When President Pranab Mukherjee met his Nepal counterpart Bidya Bhandari at Shital Niwas soon after his arrival in the Himalayan country on Wednesday afternoon, he decided to share a lesson from Indian history.
Mukherjee remarked that when India’s constitution-drafting process was taking place in the late 1940s, the Congress had a majority in the Constituent Assembly. Yet, the party’s leadership made it a point to listen to all views, take on board all sections of political opinion. “And that is why, today, every Indian feels that this is his constitution.”
The President refrained from offering any prescription. Neither did Bhandari offer a response. But the message was hard to miss. It was not an abstract history lesson.
Nepal remains embroiled in a political contest over the constitution. The major parties pushed it through last year, overriding the concerns of substantial section of the population in the Terai plains and disregarding Indian advice. A movement broke out. Both Kathmandu-Terai and Kathmandu-Delhi ties dipped. An amendment was passed, but it did not address the contentious issue of federal demarcation of states. The new Nepal government, led by Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda, has promised to move ahead on the constitutional amendment.
Mukherjee’s visit happened in this backdrop, with two broad objectives: restoring bilateral trust and nudging Kathmandu in the direction of constitutional accommodation.
To achieve the first aim, his public messaging in Kathmandu was centred around how India is committed to a united, stable, peaceful Nepal. Each word here is carefully picked. There are sections of Nepali nationalists who have constructed a narrative that India wants to fragment Nepal; that it wants continued instability in Nepal; and it wants conflict to continue its control. In fact, sections in social media driving a campaign against the visit were driven by precisely these impulses. The President was going out of his way to reiterate a commitment — from the highest level of the Indian state — that these apprehensions were misplaced and false.
Mukherjee — always the proper, seasoned statesman — was also careful, and paid adequate deference to both Nepali institutions and Nepali sovereignty, a touchy issue for political class. Given his old association with Nepal, he was able to use old relationships to send out a message laced with warmth. He also had a 20-minute one-on-one meeting with Prachanda, who is understood to be enormously pleased with the meeting.
Besides listing out the ongoing bilateral projects, to reach out to the aspirational Nepali youth, Mukherjee declared they could now study in the IITs, which would open up their entrance exams, and even hold them in Kathmandu. He also invited Nepal to be a part of the Indian growth story.
At the same time, India remained consistent on its message on the constitution. Yet, in keeping with the dignity of the Presidential office and to provide space to the Nepali political elite that has been saying it is committed to taking everyone along, this was framed more positively than in the past.
For instance, during his State Banquet speech, instead of adopting a prescriptive tone, Mukherjee lauded the enterprise and achievement of the Nepali people. He added, “They seek to achieve their objectives within a federal and democratic framework, taking on board all sections of society. They seek to accomplish a Constitution that responds to the needs of their diverse social fabric. We wish you all success in this noble endeavour.”
But it was important that the message not get lost in translation. And that is why, along with other leaders, Mukherjee met the entire spectrum of Madhesi leaders of the Terai, heard their grievances and assured them that India had been steadfast in its stance that the constitution should be more broad-based in its ownership. He also visited Janakpur in a highly symbolic move. Conventional interpretation would restrict the visit to a natural consequence of shared religious and civilisational heritage, since Janakpur is where mythological Lord Ram and Sita wed. But the town is also the heart of the Madhes andolan. It was a recognition of Terai in Nepal, and in Nepal-India ties, and the people responded with a warm welcome.
The power of the Indian president in the political order is limited. But at times, the Indian state is able to use the institution and the person occupying the office effectively to serve its foreign policy objectives. The Nepal visit would be one such feather in President Mukherjee’s cap, as he winds down in Rashtrapati Bhavan.