By Jyoti Malhotra (23 August 2017) – As Nepal Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba begins a five-day trip to India, he knows he must propitiate Delhi’s ruling deities, both prime minister Narendra Modi and the RSS, for the continuation of their support to Kathmandu’s hill elites to abandon the egalitarian cause of the Madhes. In the 11 years since Nepal overthrew its monarchy and became a republic, which India supported in full measure, there have been two big agitations by the people of the Madhes, literally the strip land that lies between Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and the rest of Nepal, in 2007 and in 2015. Both the Congress-led UPA in 2007 and the BJP-led NDA in 2015 supported the Madhesi cry for aspiration and equality. In the 2015 agitation, as many as 60 people lost their lives. And then Nepal’s hill elite cunningly played the China card.
Led by K.P. Sharma Oli, the chairman of the moderate Communist UML and supported by pro-monarchist parties like the RPP, a constitutional amendment in parliament fell short by 48 votes only two days before Deuba landed in Delhi. The amendment would have redrawn provincial boundaries to ensure wider representation of Madhesis in parliament. But as many as 39 MPs from Deuba’s own Nepali Congress and his coalition partner, the Maoists, were absent. No one asked them why.
Did Deuba try hard to get the amendment passed? Probably, but not hard enough. Nor did Delhi seem particularly perturbed. External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj told Nepali lawmakers in Kathmandu a fortnight ago that in a democracy everyone must participate in elections. The message to the Madhesis, who had refused to join the first two rounds of local body elections in recent months unless the amendment was passed, was clear: India had abandoned the Madhesi cause. The sullen and despairing Madhesis admit that it may be unfair to lay the blame only at Oli’s door. The man has never made any bones about his distaste for the dark-skinned people of the Tarai — or for that matter, his ambition to be prime minister again. Across the political spectrum, Madhesis know that at least for the time being, their struggle for equality is over.
Over four months in 2015-16, the Modi government had bravely boosted the struggle for equality through the Madhesi-led economic blockade of the Tarai. But when Oli embarked on a trip to China soon after the blockade and signed a transit agreement for access to Chinese ports as well as trans-national rail links the first signs of nervousness began to show in Delhi. Oli was clearly trying to create alternative forms of connectivity, away from Nepal’s dependency on its southern neighbour. The Chinese pressed the advantage. In May 2017, Nepal joined China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. Only a week after Swaraj returned from Kathmandu on August 10, Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Yang was in Nepal, wooing Deuba, promising aid, trade and economic projects, including building a railway up to the Nepal border and expanding the Kodari highway. India’s sense of encirclement by China seems much more magnified in Nepal because of the special relationship with Kathmandu. There’s an open border between the two countries, seven lakh Nepali citizens work in India, while languages, religions and cultures are similar.
Meanwhile, the RSS went to work. Although Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath has held his tongue since he came to office, he has hardly been able to live down his 2016 much-publicised speech at the World Hindu Conference in Nepal, in which he glorified the monarchy. “We have to go to the people and make them aware that without the rule of the Shahs, there would not be Nepal, one single Nepal,” Adityanath had said. The feeling that a Hindu Rashtra had kept the Chinese at bay is getting stronger by the day in Delhi. Oli’s successes with the Chinese have compounded the view that it was all very well to support the egalitarian struggle of the Madhesis, but that they are far too divided to have any real influence in Kathmandu. So, if Delhi has to play the great game in the Himalayas, it must return to those who have traditionally wielded power.
The problem with this kind of flip-flop is that it makes Modi look like an indecisive potentate. He had started off so well during his several visits to Nepal over 2014-15. But he now looks in danger of succumbing to the RSS, losing his nerve on supporting a just struggle for the Madhes and promoting a short-sighted perspective on India-Nepal relations. But if Modi is here for the long haul, then he must understand that democracy and realpolitik also go together. None other than the great G.P. Koirala, who became prime minister after Gyanendra the monarch had been overthrown in the “jan andolan” in 2006, had promised India’s then envoy Shiv Mukherjee that equal rights would be given to the Madhesis.
So why is Deuba going back on the promise made by his own predecessor? Modi must see that the Nepalis are toying with him, forcing him to go back on his own word. Just like in Bhutan’s Doklam, Modi must hold the line. His own South Asian legacy is at stake.
[email protected]. This article was originally posted in The Indian Express on 23 August 2017.