Overcoming the stasis in Nepal

Rakesh_Sood_2459833aBy RAKESH SOOD (October 31, 2015) – The impasse in India-Nepal relations due to the overt Indian support for the Madhesis and the consequent assertion of Nepali nationalism does not portend well for a country suffering from economic difficulties. Renewed dialogue between the actors – the Nepali government, the Madhesis and India – is a must

It is now over a month since Nepal promulgated its new Constitution. When the Constitution was finally passed, for some, there was just a sense of relief that the seven-year long exercise was finally reaching a conclusion after repeated false starts; for others, there was an air of triumphalism. However, for the Madhesis, the Janajatis and the Tharus, who have traditionally been the disadvantaged groups, there was a sense of betrayal.

In the weeks that followed, the Kathmandu-based political leadership was preoccupied with jockeying for positions in the new government while the simmering sense of alienation in Terai exploded into an agitation that has claimed more than forty lives. The Indian policy of overtly backing the demands of the Madhesis led to an upsurge of Nepali nationalism, coupled with anti-Indianism. Movement of goods, including essentials like petroleum products, came to a halt. The Indian government blamed the deteriorating law and order situation while Nepalis accused India of imposing a blockade.

Need for moderation
Now that Nepal has a new government led by Prime Minister K.P. Oli, and a new President and Speaker, the shape of the new political dispensation is emerging. It is time that all sides — the Nepali government and its political leadership, the agitating Madhesis and the Indian government — climb down from their stated positions, eschew rhetoric and open dialogue to resolve issues. .

Nepal has experimented with four Constitutions and two interim Constitutions since 1948; nevertheless, the 2015 Constitution is unique as it establishes Nepal as a ‘federal republic’ for the first time. The exercise was to be completed by May 2010 but reconciling the ideas of a liberal federalism with Maoist ideology, in a primarily conservative Hindu nation, took an additional five years.

During this period, the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) [CPN(UML)] and the Maoists played musical chairs with the Prime Minister’s kursi. G.P. Koirala and Sushil Koirala from the NC; Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ and Baburam Bhattarai from the Maoists; and Madhav Nepal and Jhala Nath Khanal from the UML took turns at heading the government between 2008 and now. Meanwhile, Maoist and Madhesi forces that had led the demand for a ‘federal republic’ fractured and weakened. Once ex-Prime Minister Sushil Koirala conceded that he would step down and yield the prime ministership to a leader from his coalition partner, the UML, K.P. Oli became impatient.

Together, the big three parties — the NC, the UML and the Maoists — had the numbers to push through the Constitution and Mr. Oli began to push for fast-tracking the process. Unwilling to trust Mr. Koirala, he stitched up a deal with the Maoists to support his claim. Onsari Gharti, a Maoist Janajati leader and wife of Barsha Man Pun, a Prachanda loyalist, was backed by Mr. Oli for the post of the Speaker. The Vice-President’s post, for which elections are to be held on October 31, is likely to go to a Maoist leader.

Unlike the Madhesis who shun arms, the Janajatis are used to fighting. A Janajati agitation could throw Nepal into a convulsion as they are geographically widespread. 

The fact that Sushil Koirala back-tracked on his deal with Mr. Oli and got his own candidature for prime ministership endorsed by the NC only drove Mr. Oli to find other improbable allies, enough to ensure his victory in the elections on October 11, making him Nepal’s 38th Prime Minister. Kamal Thapa’s royalist group, Rashtriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal [(RPP-N)], with 25 seats, had voted against the adoption of the Constitution while Bijaya Gachchhadar’s Tharu-Madhesi group, the Madhesi People’s Rights Forum-Democratic [(MJF-D)], with 14 seats, had boycotted the session with other Madhesi groups. Both joined Prime Minister Oli’s Cabinet as Deputy-Prime Ministers.

Mr. Oli is both a pragmatic and decisive leader who was seen as an effective Home Minister earlier and a shrewd Foreign Minister later, tenures during which he built a good relationship with New Delhi. Having started his political career in the 1970s as a Naxalite and having spent 14 years in jail, he emerged in the 1990s as a promising UML leader, committed to multi-party democracy, though he is now perceived as moving more to the Right.

The election of Bidhya Bhandari as the President of Nepal on October 28 reflects Prime Minister Oli’s growing clout. Ms. Bhandari has been a close political comrade of Mr. Oli ever since she entered active politics, after the untimely death of her husband Madan Bhandari in a car accident in 1993. Madan Bhandari was a charismatic leader and as General Secretary of the UML had played a key role in establishing multi-party democracy after the first Jan Andolan in 1990. His accidental death spawned many conspiracy theories though a Commission established to investigate the matter concluded that it was an accidental death. In 2009-10, Ms. Bhandari was made the Defence Minister in Madhav Kumar Nepal’s Cabinet, reportedly at Mr. Oli’s suggestion.

Meanwhile, the situation in the Terai has worsened. Economic activity has been at a standstill for more than two months. With factories closed, schools and colleges shut, hospitals running short of supplies and acute shortages of petrol, diesel and cooking gas forcing people to use firewood and clean up their old bicycles, this has been one of the bleakest festival seasons that Nepalis have endured. Madhesis have, meanwhile, geared up for the long haul. The fact that they have been able to sustain the agitation despite being the worst-affected, without any coercive apparatus, speaks volumes about their accumulated resentment.

Many of the Madhesi leaders leading the movement were tainted as being corrupt and opportunists, but with the agitation they have captured the mood of alienation. Those killed in the agitation are being called ‘martyrs’ and martyrs create ‘causes’.. From Ek Madhesh ek Pradesh, the Madhesis have already accepted two Madhesi provinces. Today, the disagreement is only over five districts, three in the east (Sunsari, Morang and Jhapa) and two in the west (Kanchanpur and Kailali). Excluding Sunsari takes away the key border town of Biratnagar and the Kosi basin while Kailali has a large Tharu population which it shares with neighbouring Bardiya. These are not insurmountable demands.

The other issue pertains to defining electoral constituencies. The 2015 Constitution reduces the weightage given to proportional representation. Terai constitutes 51 per cent of the population but according to calculations, it would currently get only 62 out of a total of 165 seats under the first past the post system, instead of 83, as per its population. The notion of fixing electoral constituencies after taking into account ‘population and geography’ was intended to ensure that the sparsely populated trans-Himalayan districts are not left out of the democratic process. The outgoing government had worked out a compromise safeguarding the interests of six mountain districts while raising the number of Terai constituencies to 79. Mr. Oli needs to revive this proposal.

Citizenship and identity

Citizenship has long been an emotive issue among the Madhesis as they often marry Indians from the northern districts of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and spouses of Nepali citizens become ‘naturalised Nepali citizens’. However, there is a discriminatory provision regarding the offspring of such marriages. Children of a Nepali male marrying a foreigner are ‘Nepalis by descent” whereas if a Nepali woman marries a foreigner, their children are ‘naturalised Nepalis’ which bars them from important and powerful constitutional positions. This is also an issue that has been taken up by women’s groups on the grounds that it violates the basic principle of equality guaranteed by the Constitution. However, if the perception that Kathmandu is just buying time takes hold, Madhesi demands will start snowballing, making a compromise more difficult.

As often happens when internal politics in Nepal gets polarised, India becomes a convenient scapegoat. The perception that India has imposed a virtual blockade in support of the Madhesi cause is unhelpful, for both India-Nepal relations and for the Madhesi cause. Deputy-Prime Minister Thapa’s visit last week did not help matters because he could not indicate how his government planned to resolve issues and in what timeframe.

Meanwhile, Mr. Oli is being egged on to play the China card. The grant of a 1000 metric tonnes (MT) of petroleum products by China may resonate well with Nepali nationalists momentarily but Mr. Oli knows that it is not a substitute for over a hundred tankers a day from India which used to get transported through Birgunj everyday.

On the other hand, needlessly stoking perceptions of anti-Indianism is hardly consistent with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘neighbourhood first’ foreign policy. Just as India has to be supportive of legitimate Madhesi aspirations, the Nepali elite has to come to terms with the fact every agitating Nepali political group, from the Nepali Congress (NC) in the 1950s to the Maoists in the 1990s, has taken advantage of 1800 km-long India-Nepal open border for refuge in India and to seek intervention on their behalf.

While the focus has been on the Madhesi agitation, the Janajati demands are no different. Unlike the Madhesis who shun arms, the Janajatis are used to fighting and formed a major chunk of the Maoist cadres. A Janajati agitation could throw Nepal into a convulsion as they are geographically widespread.

Mr. Oli’s first challenge is to address the hurt sentiment among the Madhesi, the Janajati and the Tharu communities; tackling the actual issues will then become easier. This is where India can and should play a supportive role. Mr. Modi too needs to change tracks — from the present image of a regional bully, he needs to revive the vision that he presented last August in Kathmandu — of a friendly and generous neighbour working towards mutually beneficial relations.

(Rakesh Sood, the Prime Minister’s special envoy for disarmament and non-proliferation till May 2014, is a former Ambassador to Nepal. E-mail: [email protected].) This article has been originally published in The Hindu on 31 October 2015.


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