Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day visit to Nepal, starting this Sunday, will be a success.
The fact that an Indian PM is paying a bilateral visit to such an intimate neighbour after 17 long years has energised the relationship. With his election campaign beaming to Nepali homes, he is already a rock-star of sorts. Modi’s visit to Pashupatinath will symbolise cultural and religious links. He will be the first foreign head of government since 1990 to address Nepal’s Parliament. Instead of developing its hydropower potential, meeting domestic demand and exporting power to India, Nepal today faces crippling shortages and imports electricity from India. A broad power cooperation agreement may be signed. India will promise to expedite delayed infrastructure projects, and there may be a big-ticket announcement to deepen connectivity both within Nepal and between the two countries. With all this, the PM’s visit will safely be declared a hit.
But if Modi wants to set a new template for the relationship, he needs to address a fundamental question: What should India’s role be in Nepal’s domestic politics?
New Delhi-Kathmandu ties are complex because India is an established actor in Nepal’s internal political evolution. This is partly because New Delhi seeks to shape outcomes to ensure friendly governments. Different factions in Nepal’s fragmented polity tend to seek India’s support to counter domestic rivals. This stems from the fact that each political stream in Nepal has links with corresponding political movements in India, increasing the stakeholders. The open border and Kathmandu’s structural dependence also makes this different from just another inter-State relationship.
But it is not business-as-usual internally because Nepal’s second constituent assembly (CA) is trying to draft a constitution to institutionalise political changes of the past decade — from war to peace, from monarchy to republic, from Hindu kingdom to secularism, and from a unitary to a potentially federal State.
The first CA, where Maoists and Madhesi parties of the plains were dominant, failed primarily because of differences over federalism. These forces wanted identity-based federalism — similar to what exists in many parts of India — that would redistribute political power to social groups excluded from the power structure. The Nepali Congress (NC) and Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), which enjoy a majority in the second CA, would rather have lived with a unitary system. But popular pressure forced them to accept the idea of State restructuring. They advocated administrative federalism, which would not alter the power balance — of hill Hindu upper-caste domination — substantially.
To get a flavour of New Delhi’s role, here is what happened towards the end of the first CA. India first tried to push a compromise on federalism, encouraging its Madhesi friends to be flexible. The Tarai leaders agreed, but their base rebelled. The agreement fell apart. Now, both sides — the NC on one hand and the Maoist-Madhesi combine on the other — began lobbying New Delhi to exert pressure on the other to agree to their respective model of federalism. India then decided to stay out; there was no mediator and the CA’s term ended in May 2012 without a constitution. It is this minefield that Modi will have to navigate as contentious issues begin to be debated in the second CA.
New Delhi has three choices. It can keep an entirely hands-off approach. This would insulate India from any backlash. But given the deeply entrenched nature of its role, complete detachment is not feasible or likely.
Two, it could support broad constitutional principles but stay away from the details. During her visit last week, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj spoke of an ‘inclusive constitution’. Sources in the ministry of external affairs also speak of a ‘durable, inclusive and democratic’ constitution. This conveys the right message about accommodating diversity, and seeking the widest possible consensus. But it would be best if Modi, in his speech to the Nepal Parliament, says unequivocally that India supports a ‘federal democratic secular republican constitution’ for Nepal.
These principles are already incorporated in Nepal’s interim constitution. In Kathmandu, Swaraj rebutted those who asked for her support to revert to a Hindu State saying she had taken oath under a secular Constitution. Modi, a proponent of Indian federalism, should empathise with the aspiration for change without being prescriptive. The flip side of this is that Nepali actors may not be able to resolve the specifics on their own, thus derailing the process, like in the first CA.
The third approach is to become hands-on and offer options, including on the model of federalism. India is the only actor with the leverage to influence all sides to step back from their stated positions, and force a compromise. If it succeeds, it will help Nepal get a constitution. But the pitfalls are enormous. Different lobbies will get to work behind-the-scenes, and reconciling interests will be difficult. Since the constitution then will leave sections unhappy, India will become the whipping boy. Nepali actors will seek help privately, but blame New Delhi publicly if it goes against their interests.
If New Delhi adopts the second approach, it can serve as a model for future handling of internal politics, especially government formation processes, where it is often accused of choosing prime ministers and ministers.
India’s approach should include the following elements: Support broad principles, but maintain a distance unless Nepal transparently asks for what it wants. Engage with the democratic process, but stop playing favourites among parties and leaders. Invest in projects that improve livelihoods and earn goodwill, but let Nepal determine the pace and nature of this assistance. Capitalise on the bonds across the border with Tarai, but recognise they are not your pawns. Remain the special neighbour, but remember that at the end of the day, Nepal is a separate, sovereign country.
If Modi can internalise and convey this message in Kathmandu, his visit will be historic.