The Struggles of Upholding the Constitution: An Assault on Federalism


October Analysis

In December last year, when Upendra Yadav proposed a constitutional amendment to address the Madhesi people’s demands, Prime Minister Oli responded in his usual witty manner—”the constitution is not a Madal[1] placed at a crossroad, which can be played as and when anyone pleases.”[2] A statement as condescending as Oli’s would suggest his strong commitment to defend the constitution, but his actions within the party and as the country’s executive head demonstrate his penchant for nothing but his power and position in the party and the government. For Oli, the constitution is only a means to that end; in the past, he has expressed his willingness to amend the constitution merely to appease Bamdev Gautam and save his chair.[3] Despite its glorification, Nepal’s constitution has its weaknesses, for it has failed to address the challenges, dreams, aspirations, and grievances of certain groups and communities. Nevertheless, the supreme law of the land holds a sacred place in a democracy, which the country’s democratically elected ruler has the utmost responsibility to uphold. However, PM Oli’s recent remarks and actions show exactly the opposite—the PM cares little about the constitution and its provisions that he and his comrades so haughtily endorsed not too long ago.

One of the most striking characteristics of Nepal’s constitution, federalism faces a direct assault from the incumbent prime minister. Earlier this month, PM Oli claimed that “provincial governments are administrative units of the federal government.”[4] For this anti-federalist remark, Oli received widespread criticism from within his party as well as from provincial leaders, federalism experts, and political analysts. However, this was not the first time PM Oli made such an anti-federalist remark. In May 2019, too, he had explicitly stated that the provincial and local governments are the administrative units of the federal government.[5] This flawed rhetoric and understanding of federalism seem to be guiding PM Oli and his government in the wrong direction. Recent political and administrative events and development evidence the same.

The ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP)’s aggressive intervention in provincial matters in Lumbini and Karnali provinces shows the lack of respect for Nepal’s federalism. First, NCP chairs Oli and Dahal unilaterally named Province 5 as Lumbini and decided Rapti Valley—Deukhuri, Dang as its capital.[6]  While the move caused heated demonstrations and vandalism from the opposition party workers, it also invited an intra-party dispute led by chief minister Shankar Pokharel and NCP leader Bishnu Poudel, who had different demands regarding the capital. Given a fragile balance within the party and a constant power struggle among the leaders, NCP’s internal dispute caused by the event is not surprising. However, the move undermines the spirit of Nepal’s federalism as ensured by the constitution. Naming a province and/or determining its capital is solely under the jurisdiction of the provincial government; unilateral top-down decision by top-leaders of the ruling federal government makes a mockery of the provincial autonomy.

A vote of no-confidence against Karnali’s chief minister orchestrated by PM Oli and the events following it paint yet another picture of Nepal’s struggling federalism. Some provincial lawmakers, hailing particularly from the erstwhile NCP-Unified Marxist Leninist, filed a vote of no-confidence motion against CM Mahendra Bahadur Shahi, who comes from the former NCP-Maoist.[7] However, NCP’s top leadership heavily intervened in the matter, which should have been dealt with at the provincial level. NCP Chair Dahal successfully brought leader Madhav Kumar Nepal and provincial lawmakers close to Nepal his side,[8] therefore neutralizing the motion and cornering PM Oli instead.

The events related to Lumbini and Karnali mentioned above and the nature and degree of the ruling party’s involvement confirm PM Oli’s perception of federalism. He does seem to consider provincial bodies as administrative units to be controlled and overseen by the federal government. This mentality of his probably stems from his personal authoritative nature, which has caused him a series of problems within the party and in the government. Oli not only takes pride in his status as an ‘elected’ prime minister but derives pleasure from his display of authority. This has been evident throughout the COVID-19 pandemic; apparently, PM Oli does not listen to the experts[9] and instead makes most decisions unilaterally, some of which even the ministers are unaware of. Similarly, his working nature has been criticized by his party members for being unilateral. Despite multiple discussions and agreements, for instance, Oli went ahead and made political and diplomatic appointments unilaterally.[10] He also reshuffled the cabinet and appointed his confidantes as ministers almost unilaterally.[11] This authoritative nature of Oli and his unwillingness to listen to or consult party chief Dahal, let alone other party members, have caused constant friction within the party, which has once again reached to the verge of a split.[12]

Globally, federalism has been proven to be an effective tool to manage diversity and discourage secessionist movements. In Nepal, too, the roots of federal aspirations lie in the country’s ethnic diversity, particularly concerning Madhes. In fact, Nepal even saw a growing secessionist movement in Madhes led by Dr. C.K. Raut. While Dr. Raut has made a truce with the government and his movement is no longer active, deep existing grievances and historical discrimination against certain groups and communities do not completely disqualify their aspiration for a separate state. Against this backdrop, therefore, federalism is the best way to address the concerns of these groups. Federalism allows a certain degree of legal, political, financial, and administrative autonomy to provincial and local bodies. Besides, federalism also works as a good decentralization model, which eventually helps in the country’s overall development. While the constitution ensures it, the ruling party and the prime minister are constantly working to undermine federalism.

An assault on federalism—either through direct anti-federalist remarks or actions undermining it— is one of the most serious breach of the constitution. The ongoing pandemic further exposed this phenomenon and PM Oli’s centralist mindset, reluctant to acknowledge the autonomy and power of provincial and local government. For instance, instead of collaborating with provincial and local governments, the Oli administration empowered Chief District Offices,[13] which operate as an extension of the federal government, and authorized them to make important decisions regarding lockdown and COVID-19 management. Contrary to what PM Oli claims, provincial and local bodies are not administrative units of the federal government, and they are not supposed to work under CDOs. Instead, the country’s executive chief should acknowledge the authority and autonomy these bodies are ensured by the constitution. A disregard for this important characteristic may invite an accident otherwise.

[1] A folk musical instrument of Nepal













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