In the first sign of a thaw between Kathmandu and New Delhi since Nepal promulgated a new constitution, the Nepal government informed India of its decision to amend the constitution to address the demands of Madhesi parties on representation and inclusion. A positive conversation between India and an intimate neighbour like Nepal is welcome. It also reflects the realisation among Nepal’s political elite that before the constitution can be enforced, it has to be amended. This vindicates the Indian position that the problem in Nepal is political; and the constitution has to reflect the aspirations of all sections of society. But precisely because this is not a bilateral Kathmandu-Delhi problem as much as an internal Kathmandu-Terai problem, the response of the Madhesi parties is key. They have rejected the proposal and argued the amendments have to be judged on the content, not the mere fact that they have been tabled.
The Terai forces make three points. One, the amendment on political representation does not guarantee that half the constituencies will be in Terai, in proportion to population. It also does not address under-representation in the upper house, where each state has been given an equal number of representatives. Given that there will be fewer provinces in the plains but more people, Terai loses out. Two, the amendment on proportionate inclusion will not necessarily lead to inclusion, because a whole range of social groups have been given reservation benefits. Both these amendments are a dilution of the interim constitution. Three, the core question of revising federal boundaries has been left to a political mechanism. The Madhesis strongly feel that the Nepali state is only out to buy time, and will not deliver in the future.
India has taken a principled, even if misunderstood, stance in favour of inclusion, human rights and minority rights in Nepal. There is a temptation in sections of the Delhi establishment to now find a shortcut, and sell any proposal as a ‘breakthrough’. But a settlement that does not take into account Terai’s parties and is not owned by them will leave the Madhesis with a sense that India has let them down; it will embolden the ultra nationalist constituency in Kathmandu; and it will not solve India’s worries of future security across an open border. India must remain patient, and nudge Kathmandu to revise its proposal, and bring the Madhesis on board first.