By Sangeeta Thapliyal—
Prime Minister PushpaKamal Dahal’s visit to India (September 15-18, 2016) is acknowledged to have normalized and revived political relations between the two countries. The relations have been under strain following the adoption of the new constitution of Nepal on September 20, 2015.
India’s position on `constitution through consensus’ amongst all the political parties and stakeholders did not get favourable response from the main political parties in the Constituent Assembly namely the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist). Spelling out India’s concerns Prime Minister Modi, during his visit to SAARC Summit in Kathmandu had said, “The new constitution should reflect the aspirations of Madhesis (those from the plains), Pahadis (from the Hills) and the Maoists and other people in the country. `Delay in writing the constitution will not be in Nepal’s interest”.
Later there were visits by the officials and dignitaries from India such as foreign secretary S. Jaishankar visited a day prior to the promulgation of the constitution. All these happenings were perceived as interference in the domestic politics of Nepal and dampened the goodwill generated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his first visit to Nepal in August 2014.The tensions in the relations were the result of India’s response towards the new Constitution and the Madhesi protests and Nepal’s attempt to externalise the domestic issues.
Not all within Nepal were happy with the new Constitution and had begun protests even before it was adopted. The Madhesis took advantage of their geostrategic location and closed the trade and transit points between the two countries. This had an adverse impact on India-Nepal relations. Many Nepalese believe that it was India that had supported the Madhesi protestors in carrying out blockade. Despite India’s persistent denial the perception amongst a section of people remains strong
Prime Minister K.P. Oli’s handling of the crisis worsened the situation. Instead of talking to the agitating protestors like the Madhesis and Janjaties, Oli preferred talking to China and signed agreements for fuel supply, which had been disrupted following the blockade. China had agreed to supply 1000 metric tonnes of fuel on grant basis. But due to inefficient infrastructure and adverse weather conditions the supply from China was not sufficient. There was shortage of food supply, medicines etc. Nepal also tried to come out of its landlockedness and dependence on India for transit purposes by signing agreements on transit facilities, road and rail network with China. Seven new trade routes were opened with the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China so that border trade at the local level could take place.
Many in Nepal criticized Oli for not normalizing situation at home by talking to the protestors or for externalising the domestic issue. Some called it an ego clash between him and the Indian leadership, but many applauded that he stood up to India. The domestic politics within Nepal brought Nepali Congress (NC) and Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist-Centre) together which led to the formation of new government with Prachanda as the Prime Minister for nine months in August 2016, followed by another nine months of government by Nepali Congress in the Constituent Assembly.
Unlike in the past when Prachanda preferred China for his maiden visit as the Prime Minister of the country in 2008, this time he visited India. His visit was not without hiccups. He was under pressure from the political parties including his own that no agreement should be signed with India against the country’s `national interest’. Presumably it meant not to sign agreements, which could go against the party in the electoral politics. In the past under the garb of nationalism, the opposition parties have criticized governments for signing treaties and agreements by calling them as `unequal treaties’, sellout’ etc.
This strategy is used to discredit government in power and it has a huge constituency lapping up the nationalist sentiments. Before leaving for India, Prachanda gave an assurance that he would not sign any new agreement but work on implementing the old agreements. He urged people not to dictate him and give him free hand to take risks for national interest. During his visit, India and Nepal signed agreements namely, MoU on improvement of road infrastructure in Terai area of Nepal; First Amendatory Dollar credit line agreement between government of Nepal and EXIM Bank which would help to reapportion unutilized funds for post earthquake reconstruction projects worth $1 billion allotted in 2015; New Line of Credit Agreement for $750 million for post earthquake reconstruction projects in Nepal.
Prime Minister Modi defined Prachanda as a `catalytic force of peace in Nepal’. Even on earlier occasions Modi has praised Maoists for leaving violence and adopting constitutional means to join the mainstream politics. This was a change from the earlier understanding on the Maoists with whom relations were never close due to various reasons.
Modi expressed confidence that under Prachanda’s leadership, `Nepal will successfully implement the constitution through inclusive dialogue accommodating the aspirations of all sections of your diverse society’. India’s position on constitution through consensus has remained unchanged. However, Nepal’s response and behaviour towards it has changed.
The Maoists, unlike UML, are not harsh towards the demands of the Madhesis and the Janjaties who have been asking for inclusive constitution that would give them representation in the state structures and provide social justice. Madhesis and Janjaties have been opposing the restructuring of the state in the new constitution. While the Janjaties have been asking for ethnic federalism, the Madhesis are against the dilution of the agreed `One Madhes, Two Prades’ in which three districts in the east and two in the west are not included.
Prachanda has said that he would take along the marginalized communities like Madhesis and Janjaties in the nation building. Apart from his cadres, some groups from the marginalized communities have been sympathisers and had given support to their vision of `naya Nepal’. Maoists have given political voice and support to the demands of the Madhesis, Janjaties, Women and Dalits on federalism, state restructuring, socio-economic empowerment during the people’s war. By taking along all the stakeholders in the new Constitution, Prachanda wants to mend the bridges that had developed cracks when he decided to support the NC and UML during adoption of the new Constitution in 2015.
Prachanda has been an advocate of good relations between India, Nepal and China. It has to be seen how he will maintain delicate balance between his neighbours.
By opting India for his first official visit, Prachanda successfully has tried to mend the strained relations. By accepting India’s stand on `constitution through consensus’ he has tried to gain at the domestic front by assuaging the hurts of the aggrieved. This would help him regain some of the lost constituencies from the marginalized groups. Since taking over power he has been critical of Oli for his mismanagement of the domestic politics and the relations with India, thereby sidelining the main left opponent, UML, in the electoral politics.
The immediate concern of Prachanda would be to work towards constitutional amendments and implementation. His government’s mandate is to conduct local elections. However, for that the local units have to be formed, issue of restructuring of provinces has to be finalized before the provincial and general elections. The task in hand is tough for both Prachanda and later for the coalition partner Nepali Congress. In these testing times, it is essential for both India and Nepal not to fritter goodwill generated through Prachanda’s visit.
(Prof. Sangeeta Thapliyal is Chairperson of the Centre for Inner Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)
Published on : September 23, 2016