Some recent initiatives of the federal government have incurred the wrath of provincial governments, which accused it of trying to usurp their powers. The federal government’s handling of foreign affairs has also split the intelligentsia with some supporting the government’s approach and others opposing it. Ram Kumar Kamat of The Himalayan Times caught up with Prof Lok Raj Baral, former ambassador to India to know his views. Excerpts:
Province 2 has accused the federal government of trying to weaken federalism. What’s your assessment of the federal government’s approach to federalism?
As far as federalism is concerned, voices for federalism were raised for the first time in Madhes in the 1950s, but the momentum somehow dissipated. It was again raised in the 1980s when late Gajendra Narayan Singh founded Nepal Sadbhawana Parishad. We could have accommodated those sentiments back then, but we failed. Federalism was not incorporated in the Interim Constitution and a movement was launched in the Madhes demanding incorporation of federalism in the Interim Constitution.
The ruling elites reluctantly accepted federalism, republican order and secularism. However, federalism was incorporated in our constitution without any comprehensive discussion unlike in India where framers of the constitutions took stock of various models of federalism before they chose their own model. Federalism was incorporated in the constitution only after the Madhes movement, implying that the ruling elite did not go for it willingly. Now, the viability of federalism is being questioned by some. It seems the ruling elite have not understood that federalism was incorporated in the constitution to ensure self-rule, power-sharing between federal and sub-national governments and to strengthen inclusive democracy. There are some that doubt the viability of federalism arguing that it is a very expensive system as it entails electing huge number of lawmakers at both federal and provincial levels. As far as monetary issue is concerned, I think this is not a valid ground to oppose federalism because if you look at the current fiscal budget, the government has proposed to spend trillions of rupees on unproductive things.
Do you think the current model of federalism will address the aspirations of those who championed this cause?
The seven provinces were created without any rationale. During the first CA, political leaders said they would create provinces on the basis of five criteria, including identity and economic capability, but that was not honoured in the final moments. The question of identity was only partially addressed when a province encompassing eight Madhes districts was created. There is no alternative to federalism. No one can reverse federalism. No one can reverse the current changes. But there is an attitudinal problem here. Federalism won’t succeed unless leaders of major parties understand its rationale. Provinces do not even have power to recruit CDOs or magistrates in their provinces. In today’s world, identity question cannot be totally ignored. Federalism is a tool to strengthen inclusive democracy and all should understand this.
Provincial and local governments have not been able to exercise their real powers. The federal government is not willing to share power. Province 2 government has asserted its power more than any other province. Other provincial governments have also asserted, but since they belong to the same ruling party, they appear to be choosing not to criticise their government strongly. If other parties form governments in other provinces after future elections, they would assert their powers much the same way as Province 2. In that case, conflict between the federal and provincial government will only intensify. Let’s take the recent case of Public Service Commission’s attempt to recruit over 9,000 local government employees. This is just a pretext for imposing decision of the federal government on local governments. The same situation applies in matters related to recruitment of police and adjustment of government employees. The constitution has clearly stated the powers of three types of government and yet the federal government is not honouring the powers of provincial and local governments. The federal government is not abiding by the spirit of the constitution. Some people are trying to dilute federalism.
How can the grievances of marginalised communities, including Madhesis and Janajatis be addressed in the changed context?
The mindset of political leaders and views of political parties must change. They must not think creating more provinces will be unviable. Upendra Yadav and Baburam Bhattarai have raised the issue of 11 provinces, including one non-territorial province for Dalits. In the present structure of federalism, the question of representation remains unaddressed. I give you example of my own district Jhapa, where in one constituency 18 to 20 per cent voters are from one community and the rest are from other communities. It is bizarre that a candidate representing the 18 to 20 per cent voters’ community always wins the election and there is no representation from the rest of the communities. Federalism should therefore be re-examined. Even if the major players do not want to go for 100 per cent identity-based federal units, they must be ready to address the representation question. Leaders must be ready to address grievances related to power sharing. I do not think these are big issues that cannot be resolved. A five to seven-member technical committee can be formed to settle the lacunae seen in the federal structures. If the current lacunae are not resolved, people will hit the street and the government will have to follow the dictates of protesters. Attempts must be made to address genuine grievances over constitutional issues. It is true that the seven-province model is not the right model. I am in favour of creating smaller provinces, even 15 to 20 provinces. There will be no harm if we create more but smaller provinces if that ensures all stakeholders’ representation. It is okay if the question of identity is not addressed 100 per cent in our country where there is so much diversity, but this question cannot be totally ignored. But again issues related to sharing of power and representation must be addressed.
What is your assessment of the incumbent government’s foreign policy, particularly in the context of Nepal’s participation in the Belt and Road Initiative?
There is no clear idea what our foreign policy should be in the changed context. All governments formed after 1990, not only this government, lacked clear direction on foreign policies.
We do not have our India policy. We do have an old policy vis-à-vis India, but we complain that the 1950 treaty is not enough and that should be updated. We have neither fully embraced it nor have we taken unilateral action to abrogate it as per the treaty’s provision. Some sections in Nepal express their grievances about the 1950 treaty. Some say we should revive our efforts to get ourselves declared a peace zone, others say that security clause of the 1950 treaty should be removed and some other sections say that this treaty is unequal. India has been asking Nepal to identify the shortcomings of the treaty. Now, the Eminent Persons Group has given its report. We do not know the contents of the EPG report. Our stances are not clear on the treaty. Our relations with India are not like our relations with China. In fact, our relations with India are wide-ranging and deep. We do not even fully know how deep our relations are with India. If we seek abrogation of the 1950 treaty and if India says okay let’s do this and go for most favoured nation status, then what will be our state? What will happen if India tells us to take back our six or seven million Nepalis who work in different parts of India? What will be the implications of closing of the open border between Nepal and India in the Tarai region? We cannot totally close our border because when those countries that have closed borders are facing multiple challenges maintaining their relations, we may have to face bigger problems if we choose to close our borders because we have shared the open border for a long time. Fencing along our border with India will not be enough to control our border. Managing borders even in those counties where border walls have been erected has been difficult.
Some leaders say we have equidistance policy with our neighbours. What do you say?
I do not think that is the right term to explain our relations with our neighbours India and China. We have one kind of relations with India and another with China. Theoretically, it may sound appropriate to call our relations with our neighbours a relation of equidistance, but in India’s case we cannot say that we have equidistance policy. In the southern belt, people’s entire transactions take place across the border. Had this kind of geography existed in the northern border, the same level of transaction and relations would have existed between Nepal and China also. Our geography is such that we have more interaction with India. We share similarities of culture and value system with India. Even if we open the border entry points with China, almost 80 per cent transaction are bound to take place between Nepal and India due to the kind of relations we share
with our southern neighbour. Our relations with India should stand on their own merits and the same should be the case with our relations with China. The term equidistance is irrelevant.
What are your comments on our participation in the BRI and how should we approach the indo-pacific region issues?
I think India understands our compulsion for signing BRI. China is our other close neighbour, and therefore, we cannot say no to BRI. India and China are also improving their relations these days and I think in the days ahead their relations will improve further. We should pursue our relations in a new context when India and China are trying to improve their relations. We should not resort to the old tactics of playing the China card against India or India card against China. Cooperative relations with our neighbours, not confrontational relations should guide our foreign policies in the days ahead. Resentment nationalism should not guide our foreign policy.
We also must be able to set our house in order. If there is disturbance within our territory, foreign powers will definitely try to be involved in our domestic affairs. Internal situation is a prerequisite to make our foreign policy a success. If hostile activities are carried out against any of our neighbours within our soil, then the neighbours will react to that. It will depend on our strategies whether these things will benefit because there are growing concerns about debt trap. Sri Lanka had to lease its Hambantota port to China for 99 years due to debt burden. Similar concerns are being raised in Pakistan also.
As far as Indo-Pacific Region issues are concerned, I think there should be no doubt that we belong to this region. But we also must make it clear that our participation in the Indo-pacific Region will not be against our neighbour China.
Are we moving in the right direction in the post-conflict situation?
Again there is the problem of mentality. There are people who tend not to foresee any danger after temporary settlement of issues that could give rise to conflicts. Failure to settle issues of the peace process is a glaring example of this. It would have been better had the major political leaders settled all peace process issues when Girija Prasad Koirala was alive. We could have chosen any model of peace process applied in other post-conflict countries, including general amnesty that was applied in South Africa.
Political leaders failed to take a call on the issues after voices were raised against amnesty. Those who spoke against amnesty said that all players — Maoists, Nepali Army and police force — were responsible for rights abuses during the Maoist insurgency.
Former Maoists, including Pushpa Kamal Dahal, are worried about lingering peace process issues. I think the government should try its best to redress those people who suffered atrocities during conflict. Political leaders are not willing to go for a comprehensive and final settlement of peace process issues. I do not know whether they lack capacity or willingness. I think one reason why the remaining issues of peace process are not being ironed out is because some within the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) want to use this as their bargaining power to control former Maoist leaders. Perhaps some in the ruling NCP want to use the peace process against former Maoist leaders as a carrot and stick policy or else they could have easily settled all peace process issues because there was never such a favourable situation for former Maoist leaders in the past.
All the major constitutional posts are held by NCP leaders and this party holds two-thirds majority. Unless there is political decision, commissions formed to address peace process issues cannot do anything.
At times we hear of dissatisfaction among national and international human rights activists and organisations over delay in conclusion of the peace process. What are your views on this?
The international community expresses concerns over delay in conclusion of peace process issues and rightly so. But it is the domestic stakeholders’ responsibility to take the international community into confidence. We cannot always sweep this issue under the carpet. Political leaders must be ready to take risk to settle peace process issues. Settlement of the peace process should focus on providing reparation to victims. We cannot always go by what the National Human Rights Commission say. Serious human rights violators should be prosecuted whether they are Maoist cadres, NA soldiers or police, but before that the government should identify the culprits. Efforts must be made to ensure justice for affected families.
A version of this article appears in print on June 03, 2019 of The Himalayan Times.