Nepali Congress was not the first party to demand federalism

Sujit Mainali / November 15, 2018

In the “Fireside” program aired on Kantipur TV on October 29, Nepali Congress co-chairman Bimalendra Nidhi was asked the following by the show host:

“Critics say [Nepali] Congress does not have its own agenda, and whenever others come up with new agenda, Congress seizes on the agenda. You must have heard of these accusations, haven’t you?” [Please go to 38 mins in the video clip]

Nidhi replied, “This accusation is baseless. When our party adopted federalism, republicanism and proportional representation electoral system, some of the members of our own party said that Congress espoused Maoist and communist agenda. Please show me in which of their official documents have the communists of Nepal affirmed their commitment to federalism?”

Here Nidhi is hinting that his party, the Nepali Congress, was the first in Nepal to demand federalism.

South Asia Check has examined whether this assertion is fact-based or not.

Tarai National Congress, a tarai-based party formed in 1951, was the first to raise the issue of federalism in Nepal. Its leader Vedananda Jha was in the Nepali Congress before forming his own Tarai National Congress. As a leader of Nepali Congress, Jha had participated in the 1950s movement against the Rana regime.

After the movement became successful and democracy was introduced in Nepal, Jha accused the Nepali Congress of failing to work for the welfare of the people of the tarai, quitted the party, and launched the Tarai National Congress. The new party made the establishment of autonomous tarai state as one of its major objectives. (Joshi and Rose, Democratic Innovations in Nepal, A Case Study of Political Acculturation, p. 138, Mandala Publication, 2004: Frederick H. Gaige, Regionalism and National  Unity in Nepal, p. 109, Himal Books, 2013)

But the defeat of the Tarai National Congress in the parliamentary elections served a huge blow to the federal aspirations of the party. In 1960, King Mahendra staged a coup against the democratically-elected government and imposed a party-less Panchayat system. The inclusion of Jha as a minister in the cabinet formed thereafter put a damper on the demand for federalism.

After the restoration of democracy in 1990, out of the 44 political parties registered with the Election Commission, only three (Nepal Rastriya Janajati Party, Nepal Sadbhawana Party and Nepal Rastriya Janamukti Morcha) demanded federalism. (Budhi Karki & Rohan Edrisinha (ed.) The Federalism Debate in Nepal, Post Peace Agreement Constitution Making in Nepal-Vol 2, p. 138) Among them, tarai-based Nepal Sadbhawana Party was more influential in its constituency. The party’s election manifesto issued in 1991 stated the introduction of federalism in Nepal as its objective. “Nepal is a multilingual, multi-communal and a country of various indigenous communities, therefore, in order to strengthen the national unity and to ensure a balanced participation [of all communities] in the administration, Nepal Sadbhavana Party believes that a constitutional provision for federal governance will be appropriate for the country. This party is in favor of declaring mountains-hills and tarai as separate autonomous regions on the basis of the similarities in terms of language, costumes, culture, and geography,” the manifesto states. (Nepal Sadbhavana Patry’s election manifesto, 1992, p. 4)

Besides the tarai-madhes based parties, CPN (Maoist) is another party to demand federalism in Nepal. The party started an armed insurgency in 1996. After 2000, it formally stated federalism as one of its goals.

On the other hand, Nepali Congress was comparatively late in raising the demand for federalism. The party endorsed ‘political resolutions and tactics” from the its eleventh convention in 2005. In the “State-restructuring and robust implementation of inclusive democracy” section of the endorsed document, the following things were mentioned:

“To make democracy fruitful, it has become necessary to change the nature of politics and the form of state by restructuring the [existing] centralized model of the state. For participation on the basis of equality, the Nepali Congress feels that democratization of the state to ensure full rights and autonomy to the people has become necessary. And for taking concrete steps in this direction, Nepali Congress will work toward holding detailed discussions on the practical aspects of state restructuring.,” the document reads. (Gagan Thapa, Pratap Poudel, Shankar Tiwari and Krishna Rijal (ed.), Historical Documents of Nepali Congress, Public Policy Paathshala Pvt.Ltd., p. 621)

This document favors giving autonomy to the people. But it does not mention the idea of autonomous state [federalism].

Nepali Congress eventually made federalism the party’s agenda in the election manifesto made public in 2008 in the run up to the Constituent Assembly elections. “The Nepali Congress through this manifesto makes public its commitment to accommodating in the constitutional framework the demand for a federal democratic republic made by the ethnic and indigenous communities and Madhesis among others with the aspirations for identify and autonomy,” the manifesto stated. (Gagan Thapa, Pratap Poudel, Shankar Tiwari and Krishna Rijal (ed.), Historical Documents of Nepali Congress, Public Policy Paathshala Pvt Ltd., pp. 693-94)

Long before Nepali Congress made federalism its agenda, tarai-based parties and Maoists were pushing for the introduction of federalism in Nepal.

Thus, Nidhi’s claim is false.

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