we know it as today. Others see federalism as an inexorable work in progress amid the amorphousness of our collective quest to define ourselves. Any effort to set anything in concrete would thus be self-defeating.
Federalism advocates continue to seek to reassure skeptics by touting two principles: identity and viability. The first is an attribute Nepal has yet to grapple with adequately. Since the Shahs and Ranas had forged a unitary state more with blood and tears than with sweat, making the few more equal than most others, the old order had to be demolished, according to the prevailing narrative.
When the Maoists first pushed federalism as a political agenda to buttress their armed insurgency against the supposedly exclusionary monarchical state, the mainstream political parties were skeptical. Only when their own existence was imperiled by royal assertiveness did they acquiesce in the Maoist vision of structural egalitarianism. Those in the mainstream who opposed federalism in the given context chose to remain silent for fear of being labeled ‘regressive’ and ‘reactionary’, keeping their powder dry for the next round.
How committed the Maoists actually were to federalism remains unclear as is their original confidence in ever achieving the power to have to implement that agenda. The general tentativeness paralyzed the first attempt to draft a post-monarchical constitution. By the time the second attempt began, an avowedly pro-monarchy party emerged as the fourth largest elected force and the Maoists began turning the rhetorical fire on, of all people, the Norwegians.
Barely over licking their post-election wounds, the Maoists and the madhesi parties have sought to resurrect their alliance in an atmosphere where public ambivalence over federalism has entrenched itself.
As for identity and viability as the bases of federalism, both are far more amorphous concepts than is ethnicity. Collectively, our march towards newness remains nebulous precisely because of the perplexity surrounding who we want to be. Those who dismiss Nepaliness as a manufactured identity to serve the interests of the erstwhile feudalistic power structure are still among the first to be offended by the slightest perceived external slight.
Nepali – to borrow a recent assertion that has riled many – may or may not be a tongue manufactured by British colonialists to foster communication with and within the martial tribes they recruited into their fighting force from our foothills. It is a reality of our times that the most coherent debates among various aggrieved constituencies are conducted in this language.
If identity remains such a fluid concept, what remedies might the country have when constituencies in individual entities federalized today start aspiring for recognition along newer organizing constructs? Would a permanent body to revisit the question of the number and character of states be able to keep up with the output of our vibrant grievance industry?
The greater viability pitfall lies in our geopolitical precariousness. Ideological ardor and political convenience might be enough for some to welcome the proliferation of microstates at all costs. The notion of viability that really matters would be the one espoused by our two regional behemoths anxious to preserve their own political sustainability within their existing internal and external frontiers.
Therein lies the travesty. Nepal cannot skirt the federalism debate not only because of the political momentum it acquired as a tool to demolish the old order but also because of how it has established itself as the defining feature of the emerging one. Ambiguity on the issue served everyone well as long as it remained an agitprop. The irrelevance of those parameters to the debate today thus drives us to all these perturbing peripheral issues.