Addressing the intractable issue
NEPAL'S Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who heads the Communist Party of Nepal, Maoist (UCPN-M), recently wrapped up his three-day visit to India. His visit comes in the background of the downslide in the bilateral relations between the two countries under the prime ministership of K.P. Oli, who did not hesitate to play the China card after India publicly expressed its dissatisfaction over the passing of the Constitution that was not inclusive and especially excluded the interests of the Madhesi and Janajati people of Nepal. How Nepal resolves the issue of representation and federalism would determine the temperature of Nepal's relationship with India.
The nine-month rule of K.P. Oli, the eighth prime minister in the last ten years, was marked by distrust and suspicion, especially after Nepal hurriedly passed the republican Constitution in September last year. Out of Nepal's 598 MPs, 507 voted in favour of the Constitution and the lawmakers took just two days to pass all the provisions of the Constitution without any debate or discussion. The reaction it generated saw more than 40 people killed in police firing, as the protest movement spearheaded by Madhesis engulfed the southern part of the country. The Madhesi blockade with New Delhi's acquiescence was equally matched by anti-Indian sentiments, allegedly instigated by the government and a 'hill-inspired' Nepali nationalism that divided the country.
Rather than recognising the marginalisation and taking corrective steps to address the issue of political representation, the debate centred on the issue of sovereignty. The entire issue of political marginalisation was portrayed as Indian instigated agitation without any domestic root. Though the Madhesis withdrew their agitation, the low in India-Nepal relations was visible even when Oli visited India.
Rather than assuaging India's concern regarding political instability that is bound to have a spill over effect across the Indo-Nepal open border, Oli decided to play the China card. His visit to China and signing of the 10-point agreement was projected as a successful foiling of India's 'hegemony'. The transit treaty that was hailed as an important agreement that would end Nepal's dependence on India was high on rhetoric than reality. It did not take into account the cost effectiveness of the route. For example, the Tianjin port in China, that is supposed to provide transit to Nepal, is 3,000 kilometre away from Nepal compared to the Haladia port in India, which is only 1,000 km away. Moreover, Nepal receives subsidised petrol from India. Though, the agreements did not unnerve India, Oli's obduracy to address the issue of political marginalisation of Madhesis and Tharus riding high on hill-inspired Nepali nationalism that manifested in intense anti-Indianism to consolidate his hold on power became a major concern. When confronted with a possible split in the government, the Nepal government not only cancelled President Bidya Bhandari's first visit to India but recalled Nepal's Ambassador to India, accusing him of conspiring with New Delhi against the government.
Cracks were already visible in the coalition of the Communists and the Maoists. Both the Nepali Congress and UCPN-Maoists saw Oli as a rigid politician who was unwilling to accommodate the genuine grievances of the Madhesis, pushing the country to enduring political unrest. The sharp political division on the basis of hill vs Terai and reluctance to accommodate Madheshi political aspirations had the danger of radicalising the Madhesi movement. The Madhesi leaders were also under pressure from their supporters to bargain hard, and their failure means conceding the ground to the hardliners that had threatened to fight for an independent Madhesi country, thereby leading to the possibility of more bloodshed in Terai.
Oli also could not fulfil the 9=point agreement that he concluded with Prachanda in May, which includes an agreement to withdraw cases against Maoist cadres for the crimes committed during Nepal's insurgency. The seven-point agreement to form a 'national consensus government' also could not salvage the partnership, as Prachanda felt that his continuation of alliance with CPN(UML) will dent his support base as the government failed to rehabilitate earthquake victims and refused to negotiate with the Madhesis. Already, Prachanda, after his May 5 flip-flop, was sending feelers to New Delhi for its support to a government formed under his leadership. Maoist decision to withdraw support to K.P.Oli paved for a new agreement between Nepali Congress and UCPN-Maoist with the support of Madhesis and as per the understanding, Prachanda assumed power after Oli's resignation. China tried its best to save the Oli government and salvage the coalition of left political parties from breaking away. The Madhesis were assured that the Constitution would be suitably amended to ensure their representation in the Parliament.
The first step Prachanda took is to reinstate Deep Kumar Upadhaya, who was sacked by K.P.Oli, as Nepal's Ambassador to India. Before Prachanda visited India, in a meeting held in Kathmandu, he said that he intends to "normalise the relations that went through some bitter experience in the recent past". A red carpet welcome was laid out to Prachanda in New Delhi during his first state visit to India between September 15 and 18. India also emphasised the need for "inclusive dialogue accommodating the aspirations of all sections of your diverse society." Prachanda also assured India that he will "take all sections of the Nepali society on board for the effective implementation of the Constitution" – a welcome development compared to Oli's stance of dismissing the Madhesi demand as 'externally instigated'.
It has been a year since Nepal promulgated its republican Constitution on September 20 last year. Yet, its painful transition to a stable republic is far from over. Though some factions of the Madhesi parties are part of the government, there are others who continue to remain outside the government. The major challenge is to muster the support of two-third members in the Parliament to amend the Constitution and redraw the boundary in such a manner that the historically marginalised communities, including the Tharus, find political space and are represented. It is likely that K.P.Oli is likely to give a tough time to the government over the amendment.
Unless the political forces of Nepal join hands to address the issue of marginalisation that paralysed the first Constituent Assembly and almost derailed the second one, Nepal will move towards an uncertain political future and instability in Nepal will have serious implications for India, with which it has a roti-beti [ties of food and family] relationship.
The writer is Research Fellow, IDSA.