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Priority rights are totally undemocratic and unacceptable

Issues of state restructuring in the new federal set up and the forms of governance have become the two hottest topics of discussions of late. The parties are at loggerheads over both issues. Any agreement on these issues will mean a breakthrough in the stalled statute writing process. Nepali Congress (NC) leader Ramesh Lekhak is a law expert who has been breezing the party with its representatives in the State Restructuring Commission. The Commission is seen to be troubled by deep polarization over ideology and structure. Kamal Raj Sigdel spoke with Ramesh Lekhak on the party’s position on state restructuring vis-à-vis the new developments in the SRC.  Excerpts:

The parties seem to be in the final stage of discussions on state restructuring, which manifests itself in the ongoing tensions within the State Restructuring Commission. What is NC’s latest position?

Congress has been time and against making its position clear on issues of federalism and state restructuring — we are for restructuring the state based on capability and identity. We mentioned it in our election manifesto just before the Constituent Assembly elections in 2008, in the party’s official policy and programmes endorsed by the 12th General Convention and in recent discussions.

The only issue we disagree with the Maoists, is on the formation of ethnic states.

What do you mean by ethnic states?

The ethnic state that we oppose is the one which speaks of allowing only one dominant ethnic group to rule over others in a certain state. Such a system would create two types of citizens — first class and second class — which is totally undemocratic. In an ethnically diverse country like Nepal, any state with ethnic priority rights is just impossible. The statistics show that no ethnic community in any region of the country has population over 35 percent. If we go for states based on ethnicity and confer the priority right to a dominant ethnic group that has, say for instance, 27 percent share in the state’s total population, we will end up excluding the remaining 73 percent from politics. Such a system will not only weaken democratic norms and values, but also promote injustice.

Congress, however, is ready to discuss and find ways to promote inclusion of the excluded lot in the new federal structure.

Aren’t priority rights, in principle, similar to the policy of inclusion adopted by the government?

No, the issue of priority right is something very different. If we go for priority rights to ensure inclusion of certain ethnic groups, it will, at the same time, exclude the other groups—the bigger population. When it comes to inclusion debate, we tend to invoke the history of exclusion and inequality for the past 240 years. Yes there were instances of exclusion for the last 240 years. But by forming ethnic states do we want to return to the period before 240 years, when there were Baaise-Chaubise states? At that time, in a Malla sate only the Mallas were allowed to rule and in Sen state, only the Sens were allowed. In a way, we are moving in that direction, which is regression.

The advocates of priority rights are talking about reserving certain posts, eg chief minister of a state, for prospective ethnic leaders for only two terms. Isn’t it justifiable?

We should learn from history. Once you grant special political rights for a particular ethnic group to exclusively compete in an election, it remains for ever. You cannot withhold it later.

It’s a matter to be entirely decided by politics, who is going to rule and who is not. If an ethnic group has 35 percent share in the state’s total population, it does not have to be granted priority rights in the election. The dominant group will automatically come out as the state’s ruler if the people desire so.

How have you been observing the discussions in the SRC? It seems the body is facing some trouble.

We have heard that the SRC is moving ahead with an 11-state model on a majority basis. We have also come to know that the majority faction in the SRC is moving ahead unilaterally and are making decisions, deliberately excluding the minority voices. If it is true, this is very serious and highly objectionable.

We would like to wait and see how the commission releases its report. Particularly, we have two important things to say. First, we will see the very process of preparing the report: whether it incorporates the minority voice in the commission, whether the report follows a democratic decision making process etc.

Second, we will also study the contents of the report. We will not accept ethnic

states with priority rights. Besides, we also will not accept the report if it does not clearly mention the role, responsibility and rights of the local governments.

We have heard that the experts are talking about only federal and provincial structures and are silent on the role of local governments. We are not going to accept the report that proposes to form 10 Singhadurbars. Transferring the power of Singhadurbar to provincial capitals does not mean federalism. We are for a federal set up that empowers the local governments.

Given the tensions, the SRC report hangs in balance. What is the meeting point then, if not the report?

The SRC will present its report, which may or may not be a solution. But it is the political parties who will have to discuss and find a meeting point. The solution lies in federating the country based on capability and identity. Nobody is insisting on forming states with their borders running north-south. We also have to consider identity as a basis for mapping the states but this does not mean that the states should secure priority rights for a dominant ethnic group.

Published Date: Wednesday, February 15th, 2012 | 03:04 PM

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