Reassessing India’s role in Nepali transition



As the process of drafting a constitution through the Constituent Assembly (CA) draws to a close, it is probably timely to reassess the role India has played in the decade old transition. To begin with India remained the external guarantor of the peace process whose performance was at best a mixed bag. While it helped in coming together of then parliamentary parties and rebel CPN-Maoist by facilitating the 2005 12-point agreement, which paved the way for 19-days movement against the direct rule of king Gyanendra, its relationship with parties in particular with the Maoists saw topsy-turvy ride.

 The victory of Maoists in the 2008 elections—which was contrary to India’s expectations—began a new chapter in the republic’s history with its most important neighbor. As soon as Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal assumed the premiership India realized that it was not going to be a smooth relationship and immediately started forging a Maoist coalition which materialized in the form of Madhav Nepal headed government which had the backing of Nepali Congress supremo Girija Prasad Koirala. With this development occurred the phase of politics of negation whereby both internal and external churnings ensured that the constitution making was put to back burner and the repetition of the 1990s naked power struggle came to fore.

There was clear division in the political camp along pro and anti-Maoist camp. Events took a sharp turn after Jhala Nath Khanal another leader from the CPN-UML replaced Nepal’s government which was backed by the Maoists. This was a way of Dahal to prove a point to the Indians that the southern neighbour was not exactly in control of everything in the power corridors of Kathmandu. But this ‘nationalist’ zeal was short lived as Dahal had to concede ground and pave way for formation of government under his deputy Baburam Bhattarai in 2011 albeit grudgingly. Dahal feared Bhattarai could use his new found political clout to enhance his position within the party.

Bhattarai-led government was a strong reply of the Indians to Dahal that they were calling the ultimate shots in Kathmandu. Bhattarai government also had a meaningful implication for the Nepali polity. The deciding force in the government were not the Maoists but the Madhes-centric parties who held important portfolios such as home and defence marking a change in the power structure in the Kathmandu’s power circle.

India’s role was not just limited to government formation as it played crucial role in the peace process in particularly on the management of the former Maoist combatants cantoned in various camps. To begin with India was at first hesitant to allow UN mission in Nepal as that would imply strong presence of P5 including China in its natural sphere of influence. But it ultimately gave in possibly after being assured of its role in the process. India at first remained against the integration of combatants in the Nepal Army. There was strong reservation from the Indian Army in this regard. But India along with other powers like US was able to push for an integration which did not ‘alter the structure of Nepal Army’. India had also played crucial role in getting parties to agree on the content of the constitution.

One of the most important relations to be explored in this decade long process is that of the Madhesi parties and India. Madhesi parties which rose to power in the wake of protest in 2007 against the non-inclusion of federalism in the Interim Constitution, remained one of the most important game changer in the first CA. But these parties were bogged down in internal squabble leading to split which often had host of factors including ideological positioning and personality clash. Like other political parties, the Madhes-centric parties at times sought the help of India to settle their internal feud. But this relationship was also used to act as counter veil against the Maoists. Even though the Madhesi parties except for Upendra Yadav had a dislike for the Maoists, they were into ‘tactical alliance’ to ensure identity based federalism. But the Madhes-centric parties had in fact hold over Maoists juggernaut vein, something which was to India’s liking.

But as Nepal is set to begin a new era with the coming of the constitution few words on India’s role is desirable. Historically India has maintained a policy of ‘managed chaos’ in Nepal whereby it has been pitting one force against the another especially backing  anti-regime forces which it deems are not in its interest. But with the Narendra Modi government focusing on neighbourhood first policy, there are indication of change in conducting the relationship which was marked with his historic visit last year, the first in 17 years. Also there are indications of relationships being dealt at political level instead of being relegated to that of bureaucracy. Most importantly it is yet to be seen how India deals with the new churnings within Nepal. For instance India has thrown its weight behind upper caste groups from Madhes. But as the OBC category becomes significant along with the assertion of Tharus it remains to be seen how the relationship unfolds in addition to the fact that identity has come to be a prime marker in Nepali polity.

(Kharel is an assistant professor at Kathmandu School of Law

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