Path Dependency and Nepali Federalism

Raunak Mainali
Governance Monitoring Centre Nepal
4 min readDec 2, 2020

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Path dependency is a much discussed phenomena in the world of politics — referring to choices made by entities which have been influenced by previous experiences and decisions [1]. Decision makers are predisposed towards certain choices as they are influenced by the past and generally do not consider the current situation. In other words, history matters.

For example, the nation of Russia has been historically invaded from their western front. The French Invasion of Russia in 1812 led by Napoleon and Operation Barbarossa led by Hitler during the Second World War left a sense of vulnerability along their western front. This resulted in a decision by Stalin to use his Red Army to coerce the creation of communist satellite states among Eastern European nations. The rationale behind this was to create a buffer zone to deter potential future invasion along the western frontier.

Path Dependency can be witnessed here as this was a decision formulated due to the historical past of the nation. Path dependency can also take place on an individual level. A son of a blacksmith might continue to extend the family tradition by following his father’s footsteps as opposed to deviating and finding another career. Similar to these examples, Nepal’s history makes the nation prejudiced towards federalism and this article will aim to explain why.

The village of Ghandruk in Gandaki (Photo Credit: Raunak Mainali)

The inclination of Nepal towards federalism may not be apparent at first glance. Prior to the 2015 constitution, Nepal had been a unitary state. Whether it was the democratic government, absolute monarchy, constitutional monarchy or even authoritarianism under the Rana Prime-Ministers, Nepal functioned under a unitary structure. Despite more than two centuries of existence as a unitary nation, it follows that Nepal’s history still favors a federal framework.

Perhaps the most glorified figure in Nepali history, Prithvi Narayan Shah is credited for the unification of Nepal. His conquest is often a convenient starting point to the nation’s history and anything prior does not receive similar attention. Before his conquest, the area of Nepal as we know it today existed as a fragmented composite of small state-bodies. There was a total of 54 states in Nepal, each ruled autonomously by Kings and other rulers [2].

These states included Prithvi Narayan Shah’s own kingdom of Gorkha as well as others such as Mustang, Tanahun, Makawanpur, Bijayapur. The then kingdoms of Bhaktapur, Lalitpur and Kantipur made up the modern-day Kathmandu Valley. Most of these states do still exist today, carved out to form provincial, zonal, or district-level local governments, echioing their histories of having spent significant proportions of their existences as independent kingdoms pre Prithvi Narayan Shah era.

The similarities between pre-unification Nepal has glaring similarities to a federalist structure. As there was an absence of a central government, these states were self-governing and therefore issues were dealt with on localized levels. This meant that even after unification, there was difficulty forcing a central government in states that functioned autonomously. The hostile geography of Nepal has also been a historical obstacle for a Kathmandu government as administering remote areas is incredibly challenging. The hills and mountains that Nepal is so synonymous for are difficult to traverse and left remote areas disenfranchised from Kathmandu. The invention of air travel, motor vehicles as well as communication methods like phones and internet has certainly provided a solution for more efficient governance in isolated areas. However, former states such as Mustang even had monarchs until 2008 which provided a substitute to the central government in Kathmandu. The alienation faced by states for whatever reason meant that their local systems of governance were consistently utilized.

The Nepal government at times have also acknowledged the limitations of their centralized government and have made efforts to decentralize and promote local governments. The democratization in the 1990s led to more policies favoring local governance such as Local Self-Governance Act 1999 [3]. The act aimed to include women and disadvantaged communities and planned more development at the local level. Whilst the effectiveness of this act itself is debated, the recognition from Kathmandu for the need of devolution of power certainly suggests the limitations of a unitary government in Nepal [4].

The transformation of Nepal into a federal structure was inevitable. An exploration of the history of pre-unification Nepal as well as a unified Nepal shows us that self-governance and local governance were commonplace. These experiences have made the nation more inclined towards federalism and therefore it would be accurate to state that this is due to path dependence.

Notes:

[1] Page, S., 2006. Path Dependence. Quarterly Journal of Political Science, 1(1), pp.87–115.

[2] Adhikari, B., 2017. Baaisi Tatha Chaubisi Rajyaharuko Sankchipta Itihas. Kathmandu: Navodit Haamro Pustak Bhandar.

[3] Kharel, S., 2019. Local Governance and Rural Development Practices in Nepal. NUTA Journal, 6(1–2), pp.84–94.

[4] High Level Decentralization Coordination Committee (HLDCC). (1996). Report of Decentralization and Local Self-Governance. Kathmandu.

The views and opinions expressed in the piece above are solely those of the original author(s) and contributor(s). They do not necessarily represent the views of Governance Monitoring Centre Nepal and/or Centre for Social Change.

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