Delhi is tempted to project the Nepal PM’s visit as a sign that all is well. But it should use the moment to have frank and difficult conversations about differences.
Nepal’s Prime Minister K P Oli arrives in New Delhi on a six-day visit on Friday. The visit comes after a particularly difficult time in the bilateral relationship.
In the past six months, Kathmandu has accused Delhi of intervening in its sovereign constitutional process; of imposing a blockade which caused a humanitarian crisis; and stoking and supporting the Madhesi agitation in the plains. It has run an international campaign against India, seeking interventions from foreign capitals.
New Delhi has accused Kathmandu of not addressing the internal political conflict in the Tarai, which has cross border security implications. It has opposed, on international platforms, Nepal’s human rights violations. It has accused Nepal of stoking ‘anti-India’ sentiment and it has been irritated, though not particularly worried, about Kathmandu’s attempt to use the ‘China card’.
There has been a thaw. And Kathmandu would like to now ‘forget’ the episode and move on. It is however important that Delhi does not forget and reiterates the message it has been passing ever since September when the constitution was promulgated.
The four-point roadmap
The rapprochement in the relationship occurred in December. The Nepal government took the first step and displayed flexibility.
It proposed--interestingly to Delhi, not to the agitating Madhesis--a four-point proposal. This involved amending the constitution to ensure equitable political representation to the Madhesis in the lower House of Parliament; affirmative action in state organs on the basis of proportional inclusion; clarifying other issues including citizenship and creating a mechanism to address the issue of federal demarcation within three months.
The Madhesis, at that point, felt the proposal did not go far enough--they felt the amendments represented a dilution of the interim constitution; the key issue of underrepresentation in the upper house was not addressed; and an immediate deal on federal demarcation was necessary, for the ruling hill establishment may not delver in the future.
But Delhi--a little fatigued by the flak it was receiving domestically from the opposition and the media for ‘mishandling Nepal’--was looking for a way out and assessed Kathmandu’s proposal represented some forward movement. The RSS, it is reliably learnt, told the political leadership that anti-Indian sentiment had increased in the hills and Delhi should find a way to restore ties. India was also sceptical of the ability of the Madhesi leadership to sustain the agitation and disappointed with disunity in its ranks. It was getting feedback from the ground that while the movement was unprecedented in its depth and there was quiet determination, people also needed a break.
Some within the establishment felt that India must stay the course, the problem had not been resolved, Madhesi discontent remained deep and would spring back, and they still did not ‘own’ the constitution. But Sushma Swaraj- who has managed Nepal policy for the last few months - decided the policy needed to be tweaked. She herself introduced the word ‘welcome’ in a statement on the Nepal government cabinet resolution outlining the proposal.
This awarded legitimacy to the government roadmap. Eventually, two Amendments were passed--the establishment claims this will award 79-80 out of 165 seats to the Tarai. If this is indeed the case, it is positive. But there are competing interpretations by Madhesi lawyers who suggest that the seats would be around 70. Greater clarity on this would be welcome. The second amendment reintroduced the word ‘proportional’ inclusion which is positive. It however spread the benefits of reservation across many groups, including the dominant upper castes, which is problematic.
The Nepal government had promised to Delhi it will form the mechanism to determine the issue of demarcation before PM Oli’s visit - and on Friday, it did so. But like the amendments, this was a unilateral decision. There was room to take the Madhesi Morcha on board. From rejecting the idea of a mechanism, the Madhesis had decided to engage with it - but wanted firm guarantees on its mandate (including a commitment that the boundaries in Tarai would be revised), validity, and time frame. The government however wanted to be minimalist and not provide guarantees and went its own way.
This mechanism will be led by the Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa - who is a firm opponent of federalism in principle. It also means that the top leaders, who are in a position to take the decision and exercise flexibility, will not be a part of the mechanism which reduces its efficacy. The fact that its terms of reference has not been defined gives rise to doubts about the intent. The Madhesi parties have indicated they will not recognise the mechanism and not participate in it.
A pattern is clear. Kathmandu has not been particularly interested in reaching out to the Tarai. For all its ultra nationalist bluster, its priority was in appeasing Delhi, which is why it presented the roadmap, passed amendments and now has formed the mechanism on the eve of the PM’s visit to show to India that it is serious about addressing the internal crisis. This has partly satisfied Delhi’s desire to reasserts its centrality in Nepal. But it does not solve the problem.
The Tarai movement has got weaker for now, and the blockade has ended because it was becoming difficult to sustain the disruptive instrument for so long. But at the core, the Madhesi parties - and the Madhesi street - still do not ‘own’ the constitution and there is consensus that it is merely a matter of time before the anger blows up again.
The persisting alienation
Both India and Nepal have an interest in selling this visit as a success. Delhi wants to show to domestic critics that the relationship with the Nepali state is intact, that Oli has had to come to India first, and there has been no mismanagement. That is why they have focused on the optics and made this a state visit.
Oli wants to show to his domestic audience that despite maintaining a ‘nationalist stance’, he is being welcomed and feted in Rashtrapati Bhawan.
At the end of this, both can say all is well.
But India would do well to remember that the core problem of Madhesi and Tharu alienation persists. At the end of six months of the andolan, an entire generation in Tarai is radicalised. And they are not willing to listen to either Kathmandu or Delhi. This generation wants to be treated as equal citizens, even as it retains its cultural practices and it wants space in Nepal’s power structure. It wants federal units carved in a manner where excluded groups can now exercise self rule within a democratic framework. It wants clarity on citizenship laws so that the roti beti relationship can be sustained. It wants representation according to population in the central legislature, and thus exercise its influence in Kathmandu. And if this does not happen, it is willing to flirt with the idea of violence and secessionist politics, which will cause huge implications across the open border for India. As soon as troubles begin again, Delhi will get dragged in.
And this is why - even as state to state ties get restored - Delhi must politely tell Oli that all is not yet well, that forgetting the problem will not do.
India, while recognising the constitution as an important step, must not endorse it fully and instead remind Kathmandu that the constitution needs wider ownership; it must signal to Oli that the hospitality must not be construed as amnesia and India would be closely watching if the roadmap the government has laid out to meet political grievances is being implemented; it must express its unhappiness at Oli’s unilateralism on the creation of the political mechanism and insist on the need to take all stakeholders along; it must share its assessment that the troubles in Tarai could erupt again if the discontent is not addressed; and it must make it clear that the Nepal government must do this not to please Delhi, but for its own internal stability and peace. And if this does not happen, internal turbulence will have an impact on bilateral relations.
Welcome PM Oli and treat him well, but be cautious and don’t give him a blank cheque.