By Sumit Kumar–Nepal prime minister KP Sharma Oli’s six-day visit to India took place at a time when bilateral ties between the two countries have reached a low point on account of the Madhesis’ agitation against the newly promulgated Constitution. The agitation took the lives of more than 50 people, leading the Madhesis to block all the crucial entry points on borders with India. This, in turn, resulted in shortage of essential commodities in Nepal.
Unfortunately, the Nepali government felt that it was at the behest of the Indian government that the entry points were blocked, causing serious strain in bilateral ties. It was primarily in this context that the visit of prime minister Oli is being seen as an attempt to dispel recent misunderstandings in the historical relationship.
Since the Narendra Modi government came to power in May 2014, New Delhi has reoriented its foreign policy to boost bilateral ties with Nepal. Relations between New Delhi and Kathmandu during the ten years of the UPA government had reached an all-time low. So much so that all mainstream political parties doubted India’s commitment towards facilitating the Constitution-making process in Nepal, despite the fact that India had played a crucial role in ensuring the success of Jan Andolan-II (2006 democracy movement in Nepal) .
Another reason for Modi government to engage Kathmandu at the highest political level is China’s increasing investment in the infrastructure, energy and other sectors of Nepal. There is a consensus among Indian strategists and experts that as Pakistan already enjoys goodwill with some sections of Nepali people, China’s involvement in the Himalayan country could facilitate the emergence of the China-Nepal nexus against India.
Modi government has also rightly realised the need to sustain the dialogue process with Nepal to ensure that the interests of people of the Madhesi region, who have close cultural and family ties with the people of Bihar and UP, should be reflected in its new Constitution. The first signal of the new Union government’s desire to deepen bilateral ties with Nepal appeared at the time when Prime Minister Modi invited all the heads of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries for his swearing-in ceremony. Since then, New Delhi has taken many steps towards renewing relations with Kathmandu. In July 2014 external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj visited Nepal, setting in the dialogue process between the two countries.
Later, Modi became the first India prime minister in the last 17 years to visit Nepal twice – in August and November 2014. His visit was viewed as historic in elevating India-Nepal relations to a new height, with India making an announcement of providing a soft credit line of USD 1 billion for purposes of infrastructure development, irrigation and energy project.
When Nepal faced a deadly earthquake in April 2015, India immediately sent its forces to join the rescue efforts in the country. Indian media also went to cover the rescue operation. However, Nepal did not like the presence and coverage of Indian media on its soil, charging the Indian government with indulging in a cheap public relations exercise. Nepal described coverage of the earthquake by India media as “insensitive” and “intrusive.” What is more, Indian search-and-rescue teams were asked to leave Nepal.
Indeed, Nepal’s reaction embarrassed India.
Yet, the Indian government acted in a mature manner by not openly expressing its disappointment over Nepal’s unexpected conduct. Even before bilateral ties could have recovered from Kathmandu’s mishandling of the earthquake episode, Nepal faced an unprecedented political turmoil. People of Madhesi region – the southern part of Nepal – began an agitation against the new Constitution promulgated by the constituent assembly in September 2015. Despite claims that the Constitution, which was in the making for last seven years, has not only transformed Nepal from an officially Hindu monarchy to a secular and federal state composed of seven states, but also protects the interests and rights of all the communities of Nepali society, agitating people argued that their rights and interests have been completely ignored.
In particular, the Madhesi and Tharus felt sidelined in the entire Constitution-making process. They argued that the boundaries of the states have been demarked in the Constitution in such a way that their voice would be neglected because they find themselves in a minority in every state. This is evident from the fact that despite their share being more than 50 per cent in Nepal’s population, the Madhesi region got only 65 seats in a 165-member Parliament, while the hill and mountain region got 100, with its share being less than 50 per cent.
The new Constitution says that only citizens by descent will be entitled to hold the posts of president, vice-president, prime minister, chief justice, speaker of Parliament, and some other important political posts. This clause is seen as discriminatory for the large number of Madhesis who have acquired citizenship both by birth or naturalisation. Unlike in the interim constitution, the new one does not accord equal citizenship rights to Nepali women marrying foreigners, in comparison to Nepali men marrying foreigners.
Soon, the political unrest in Nepal engulfed India also, as the Madhesi people blocked all the major entry points from India to Nepal, bringing a complete stop of goods movement. Nepali media misinformed its people that India had its invisible hand in the blockage of the entry points. In fact, rumours were spread that the Indian government was helping the Madhesi people, believing that a pro-Madhesi stand would help the BJP in the Bihar assembly elections. Nepali prime minister Oli himself accused India of “unofficial blockade” in Nepal and raised the issue with UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon. India strongly rejected Nepal’s allegations that it had blockaded the checkpoints, arguing that it was on the Nepali side that entry had been blocked, not on its side.
A month-long agitation led to a huge scarcity of essential goods and petroleum products in Nepal. Political parties also started criticising prime minister Oli for not acting effectively to end the Madhesi agitation. In addition, Nepal also realised the limitation of China in providing fuel and essential goods on account of poor road connectivity between the two countries.
Keeping in mind these factors, prime minister Oli agreed to amend the Constitution.
Consequently, in January three articles of the new constitution – Article 42, Article 84 and Article 286 – were amended to facilitate higher representation in government bodies on the basis of proportional inclusion of the Madhesis. India described these as “welcome developments,” hoping that other outstanding issues are similarly addressed in a constructive spirit. The agitating groups also removed the blockage at the checkpoints, leading to resumption of goods movements. At the same time, India sent a high-level all-party delegation led by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj to pay homage to former Nepalese PM Sushil Koirala. This gesture further helped in easing the tension between the two countries.
On its side, within hours of the end of the blockade, Nepal announced the visit of prime minister KP Sharma Oli to India. The visit of PM Oli has witnessed significant progress between the two countries. While Modi called Nepal’s Constitution a “major achievement,” Oli said that the main mission behind the bilateral visit to India was to “clear the misunderstanding.” He also said that his country is and will remain a “reliable” friend of India and that he wanted to “move forward in the relationship, which is not man-made but entirely natural and civilisational.”
The two leaders reviewed bilateral ties and signed seven agreements. These agreements include utilisation of Indian grant of USD 250 million to Nepal for post-earthquake reconstruction in four sectors – housing, health, education and cultural heritage. The two leaders also expressed their commitment to not allow the open border between the two nations to be misused by terrorists and criminals.
The visit of prime minister Oli has indeed significantly reduced recent differences between the two countries on the Madhesi issue. The engagement between New Delhi and Kathmandu has underscored Modi government’s priority towards its neighbouring countries. Hence, it can be hoped that the two countries would be able to attain the level of the goodwill generated following the visits of prime minister Modi in 2014.