India-Nepal: Restoring Balance – Analysis
By S. Binodkumar Singh*
Nepal’s Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda in his first foreign trip since resuming office on August 3, 2016 (he was Prime Minister between August 18, 2008, and May 23, 2009), visited India from September 15-18, 2016, leading a 125-member delegation. He held wide-ranging talks and sealed three significant deals with India. Significantly, Dahal stated, on September 17, 2016, “We will not allow any activity that is against our neighbouring countries from our soil.” Dahal now seems to be a changed man and has recognized the need for cordial relations with India as a priority. During his previous innings as Prime Minister, Dahal chose to put relations with China on fast track. Within a week of oath as Prime Minister then, Dahal had gone to China in August 2008, to become the first elected premier to visit China in the history of Nepal.
Earlier, Dahal’s predecessor, Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli, during his visit to India between February 19 to 24, 2016, signed seven agreements, prominently including the utilization of a USD 250 million Grant component of the Government of India’s Assistance package for post-earthquake reconstruction assistance. However, just before the visit, linking his maiden foreign trip to India and the then ongoing ‘border blockade’, on January 26, 2016, Oli noted, “It would not be appropriate for me to visit India unless the situation returns to normal.” The ‘border blockade’, which began on September 24, 2015, and was officially lifted on February 8, 2016, was imposed by ethnic Madhesis inhabiting the southern plains of Nepal, who believe that the new Constitution adopted on September 20, 2015, did not give them fair representation in Parliament. The Government of Nepal accused India of imposing an undeclared blockade, though India denied the allegation, stating that supply shortages were imposed by Madhesi demonstrators within Nepal, and that India had no role in the protests.
The political violence, in fact, had already begun on July 1, 2015, when cadres of the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF), a four party alliance of Madhesi People’s Rights Forum Nepal (MPRF-N), Tarai Madhes Democratic Party (TMDP), Sadbhavana Party (SP) and National Madhes Shadbhavana Party (NMSP), burnt copies of the preliminary draft of the new Constitution in Kathmandu, the Capital city, because it failed to incorporate their demands. Despite the protests, the Constituent Assembly (CA) endorsed “Nepal’s Constitution” by an overwhelming 88.5 per cent of the 601-member CA, and by over 95 per cent of the Members present and voting on September 16, 2015. On September 20, 2015, in a historical step, Nepal adopted its first democratic Constitution.
While the adoption of the new Constitution was welcomed by most national and international groups and leaders, a large segment of the population, particularly the Madhesis and Tharus, residing in the Tarai region contested its provisions. The Tarai region is an area located along Nepal’s Southern border with India, and covers 23 per cent of Nepal’s total land area of 147,181 square kilometers. Approximately 30 to 40 per cent of the population falls within this region. Out of the country’s 75 Districts, 20 are located in the Terai, including, from east to west, Jhapa, Morang, Sunsari, Saptari, Siraha, Dhanusha, Mahottari, Sarlahi, Rautahat, Bara, Parsa, Chitwan, Nawalparasi, Rupandehi, Kapilvastu, Dang, Banke, Bardiya, Kalaiya and Kanchanpur.
For its part, India tried to delay the promulgation of the Constitution by sending Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar to intervene at the eleventh hour, but he was rebuffed by the Nepalese parties. Consequently, for the first time India took a stand against Nepal at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on November 5, 2015, during Nepal’s Universal Periodic Review, stating:
The Nepal government should consolidate the Constitution building and democratization process by accommodating all sections of Nepal to enable broad-based ownership and participation. It should ensure effective functioning of Truth and Reconciliation Commission and full implementation of its recommendations, including prosecution of those responsible for violent insurgency.
India also made a reference to Nepal in the European Union (EU)-India Joint Statement on March 30, 2016:
The need for a lasting and inclusive Constitutional settlement in Nepal that will address the remaining Constitutional issues in a time bound manner, and promote political stability and economic growth.
This brought out a strongly worded rebuke from the Nepalese Foreign Ministry, who responded by stating:
EU-India Joint Statement not only hurts the sentiments of the people of Nepal but also defies the fundamental principle of non-interference in internal affairs of a country in breach of UN Charter and norms of international law. The Government of Nepal calls on all to fully respect the sovereign and democratic rights of the people of Nepal and refrain from making uncalled for statements.
At this stage, India-Nepal relations reached their lowest point since the economic blockade of 1989 by the then Rajiv Gandhi Government.
Earlier, in a historic visit, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the first Indian Prime Ministerial visit to Nepal in 17 years, from November 25 to 27, 2014, and signed 16 agreements and MoUs, including the Line of Credit for USD One billion to the Government of Nepal, to utilize for hydropower, irrigation and infrastructural development projects. On touching down in Nepal, Modi had stated, “I request all political stakeholders to draft the Constitution by early next year as committed through consensus, which will reflect aspirations of all communities, including Madhesis, Pahadis and Maoists … failing to do so can cause difficulties to Nepal and your difficulty despite our expertise to help you in this field is a matter of sadness.”
In the meantime, then-Prime Minister Oli made a week-long official visit to China from March 21 to 27, 2016, sealing 10 separate agreements and MoUs on using the northern neighbor’s sea port facility, building a regional international airport in Pokhara, exploring the possibilities of signing a bilateral free trade agreement and finding oil and gas reserves in Nepal, among others. Clarifying the motivation behind these moves, Rajan Bhattarai, a Member of Parliament (MP) from the ruling Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) on March 23, 2016, observed, “We have been an India-locked country. We are now developing a strong partner in China and opening up new transit routes.”
Dahal’s visit suggests a shift from this stance, and appears to have irked Beijing. The official media in China has accused India of ‘interfering’ in its relations with Nepal and ‘pressuring’ Prime Minister Dahal to move away from Beijing. Writing in the Global Times, one of the publications of the People’s Daily establishment, Xu Liang, Executive Director of the Indian Studies Center at Beijing International Studies University, observed, “It looks like the bilateral relationship between China and Nepal has suddenly turned fragile and sensitive.”
There are, no doubt, various domestic issues in Nepal, including the most important among these, the amendment of the Constitution, as promised in the Three-Point Agreement signed on August 2, 2016, by the then-ruling coalition of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN- Maoist Centre) and Nepali Congress (NC), with the UDMF, to secure the support of the Madhesi parties. According to the agreement, the Government would implement the Madhesi Front’s demands, including acknowledging those killed during the Madhes agitation as ‘martyrs’, providing free treatment to the injured, and amending the Constitution to redraw provincial boundary. Significantly, the first two points have been fulfilled, but the issue of the Constitutional amendment remains thorny. The Constitutional Amendment Bill must be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament, that is, at least 397 lawmakers have to vote in its. However, the present ruling coalition has about 370 lawmakers on its side.
Another big question facing Nepal is the holding of three elections – local, provincial and federal – by December 2017, as envisaged in the new Constitution. In a proposed roadmap, the Government plans to hold the local body elections by December 2016, state assembly elections by May 2017 and elections to the federal parliament by December 2017. Holding these crucial elections within the stipulated time is the key to implementing the new Constitution. But Election Commission (EC) officials said that holding elections by the end of 2016 is fraught with huge challenges as the Commission would need at least 3-4 months for technical preparations. The last time local elections were held in Nepal was some 19 years ago, in 1997. Since then, the local bodies – Village Development Committees (VDCs), municipalities, District Development Committees (DDCs), metropolitan councils – have been without people’s representatives.
New Delhi appears to have repaired relationships with Kathmandu for the time being, and might have more say with the new CPN-Maoist Centre – NC Government, but it has a long way to go to regain the popular adulation that was visible during Prime Minister Modi’s first visit to Nepal in 2014, and during India’s humanitarian response following the April 2015 earthquake. Moreover, amending the Constitution to address Madhesi demands to redraw boundaries of federal provinces, is a domestic affair and needs to be addressed internally. Nevertheless, the change of Government is an opportunity to recalibrate what has for some time now been a fraught relationship, and restore the special bonds of common culture and enduring shared interests that have long existed between these two peoples and states.
* S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management