Current boundaries of federal states will completely change in 20 years (Republica Interview)

Retired Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations and author, most recently of Lost in Transition: Rebuilding Nepal from the Maoist mayhem and mega earthquake, Kul Chandra Gautam, has closely studied the federal systems of countries around the world.

He has also written extensively about Nepal’s own federal experiment. So on the basis of his vast international experience what does he make of the practice of federalism in Nepal thus far? What about the Indian blockade and the international community’s response to it? Biswas Baral, Mahabir Paudyal and Mani Dahal caught up with the veteran international civil servant Tuesday evening.

How do you see the ongoing agitation over province demarcation in Madhesh?I recall writing a series of articles on federalism in Republica a couple of years ago. I had feared that the federal experiment would not be a smooth sailing in Nepal. Recent events vindicate my qualms. Disputes over federalism led to the dissolution of the first Constituent Assembly, and it bogged down the second CA as well. The main reason for this fiasco is that federalism has been blown out of proportion in Nepal and it has been made to appear like a panacea of all ills. It is not. Personally, I am agonistic about federalism: I am not opposed to it but nor do I support it.

So Nepal, in your view, would have done just fine without federalism?

Federalism is not a universal norm like democracy, human rights and pluralism. These are the globally recognized fundamental norms. Federalism is not. It’s a political choice, you can choose to go federal or not. Having a federal state does not necessarily mean you are more progressive or less progressive. Again, the supposed fruits of federalism have been greatly exaggerated in Nepal.

Strong advocacy for federalism has come from groups which feel that its basis should be identity, regional or ethnic. After the end of Cold War, many countries chose identity based federalism. They thought it would solve problems of earlier centralized governance forms. But if you look at evidence, the countries that adopted identity-based federalism have either had mixed performance in terms of development or totally negative results. There are only a few success stories. Some of the countries under then Soviet Union, like former Yugoslavia, Slovenia and Croatia did well. Others are bitter failures.

Bosnia is perhaps the worst example. There you have three presidents. They fought over who is first among them. Since they could not agree on division of powers, they have a high representative of the UN and European Union who exercises greater power than them. At one time in Bosnia 80 percent of budget was spent just for running day to day administration. After they went federal, they created separate police forces such as Serb Police Force and Bosnian Force and there was a huge bureaucracy and other big administrative units. Other examples are Nigeria and Ethiopia. In Nepal’s case, identity-based federalism has proven to be part of the problem rather than solution.

How do you see the demand for Madhesh-only, east-west provinces?

So long as there is good governance, rule of law, human rights and prospect of growth, any system works perfectly well whether the country is unitary or federal. So whether the country should be federal or unitary to me is a non-issue.

In principle, separate Madhesh provinces are needed to end Pahade Bahun-Chhetri elite dominance. This is what they have been saying. They may succeed on this. But I fear it may just replace Pahade elites with Madheshi elites. It is extremely unlikely that ordinary Madheshis will come out as winners. Early signs are not positive. Those demanding identity-based federalism have their eyes on top posts. Their concern is how many ministers, judges, MPs and ambassadors will be from their community. This is not going to make any difference for ordinary Madheshis.

What we need in Madhesh are 50,000 more primary school Madheshi teachers, 40,000 Madheshi nurses, midwives and health workers. Our focus should be building from below. We should be holding local elections so that people at the grassroots can have their say. I do not see this as being the main agenda of Madheshi parties at the moment. Having ministers from certain ethnic communities does not necessarily change ground realities. The majority of ministers in Baburam Bhattarai’s government were Madheshis. What difference did that make in the lives of ordinary Madheshis?

Some believe that carving out two Madhesh-only provinces spanning the entire Tarai belt will eventually lead to the country’s disintegration.

Frankly, I do not buy that argument. Ordinary Madheshis are moderate and realistic. But extremists are coming up with radical slogans. They say there is genocide in Madhesh, there is apartheid. There is tremendous exaggeration. If such exaggerations continue for a long time, extremists like CK Raut and others will take advantage. This exaggeration must be countered on time. It is true that Madheshi and Janajatis were discriminated in the past. But new constitution does not discriminate people based on color and their ethnic orientation. There is a great deal of exaggeration against the constitution. With exaggerations, you can foment people’s emotions which can be dangerous. So we need a more dispassionate discussion on constitution. We should look ahead to the future. Let us not look back to the past and be vengeful.

If how the states are carved out is really irrelevant how such fuss over this or that form of federalism?

Identity is not a defining characteristic in the 21st century. Regardless of our ethnic orientation, we all want best education and best healthcare for our children to ensure their prosperous future. We don’t want them to be leaders of small ethnic enclaves. We want them to be the citizens of the world. In this globalizing world, issues of ethnicity and identity will just pass, for our identities are not permanent. Prosperity is the ultimate identity that we all seek for our children and our grandchildren. If Madhesh-only province can guarantee this I am fine with it but I don’t see it happening.

This is time for us to be pragmatic. Madhesh, Pahad and Himal are interdependent and interconnected. Pahad benefits from agricultural potential of Madhesh, Madhesh benefits from hydro potential of Pahad and all three benefits from tourism potential of the Himal. We should look at what maximizes people’s wellbeing, prosperity, and environmental protection, and complementarities among Pahad, Himal and Madhesh in terms of economic growth and social progress. These are far more important than how many provinces you have and whether there should be one or two provinces in Madhesh. I bet with you, whatever federal states we settle for now, they will be completely changed 20 years down the line because we will mature in such a way that ultimately we will look for what gives us maximum progress.

Today’s it’s hard to have a dispassionate discussion on this subject because emotions are very high. When you are driven by emotions your judgment goes awry. We are likely to make many mistakes at this moment because we are all emotion-driven. We need to find a compromise that minimizes violence and conflict. Let’s try it out for few years, see how it works. Let emotions come down. When people begin to think rationally; they will revise the federalism set up in a few years time. With cool heads, we will come up with an approach that is long-lasting.

Let’s change track. How do you see Indian economic blockade and India’s intervention in Nepal’s constitutional process?

This is a blockade for sure but I don’t believe in conspiracy theories that India has a great design on Nepal and the blockade is one tool to realize that design. What India wants is there for us all to see. It’s no secret. India has interests of three kinds. First, it wants political stability in Nepal so that its security won’t be affected. This is natural. Second, it is very much interested in Nepal’s water resources. It wants to harness them in such a way that India will also benefit. I don’t see any conspiracy in this either. We should be able to develop our water resources in a way that it first benefits Nepal, and then India. India is not going to invest in Nepal’s water projects if it does not benefit. Instead of fearing India will gobble up Nepal’s resources, we should be smart and negotiate better deals to protect our interests. Finally, I think India wants security at the borders. It is time for Nepal to openly discuss these issues.

But how is new constitution inimical to these Indian interests?

There seems to be wrong interpretation of Nepal’s constitution in India. I don’t think India, Madheshi Morcha and even our government expected the blockade would drag on for so long. We have reached a Mexican standoff. The conflict has escalated, people have taken positions and it is difficult to climb down. It is like each party wants the other to climb down first. India could not have expected the situation to deteriorate this far. Now that each side has already taken a position they all need a face saver. Yet I do not believe India carefully calculated this move to create problems in Nepal. India aspires to be a global leader, compete with China and invest in Africa and Latin America. It has no time to conspire against Nepal. I believe the blockade and the intervention happened because of a series of miscalculations and exaggerated misinterpretations of our constitution.

Personally, how do you evaluate our constitution?

There is only one area in which I have a reservation. It is regarding unequal citizenship provision for foreign women marrying Nepali men versus Nepali women marrying foreign men. Foreign women marrying Nepali men get citizenships after going through certain process. That’s not the case for Nepali women marrying foreign men. Thus citizenship provision is discriminatory. This aside, if you objectively analyze the new constitution, you won’t find it discriminatory. Actually, it is far more progressive than the constitution of India and of many other countries. But it has been misinterpreted in India as being discriminatory against Madheshis. It has been interpreted as protecting the interests of only hill Bahun/Chhetri community, pushing Madheshis into further marginalization. It troubles me to see even seasoned diplomats of India falling into this trap. It puzzles me.

Nepal faces a humanitarian crisis because of the blockade. How do you evaluate the response of international community?

International community could do more than just issue statements and express concerns. But in the larger realpolitik, India is a huge market and a rising power. Countries of the world want to cultivate India. They do not want their relation with India damaged just for the sake of Nepal. They want to maintain good relations with India, not offend it. This is the reason the global community is not speaking out strongly against India. I believe they are not happy with unequal citizenship provision. If we had no such discriminatory provision the international community would have had no excuse not to speak up strongly in favor of Nepal.

Yet, it would not be fair to say that the international community has done nothing. The UN bodies have issued strong statements. Ban Ki-moon has clearly stated that Nepal’s right of trade and transit and its access to the sea must be honored. They have not mentioned India but the message is clear. The reality is that India has not been moved by the international statements. India does not seem to pay much heed to objections from Nepali people and statements from the UN and other international bodies.

But it will have no choice but to pay attention to the voices being raised on domestic front. Indian politicians have started to speak against its handling of Nepal affairs. Prime Minister Modi must listen to them because this could potentially have an impact in the next election. I also feel that India is looking for a face-saver. If we have some kind of compromise with Madheshi groups, the blockade will go away.

The Nepali government is accused of failing to internationalize the current crisis.

This is partly true. Nepal’s crisis is not the headline in any international media. If this crisis had become headline news in BBC and CNN it would have attracted global attention. They see this crisis as a little squabble between Nepal and India.

Why do you think the government has not been able to internationalize the blockade?

You will have to explore the root causes of government failures in Nepal and, in fact, of all the problems we face today. This is precisely what I try to do in Lost in Transition. Why is Nepal not able to present itself forcefully in the international arena? Why can’t it attract global attention during times of crisis? Why are we in the current mess? I answer these questions in my book. As the title tells you, we have been caught up in one transition after another. In the process, we failed to consolidate our democratic and governmental institutions. We have become a state where we have formal democracy. We need to become a mature and functional democracy.

We have not had local elections for one and a half decades. All our institutions have become weak. Why? I argue it is Maoist insurgency which weakened Nepal and Nepal’s institutions. We have the rule of syndicates and cartels now. I argue there that Nepal has had two mega earthquakes in the last few decades. The geological earthquake we saw this year and Maoist’s man-made earthquake which institutionalized violence. So there is a need to rebuild the country from damages of both these earthquakes.