Diwakar Chettri

Nepal may be a federal state on paper, but the mightiest government in the country’s democratic history is showing that it is extremely reluctant to share its considerable power with the seven provinces. 

Chief ministers (CM) of all seven provinces are engaged in a tug-of-war with Singha Darbar, which is unwilling to devolve power to federal and local governments. Who wins this fight will determine the fate of Nepal’s nascent federalism

Six of the seven chief ministers had a huddle in Pokhara last week, in which they came up with a list of agenda points to take up with Prime Minister K P Oli. The CM of Karnali province could not make it because he was sick, but lent his moral support. All seven were to take part in the first meeting of the inter-provinces council in Kathmandu early this week, but PM Oli cancelled the meeting at the last minute, apparently because he was not happy with the provincial bosses’ assertiveness, despite most of them being from his own party.

The chief ministers then tried to meet Oli anyway, but after failing to get an appointment for three days, they returned to their respective provinces. Gandaki Province CM Prithvi Subba Gurung told Nepali Times on Thursday that the inter-provinces council meeting was urgently needed to clear major policy hurdles. 

“The PM should take the initiative to hold these meetings so federalism can work. He should not think that the chief ministers are ganging up on him,” Gurung added.

The chief ministers have been sharply critical of Kathmandu for not supporting federal provinces and creating difficulties by delaying laws and not deploying enough human resources. The Constitution allows the Centre and federal provinces to jointly exercise some rights, but the chief ministers say they are undermined by the lack of laws.

The Constitution has also envisaged a Natural Resources and Fiscal Commission to enable federal provinces to collect taxes, but these have yet to take full shape, and federal provinces are still dependent on the Centre for their budgets. Government employees, including police, are also still controlled by the Centre.

In Pokhara, Lalbabu Raut of Province 2 accused Kathmandu of treating federal provinces as “unwanted children”. Raut belongs to the Federal Socialist Forum Nepal, which is backing the Oli government. The other six chief ministers are from Oli’s own Nepal Communist Party, and this makes their near-revolt more meaningful. They may be with the PM on national politics, but cannot ignore the aspirations of their constituents.

Federalism in Nepal seems to be threatened by the federalists themselves. The Maoists fought a bloody war to establish a federal republic, but their commitment to decentralisation is wavering. PM Oli was never personally convinced about the need to carve out federal provinces anyway, which explains his disinclination to devolution.

Political analyst Hari Sharma lauds the seven chief ministers for speaking up against the status quo that Kathmandu wants to maintain. But he is also skeptical that they will easily get more powers. 

“Federalism may or may not prove to be a good political system for Nepal, but we must try our best to make it work, especially because we have paid such a heavy price for it,” Sharma says.

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