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For a week now, two groups comprising members of the Karnali Province Assembly have been in discussions with top-rung Nepal Communist Party (NCP) leaders in Kathmandu. One group is led by chief minister (CM) Mahendra Bahadur Shahi and the other by rival leader Yamlal Kandel. The heads of both factions and their supporters were summoned to the country’s capital after the Kandel group abruptly registered a no-confidence motion at the provincial assembly against their own parliamentary party leader, CM Shahi, in a bid to unseat him. 

Kandel’s group of 18 members–from a total of 33 NCP leaders–includes the erstwhile chief whip of the assembly, Gulab Jung Shahi. They filed the motion against CM Shahi because they were disappointed with the CM’s working style and dismal performance since he came to power. The disgruntled group, which commands a majority in the provincial assembly, wants to oust CM Shahi. As soon as the motion was tabled, CM Shahi retaliated by removing chief whip Gulab Jung Shahi and replacing him with Kurma Raj Shahi. The no-confidence motion was a manifestation of the growing differences between the NCP’s two top provincial leaders. In Kathmandu, similar differences have also emerged between national heavyweights Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and NCP Executive Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal over giving ministerial and ambassadorial berths to cadres loyal to them.

But despite their differences regarding the deepening feud in Karnali, the duo of Oli and Dahal summoned the factions to Kathmandu because they wanted to resolve the dispute. The leaders of the two groups that came to the Capital are now awaiting the formal decisions from their bosses at the centre. Early developments brewing in the party show that Oli and Dahal have come to an understanding that they will request the rival faction leaders to both withdraw the no-confidence motion filed against CM Shahi and to rescind province chief Shahi’s decision to remove Gulab Jung Shahi, among others. 

The NCP is behaving as if there is nothing wrong with presenting the province-level problem for resolution to party leaders at the centre. Ruling party leaders say resolving the dispute in question is purely an internal affair because both the provincial and federal governments are run by the same party leaders. But constitutional and federal affairs experts say such an intervention blatantly breaches the Constitution. And far from allowing the provincial assembly to settle the matter of the no-confidence motion, PM Oli seems determined to interfere into provincial affairs and take the situation under his control. 

“When the Constitution has clearly stated there will be three different tiers of government—local, provincial, and federal—why does the prime minister need to interfere in such matters?” argues federal affairs expert Khim Lal Devkota. “His involvement is an anti-constitutional and anti-federal move.” 

Read also: Nepal’s federal success 

The Constitution mandates that the governments of all three levels shall exercise the power of the state. “The main structure of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal shall be three levels—federation, the state (province) and the local level,” states  Article 56 (1) of the Constitution. Under the same article related to the power invested in the three levels of government, the Constitution clearly states, “The federation, the state and the local level shall exercise the power of the State of Nepal pursuant to this constitution and law.”  

But the Oli government has gone against those mandates time and again. The Karnali saga marks just the latest instance of province-level interference by the federal government. Earlier, the Oli administration had breached constitutional jurisdictions when the name and provincial capital for Province 5 (now named Lumbini province) were being decided. Just before voting on the issue commenced in the provincial assembly, PM Oli and Dahal had reportedly hinted to Lumbini Province’s chief minister Shankar Pokharel that they were on board with naming the province as Lumbini and developing Rapti Valley (Deukhuri) as the permanent provincial capital. Further, the party issued the whip to rack up votes in favour of the proposal backed by the federal government, and party leaders at the provincial assembly didn’t get adequate time to discuss the proposal. The party’s top leaders have also deprived the lawmakers of the opportunity to deliberate over other proposals in a democratic manner. 

Due to pressure from the federal government, the provincial governments in Province 2 (which includes eight districts bordering India) and in Province 1 (which includes mountainous districts, districts in the eastern hills, and some southern plains districts bordering India) haven’t been able to settle the row over naming the provinces and the provincial capitals, even though the issue has been discussed at the provincial assemblies for almost three years. Overall, only five of Nepal’s seven provinces have been successful in naming their province and determining their provincial capital. Although there is no clear cut-off date for naming and deciding on the location of provincial capitals, the federal government’s interference in the provincial government has raised questions about the federal government’s intent regarding federalism and its implementation. 

The 2015 Constitution mandates all three sets of government—local, provincial, and federal—to exercise their own judicial and executive rights in the course of adopting the new federal set up. This mandate recognizes the federal, provincial, and local governments as three different governments. But Oli continues to claim that province and local governments are subordinate parts of the federal government and is treating them accordingly.  

Following the Karnali dispute row, Oli is facing fresh criticism about how he has been dealing with issues around federalism. When he was criticized for wading into the jurisdiction of the provincial assembly last year, he had claimed that province governments were mere units of the federal government. And at a recent informal meeting with the members of Karnali Province, Oli asked them to follow his instructions, claiming that the province couldn’t make decisions by itself. 

Ever since the federal setup was adopted, some politicians with anti-federal mindsets, like Oli ,have been accused of weakening federalism by keeping more resources and power with the central government. As part of its efforts at diluting the constitutional mandates of the provincial governments, the Oli government has come up with a number of new laws that contradict the Constitution, empowered chief district officers working at the province level, and abused its executive power to give additional power to CDOs (who now work as representatives of the federal government) in the districts that fall under the province governments.  

Just recently, with regards to Covid-19 containment strategies, the Oli administration mandated the CDOs to decide whether to impose a curfew or a lockdown. That order went against the legal provision allowing such issues to be decided by local units. Furthermore, local bodies, who were doing their best to contain the virus, now feel discouraged because the federal government hasn’t released the budget needed to control the pandemic and because the centre has snatched their power to resolve crucial issues. 

In an earlier interview with The Record, Banshi Lal Tamang, general secretary of the National Association of Rural Municipalities in Nepal (NARMIN) had complained about how local communities were struggling after the Oli government gave the CDOs the prerogative to enforce lockdowns. Further, the local units have been reeling from a prolonged economic crisis after adequate resources were not allotted to them. And the funds that were allocated for local development has already been spent in the fight against the coronavirus. 

With the federal government usurping their rights one by one, resource-stricken local and provincial governments feel they have been betrayed by the centre. And federalism experts have begun to worry that owing to the centralized mindset of the rulers in Singha Durbar, they will continue to meddle in the affairs of the other governments who are equally empowered by the Constitution. 

“To be sure, provincial leaders and local governments have also failed to exercise their own rights, as has been scripted in the Constitution. But federalism may collapse if the federal government continues to breach constitutional jurisdictions and interferes even on minor issues arising in the provincial and local governments,” says Devkota.