Tale of two neighbours: Delhi’s dilemmas in a polarised Nepal

  • Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Feb 06, 2015 01:15 IST

Through Nepal’s war and peace, a remarkable feature of Nepal’s feuding political leadership was it never stopped talking to each other. The depth of the constitutional crisis in Kathmandu today can be gauged by the fact that the ruling Nepali Congress-Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) combine, and the opposition Maoist-Madhesi alliance, are not even on talking terms. The opposition has continued its boycott of all Constituent Assembly proceedings, and stayed away from a CA meeting on Thursday.

To recap, the crisis has emanated from the divergent views of the government and the opposition on both the content of the constitution, and the process to adopt it. While there is a possible meeting point between them on issues like form of government, the new electoral system and the nature of judiciary, the shape of the future federal structure remains a deeply divisive issue.

Federal deadlock

Reluctant federalists at best, the NC-UML would like to create a federal scheme which prioritises administrative viability – but which will result in hill Hindu upper castes, who have exercised power for long, maintaining demographic dominance in most provinces. They also want to carve out provinces on a north-south vertical axis that connects the hills and the Tarai. The opposition would like to prioritise identity recognition in the federal scheme, so that marginalised social groups can enjoy a degree of demographic dominance in units. They also want two provinces in the Tarai, carved out on an east west horizontal axis – in the eastern plains, this will result in the political empowerment of the Madhesis and in the western plains, it will signal the political rise of the Tharus.

The specific difference with regard to boundary demarcation is vis-à-vis five districts in the Tarai, three in the far east and two in the far west. NC-UML want it integrated in the hills, Madhesi forces want to retain it in the plains.

To push through their model, NC-UML combine is keen to use their numerical might in the CA to push through a constitution with a two-thirds majority, with the aid of smaller parties. The opposition believes that the constitution must reflect the spirit of the peace accord, the popular movements, and must be a product of consensus rather than arithmetic. They have sought more time for dialogue to resolve differences. (A detailed summary of Nepal’s constitutional differences is available on Nepal’s struggle for a constitution – A primer

The Chairman of the CA, Subhas Nemwang, went along with the NC-UML and initiated a process a fortnight ago that would eventually lead to voting in the house. The ruling combine calculates that the opposition is too weak and discredited to mount a movement; that even if there are protests, these will be sporadic; and security agencies are well equipped to take care of it. Since then, the Maoists and Madhesi parties have disengaged from the CA and announced an agitation. A confrontation looms. And there is one person who has almost single-handedly driven it, and in the process, he has polarised society like never before.

The politics of KP Oli

The most powerful, and divisive, leader in Nepal today is the CPN (UML) chairman, K P Oli. The UML is the junior partner in the ruling coalition, but by all accounts, is driving the national political agenda. PM Sushil Koirala has either failed to assert his authority and reclaim leadership, or is happy to play along and let Oli lead the public discourse so that NC can avoid being in the eye of the controversy.

Oli’s transformation in Nepali politics is stuff of legend. He was an armed revolutionary, inspired by the Naxalbari movement in the late 1960s, and is even rumored to have given orders to ‘annihilate class enemies’. But not only did he move away from the path of violence, like many other Nepali left leaders including Maoists, he went a step ahead and ended up at the conservative end of Nepal’s political spectrum.

In 2004, when King Gyanendra was in control of the levers of power, Oli pushed the UML to join a royal-appointed government. And while he was present when the 12 point understanding with the Maoists was signed to initiate the peace process in 2005, he was not an active participant in the 2006 movement for democracy and peace. He remained a reluctant republican and never really internalized the spirit of political transformation underway to make Nepal a federal secular democratic republic.

In the past decade, the fundamental fault-line in Nepal was between Maoist and non-Maoist political forces. Oli emerged as the champion of the anti-Maoist brigade – this also meant he stood against the agenda they represented. He recognised that the UML faced the most serious threat from the rise of another left democratic force. To counter it, he veered the party strongly towards the right, aligning with the business and military elite. Oli played a key role in mobilising non-Maoist forces to come together against the then Maoist PM Prachanda’s efforts to topple the army chief in 2009; one of Oli’s closest confidantes, Bidya Bhandari, was appointed defence minister; he was viscerally opposed to respectful integration of former Maoist combatants into the Nepal Army, which was a key element of the peace process; Oli also believed that the first CA, where the Maoists had a majority, was not the best platform to promulgate a constitution and actively worked to subvert it. This gave him great currency with the Indian establishment. Its covert agencies pampered Oli, since Delhi then believed in propping up those Nepali leaders who would take a position against the Maoists.

Oli’s power has only grown in the past two years. The UML’s success in the last elections – they came a respectable second, way ahead of the Maoists – was attributed to Oli’s strong hardline position. He became the chairman of the party in the last convention in 2014, despite failing health. He got his own people as ministers in the government. And today, he is the strongest votary of a constitution by vote. Beneath smart power play, where he systematically consolidated and expanded his base, was deeper politics.

Return of old nationalism?

A fundamental change in Nepal has been the cry of the marginalised social groups, be it Madhesis or Janjatis or women or Dalits, for greater inclusion. This rhetoric has made members of otherwise dominant castes, the hill Bahuns and Chhetris insecure. With the king gone, and the old notion of nationalism in shambles, Oli spotted a vacuum.

He has decided to not only project himself as a firm ‘anti-Maoist’ democrat, but the strongest defender of ‘national unity and integrity’. The demand for federalism is painted as secessionism; the cry for inclusion an attack on traditional values; and preserving the manner in which the Nepali state exists is considered the priority.

It is an old ploy, which Oli has emulated straight from King Mahendra’s textbook, the monarch who created the notion of narrow, anti India, Nepali nationalism to consolidate his own power after dismissing an elected government in 1960.

This nationalism has two key pillars. It seeks to create uniformity, rather than respect diversity. It seeks to prioritise old hill symbols as signs of being ‘true Nepalis’ rather than redefine who being a Nepali is to create room for cultural heterogeneity; and it seeks to portray India as ‘the other’, which wants to weaken, fragment, divide Nepal – and only the upholder of this form of nationalism stands between India and Nepal’s ‘Sikkim-isation’ (directly conquered), or ‘Fiji-isation’ (indirectly controlled through demographic aggression).

It is an irony that Oli, long a favorite of the Indian establishment, is today the man who stands as the epitome of old Nepali nationalism. He is willing to give bilateral concessions to India to curry favour, but Oli believes that a majoritarian constitution will catapult him politically, with the backing of the majority of the hill vote.

Modi’s consensus mantra

And why is Delhi being dragged?

During his visit to Kathmandu for the SAARC summit in November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, anticipating the rise of contested constitutional politics, made an important observation. He said publicly that the constitution is a foundational document; it requires saint-like foresight. The constitution must, he observed, be a product of consensus among all major political forces; it must not be a product of a numbers game for that will invite problems. Modi was quick to add that the statute is a living document, and that like India, Nepal can amend its constitution several times. These amendments can happen through a two-thirds majority, but when the initial document is being drafted, it must be done in a manner that given a sense of ownership to the Maoists, to the Madhesis, and to the pahadis.

Modi said the right thing, for India has been deeply involved as an external facilitator and guarantor of the peace process in Nepal. It was because of the presence of India that NC and UML were willing to embrace the Maoists – and when the rebels tried to flout their peace process commitments, Delhi sided with the democratic forces in pressuring the Maoists to implement their promises. Similarly, when the Maoists gave up their People’s Liberation Army and became an entirely non-armed civilian outfit, they trusted India’s word that Delhi would see the push forward the rest of the peace process – fundamentally a progressive, federal, democratic republican constitution through the CA. When the Madhes movement erupted in 2007 and then again in 2008, the NC-UML sought Delhi’s assistance to bring the agitating parties to the table. It was, at the residence of the Indian ambassador, a deal was carved out promising a Madhes province.

The point is Modi’s statement did not appear in a vacuum. He correctly did not get into the specifics of the constitution, but only suggested his preference for the consensual path. Nepal’s ruling elite, which wants to push the constitution by a vote, did not like it. And since then, there has been a calibrated move by propagandists of the ruling alliance to project India as the force which is preventing a constitution, which is backing the opposition alliance.

This view ignores all the other elements of domestic and international landscape who have opposed the NC-UML push. Domestically, besides the Nepali opposition parties, Nepal’s biggest media platforms – Kantipur, The Kathmandu Post and Republica; key civil society leaders of the 2006 movement – Devendra Raj Panday, Daman Nath Dhungana, Padma Ratna Tuladhar, Krishna Khanal; senior academics like Lok Raj Baral and Pitamber Sharma; writers like Manjushree Thapa; the entire spectrum of Madhesi, Janjati, Dalit and women activists have opposed a constitution through a majoritarian route. Internationally, the UN issued a statement on behalf of the international community calling for an inclusive constitution with the widest possible support of the Nepali people; only such a constitution would enjoy wide legitimacy. At a close door Security Council Session in New York, the UN urged Nepali parties to come back to the negotiating table.

Dilemmas and objective

With confrontation looming, India has to decide its strategic objective in Nepal, and what is the best way to achieve it. It now has three choices – it can stick to the consensus line articulated by Modi but refrain from using its leverage to push through that line; it can go a step further, invest political capital in creating pressure on the ruling alliance and opposition to come back to the table and work out a consensus; or it can retreat, allow the political process to play its own course, and let a majoritarian constitution emerge if that is the outcome. Each approach is fraught with possibilities and risks.

For Delhi, the main goal is the consolidation of multiparty democracy and stability in Nepal. And for that, what is needed is a sustainable constitution. The constitution will be sustainable only if it is drafted through the CA; only if it has the buy-in of all major political forces – NC, UML, Maoists and Madhesis and key social groups – hill Hindu castes, ethnic groups, Madhesis, minorities and women; and only if it imbibes the political principles which have already been adopted, federalism, democracy, republicanism, secularism and inclusion.

Option 1 is what India has been doing at the moment. Modi laid out the policy approach prioritizing consensus, and different wings of the Indian establishment, have faithfully re-conveyed that messaged to Nepal’s political actors. The positive element of course is that India is transparently laid out its preference while staying away from meddling too much – the flipside is that current approach rests on wise advice, but inadequate political will to see it through, leaving Delhi stranded.

The government is projecting India as meddling (conveniently forgetting all the times when NC and UML have actively sought Delhi’s intervention for political ends), and is stoking resentment against India. The old nationalism is being remanufactured; articles printed painting India as the villain. But the opposition is not too happy either. Maoists and Madhesi leaders feel that if Delhi is indeed committed to the consensus line, why is it that it cannot use its obvious leverage with old friends like the Nepali Congress, Oli and security agencies to stop their belligerence?

Option 2 is taking the policy line forward, and using its leverage to implement it. ‘

Adopting this approach would mean using the political capital with Oli – and there is adequate Indian capital given past support – to moderate his instincts. It will mean speaking to security forces, warning them of possible disorder if a majoritarian constitution is pushed. It will also mean speaking to NC to encourage it not to let UML hijack the discourse. It will mean speaking to the Madhesi parties, and telling them that the current balance of power means they cannot get all that they want, and moderating their demands. It will mean giving political assurances to the Maoists about their future and dignified space. The differences on the constitution are not intractable and various models have already been floated to find a meeting point on federalism, including the five Tarai districts. It requires an actor with political will, and independent civil society efforts within Nepal, to push the political parties closer together.

The risk is this will mean a high degree of political management, which is bound to displease several elements of the Nepali polity. Delhi has been hesitant to do so because it does not want to be seen as actively interfering. It also does not want to give more ammunition to what the writer C K Lal calls the ‘Permanent Establishment of Nepal (PEON)’ to stoke anti-Indianism. No one will be quite happy with India, but the positive element of this kind of approach is if the outcome is a consensus of sorts to deliver a constitution. There will be fissures, but only such a constitution has a chance of being sustainable.

Option 3 is retreating, based on the recognition that the polity is too divided and it is not in Indian interest to come across looking like an interested party and burning its fingers.

Those who argue in favour of this believe that the hill upper caste-dominated parties and security agencies will continue to dominate the Nepali state for some time, and there is no point in alienating the Kathmandu elite. As long as the bilateral relations are on track, even if a majoritarian constitution emerges, it does not necessarily affect India.

The plus with this approach is India will earn brownie points with the ruling dispensation in Kathmandu, and temporarily save itself from getting embroiled in a political mess. But the problem with this approach is that the majoritarian constitution that will emerge will lead to more conflict. Moderate Maoists led by Prachanda will reunite with their more radical splinters, on terms that favour the far-left. A lot of hard work that has gone in mainstreaming the Maoists may fritter away. There could well be violence, which will lead to state repression, and in turn, resistance. In the Tarai, the Madhesi parties are bound to burn the constitution and launch a movement. This may affect border security and cross border flow of people and goods. More radical secessionist slogans may well emerge in the Tarai. It may also leave the eastern hills, bordering the Darjeeling hills, in turmoil – not an attractive security prospect for India. And if Nepal is locked into this vicious cycle, the bilateral movement on hydropower projects will get stalled yet again.

It is a delicate balancing act, but given that India helped initiate the peace process in 2005, inaction is not really an option when the process is reaching its end-game. It is time for Delhi mandarins to put their thinking caps on.

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