The promulgation of Nepal’s Constitution has been followed by triumphalism on one side and agitation on the other. India’s present challenge is to recover lost political ground so that New Delhi can play the role of trusted interlocutor without resorting to micro-management.
Last Sunday, on September 20, Nepal promulgated its new Constitution. However, instead of being an occasion for celebration in which all Nepali citizens could participate, there is a tinge of triumphalism on one side and, on the other, a growing agitation masking a sentiment of betrayal. More than one-tenth of the Constituent Assembly (CA) members boycotted the final proceedings. And, as often happens when Nepal’s domestic politics is polarised and descends into a slugfest, Indian policies have become a convenient punching bag and Nepali nationalism reduces to anti-Indianism.
The current exercise kicked off in 2008 with the election of a Constituent Assembly (CA) with a two-year mandate to draft a new Constitution for a federal, democratic and republican Nepal. Even after the CA awarded itself four extensions, the task remained unfinished. The Supreme Court intervened to put an end to the repeated extensions in 2012 and, after a year, a new CA was elected in November 2013 for a four-year term though it gave itself a deadline of January 2015 to complete the Constitution which too was not observed.
The tragic earthquake in April, which claimed 9,000 lives and caused widespread damage estimated at $7 billion, became a wake-up call for the political leadership and the government, which had come in for all-round criticism for its inept crisis management. This galvanised the main political parties — the Nepali Congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) [CPN(UML)] and the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist [UCPN-Maoist) led by Prachanda — to push through a Constitution, by a two-thirds majority, if consensus was not possible. A 16-point agreement covering some of the major issues was announced in June.
Differences over federalism
At this point, the big three parties had the benefit of having Bijay Gachedar, leader of a Madhesi-Tharu party, on board as a signatory. This agreement foresaw the creation of eight provinces, with boundaries to be determined by an expert committee within six months. However, it was shot down by a Supreme Court single-judge bench on the grounds that the CA was responsible for defining the federal structure and this could not be delegated.
The big three then came out with a six-province proposal. Mr. Gachedar dissociated himself from it and as protests mounted, the three hurriedly made it a seven-province federal structure. Agitations turned increasingly violent in the Terai region and have claimed more than 40 casualties in the last month.
Though a small country, Nepal has more than a hundred ethnic groups. However, it has always been ruled by the Bahun-Chettri (Brahmin-Kshatriya) hill elite which, together with other hill upper castes, accounts for less than 30 per cent of the population. The leadership of the three major political parties, as well as that of the smaller pro-monarchy groups, belongs to this group. On the other hand, the Janajatis (hill tribes), Tharus (plains tribes), Dalits and Madhesis have traditionally been the oppressed groups.
Till 1950, a Madhesi needed a special permit to enter Kathmandu valley and citizenship was a major issue, which was finally addressed in the 1990s, with over three million citizenship certificates issued, though some concerns remained. These groups had periodically agitated for greater representation in power-sharing but always within the unitary framework of the monarchical system. When the decade-long Maoist insurgency ended in 2006, new demands grew for the abolition of monarchy and for a federal republic. NC and UML were always lukewarm to the idea and the federalism banner was largely carried forward by the Maoists (Janjatis were part of their cadres) and the Madhesis.
Madhesis have a kinship with their counterparts across the open border in India, particularly in northern Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (UP), often described as roti beti ka rishta (sharing food and matrimonial ties). During the Panchayat era, the 1963 administrative restructuring raised the number of districts from 32 to 75. In the bargain, Terai districts, which were earlier geographically restricted to the plains, now included areas north of the Siwalik Hills. Pahadi population in the Terai consequently went up from 6 per cent in 1952 to 36 per cent in 2001. Today, out of the 20 Terai districts bordering India, Madhesis enjoy a majority in less than half. Indian political leadership has been sensitive to their circumstances and has taken up their cause with the Kathmandu rulers. This has worked sometimes but has often also created tensions in the bilateral relationship which have demanded sensitive handling.
When the Constitution-drafting exercise began in 2008, the CA’s first decision was to abolish the 250-year-old monarchy while laying down principles for creating a democratic, secular, federal republic, often called a new Nepal. Over these years, Maoist and Madhesi forces have weakened. A section of the Maoist leadership was co-opted into the system and Prachanda is today rumoured to be a billionaire in dollar terms.
While the Maoists had emerged as the single-largest party in 2008 with 240 seats and the three Madhesi parties accounted for 84 seats, the outcome in 2013 elections turned out very differently. Maoists were down to 80 seats and the Madhesi parties which had splintered from three into a dozen, could only manage 40 seats. On the other hand, among the two old parties, NC moved up from 115 seats in 2008 to 196 and the UML from 108 to 175 seats, together accounting for nearly two-thirds of the CA (strength is 601) in 2013. Maoists lost ground because of rumours of corruption, poor governance and factionalism; Madhesis because of ego clashes, caste differences among Brahmins, Thakurs, Yadavs and Kurmis, and political fracturing which weakened the Madhes movement.
Differences over delineation of the provinces were narrowed down to five districts on the India-Nepal border — Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari in the east and Kanchanpur and Kailali in the west. Other contentious issues pertained to the delineation of electoral constituencies; inclusion in state structures on basis of ‘proportionality’; and the two categories of citizenship, by descent and by naturalisation — applicable to the foreign spouse of a Nepali national, a key Madhesi concern — and the debarring of the latter from certain government positions.
Some of these were not too difficult to settle but unfortunately, there was no serious effort to reach out and open a dialogue. None of the leaders of the big three parties and their Madhesi MPs took the initiative of going to the restive districts. Instead, all eyes were fixed on the sharing of spoils, for within the next few weeks, Nepal will get a new President, Vice-President, Prime Minister, Speaker and Cabinet. Some deals have been struck, with K.P. Oli (UML) emerging as the likely next PM. Other contenders are in the fray for different positions but this jockeying too is limited to those belonging to the Bahun-Chettri elite.
India’s failed moves
To be fair, Indian policy on this issue has been consistent. In November 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Kathmandu for the SAARC summit, it was clear that positions were hardening. PM Modi had said in a media interaction that outstanding differences should be resolved through dialogue and widespread consultation so that it could create the basis of a united, peaceful, stable and prosperous Nepal. A section of the Nepali media had reacted adversely terming it ‘unwarranted advice’. This was a sign of the changing winds and certainly, after Bijay Gachedar backed away from the 16-point agreement in June, the writing was clear on the wall.
Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar’s visit to Kathmandu last week, after the CA had completed formal voting on the Constitution, was too late and could hardly have been expected to yield a favourable outcome. Instead, it has been a spur to Nepali nationalism which, more often than not, carries strains of anti-Indianism. Official Indian statements ‘noting’ the promulgation of the new Constitution and expressing ‘deep concern’ over the incidents of violence are unlikely to fall on receptive ears and are at variance with the ‘welcoming’ statements from other major capitals. Kathmandu is abuzz with rumours that India is miffed and might resort to strong-arm tactics as in 1989-90, fuelling further anti-Indian sentiment.
Any policy, however consistent and well-crafted, yields results only if implemented properly. The time to use Indian influence by working with our friends was during the first half of the year. What was needed was to sensitise the leaders of the ‘big three’ parties to the risks of brinkmanship and get the agitating groups to unify so that a coherent stand could emerge. Instead, we played host to an assortment of Nepali leaders who would tell us what we wanted to hear, while going back to Kathmandu and doing precisely what they wanted to do.
For too long, this has been the tricky part of India-Nepal relations. With too many interlocutors, India’s message often loses clarity and impact. While the long-term objective should be to address the changing political narrative in Nepal, our present challenge is to recover lost political ground so that we can play the role of the trusted and irreplaceable interlocutor between the two sides, but without resorting to micro-management. Since 1950, Nepal has experimented with various Constitutions. It has had two interim Constitutions (1951 and 2007) and three formal Constitutions (1959, 1962 and 1990). Many thoughtful Nepalis realise that the 2015 Constitution is not perfect but if it has to stand the test of time, all sides have to climb down from their stated positions. However, the first move has to come from the leadership of the three major parties, the NC, the CPN (UML) and UCPN (Maoist).
(Rakesh Sood, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation till May 2014, is a former Ambassador to Nepal. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.)