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How India was both right and wrong on Nepal

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi's special envoy, foreign secretary S Jaishankar delivered a blunt message to Kathmandu's political leadership: He told them India is unhappy about the manner in which they have gone about adopting the country’s new Constitution.

analysis Updated: Sep 20, 2015 20:09 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times
India,Nepal Kathmandu,Constitution
Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Koirala (3R),Unified Marxist Leninist chairman K P Oli (4R), Nepalese Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, known better as Prachanda (4L) and other lawmakers wave while Nepal's parliament passes a new national constitution in Kathmandu. (AFP Photo)

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi's special envoy, foreign secretary S Jaishankar delivered a blunt message to Kathmandu's political leadership: He told them India is unhappy about the manner in which they have gone about adopting the country’s new Constitution.

India has been concerned that the Constitution is being adopted even as half the country – the Terai region – is paralysed by protests, curfew has been imposed in many parts and the army has had to be called out.

The Nepali political leadership, India feels, has not exercised the flexibility to bring on board all regions and sections of society. This, Delhi fears, could sow the seeds for future instability, right across the open border. Jaishankar pointedly asked Nepal’s leaders how they expected India to welcome such a Constitution.

Jaishankar’s message has gone unheeded. Nepal’s top three political parties are doing little to address concerns of dissenting groups of the Terai region, and are going ahead with the Constitution’s promulgation on Sunday.

This throws up important questions. Was India right in taking a public position, even at the cost of inviting a Nepali “nationalist” backlash? Why was it ineffective in getting Nepali leaders to heed its message? And what lies next?

The message of inclusion

Jaishankar’s visit was the culmination of a series of Indian public pronouncements on Nepal, underlying all of which was an appeal to the Kathmandu leadership to be inclusive in its approach.

Last year, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the Constituent Assembly in Kathmandu, he said the Constitution should be such that people from Himal, pahad and Terai can own it. He reiterated this message during a second visit, and categorically gave a call for a consensus-based Constitution.

At the end of August, soon after violence in western Terai, Modi spoke to his Nepal counterpart Sushil Koirala and urged him to find the “widest possible agreement” for the Constitution and initiate dialogue. Last Monday, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj issued a statement encouraging Nepali leaders to draft a Constitution which was owned by, and accommodated the aspirations of, all regions and sections of Nepali society.

Indian Ambassador Ranjit Rae explained the import of the statement and told Nepali editors that unless concerns of Madhesis and Tharus – two social groups in the Terai agitation for revised federal boundaries, inclusion and political representation – were taken on board, there could be instability. He said India would like Nepali leaders to fulfil their assurances that they would be flexible, for only this could lead to a durable and resilient Constitution.

And on Saturday morning, Jaishankar concluded his visit by noting the completion of the Constitution-making process was meant to be an occasion for “joy and celebration, not agitation and violence”.

The message was clear. Pause, negotiate with dissenting forces, make the process inclusive, draw out a wider consensus on the substance of the Constitution and then adopt and promulgate it. If this happened, all of Nepal would celebrate. India then would be happy to join in.

Creating a nation

Make no mistake. What India said was absolutely correct and history will judge it to be the right position.

The need to take all communities on board, all regions into confidence while drafting the Constitution in a staggeringly diverse country like Nepal cannot be over-emphasised. There is overwhelming literature to suggest that while Nepal is an old state, it has never been a nation in the true sense of the term.

The Constitution was meant to bring together its diverse “nationalities” into one common fold: It was to bring the people of pahad and Terai together. In a country bereft of common symbols, the Constitution was to be the defining national document. India instinctively understood this, based on its own democratic constitutional experience.

Delhi was well within its rights to articulate the policy position it did. It was no “interference”, if you glance through the history of this special relationship.

As a facilitator of the peace process of which this Constitution is the climax, India could not suddenly wash its hands off developments in Nepal. As the force behind the conduct of the two Constituent Assembly elections in 2008 and 2013, India could feign apathy about the manner in which the Constitution was being adopted.

As a guarantor of a 2008 pact between the Nepal government and Terai forces – when then Prime Minister GP Koirala went out of his way to seek Indian help – it could not turn deaf when one set of signatories complained provisions of the pact on creation of provinces and inclusion were not being implemented.

As a democracy, it could not turn a blind eye to violence and killing of peaceful protestors at its doorstep. As a federal polity, it had to take into account concerns of states like Bihar whose people share close links with Terai and whose legislators had been pushing the Centre to act against state brutality in Terai. As a country sharing an open border, it could not brush aside deep and legitimate strategic interests when it could see clearly the Constitution, far from addressing roots of the past conflict, was creating conditions for deep ethnic polarisation.

And as a neighbour, it could not ignore the fact Kathmandu's political establishment was deliberately stoking “anti-Indianism”. The perception was being manufactured that India had instigated the Madhes movement – when this was far from the truth.

Indeed, one of the triggers for the strong message by Jaishankar in his meetings was an article written by Koirala's press advisor in a local daily which was directly critical of India and Modi. This was seen as an open act of hostility straight from the Nepal PMO, and a gross violation of all diplomatic norms. Jaishankar is understood to have flagged the issue strongly with Koirala.

The mixed signals

So when Indian advice was correct, and India was right in delivering it, what went wrong?

It is first important to recognise the limits of any external role.

The balance of power in Nepal is currently in favour of the hill elite-led establishment. With the Maoists turning their back on the agenda of social justice for marginalised and excluded groups, this tilt has become more pronounced. Hill leaders have displayed rare unity in institutionalising a political order which helps consolidate their power.

The structural limitation of party-based representative democracy is that even MPs from minority communities toe instructions from party bosses against their conscience for fear of losing their positions – which is why even Terai MPs of bigger forces were reluctant to rebel. Once Kathmandu decided to launch brutal suppression of the movement in the plains, and not listen to domestic dissenting voices, India’s space to act shrunk.

But there were two broad problems from Delhi’s end – internal divisions which generated mixed signals, and a costly delay in waking up to the crisis.

The immediate Nepal crisis has been brewing for at least 45 days. The parties had drawn up a federal map, which had led to the Terai backlash. The Indian embassy in Kathmandu had consistently warned the headquarters about the possibility of the bigger parties ramming a Constitution through, ignoring Terai concerns, which in turn would lead to unrest and instability. But there was a view within the external affairs ministry that India should stay away, for as long as Delhi got the bilateral cooperation it sought from Kathmandu, there was no reason to alienate the powerful hill-led establishment.

This was a historical view, which underestimated how domestic political developments and bilateral relationship were closely intertwined. The anti-Terai sentiment could very easily spin off into an orchestrated anti-Indian campaign. That is what happened eventually.

It also ignored the fact that the India-Nepal relationship cannot be reduced to a transactional one – a deal here and a deal there may make some mandarins happy but this is too deep and multifaceted a relationship for that to be the sole determinant.

There are also too many freelance political operators who navigate the India-Nepal maze, from mid-level BJP and RSS leaders to businessmen. They go around pretending in Kathmandu to speak for the Indian government, and leaders are quick to lap up what they say if it suits them.

This ended up giving the ruling elite the confidence that it could ram through the document it wanted and a divided India would come around. In fact, Hindustan Times has learnt that one of the top leaders the foreign secretary met told Indian interlocutors that he would be happy to meet all of India's interests on the bilateral front once he became Prime Minister.

This exposes their public pretence of being champions of Nepali “nationalism”. But it gives a glimpse into thinking at the top in Nepali polity – that India can be managed with a few sops. This thinking has been encouraged by petty Indian bureaucratic thinking in Delhi.

Too little, too late

By the time the Indian political leadership and the bureaucracy at the highest levels woke up to the crisis, it was too late.

National Security Advisor Ajit Doval spoke to Nepali leaders on September 12 to put off the Constitution vote by a few days and use the time to bring Terai parties on board when voting was scheduled for Sunday. He should have exerted this pressure at least ten days earlier. Swaraj issued a statement late on Monday night – in fact so late that all Indian papers missed it the next morning. This could have come out before the voting process began.

Modi sent his special envoy on Friday, when the vote was over and Constituent Assembly members were signing on to the Constitution. This was a much needed step – and showed that Delhi's political establishment was not comfortable with the manner in which the Constitution was being written. But it should have happened at the beginning of the week. Many Nepali interlocutors told Jaishankar he had come too late.

And even when Delhi woke up, there was a reluctance to use all tools at its disposal.

Top diplomatic sources in Delhi have confirmed that India recently blocked a discussion at the UN Security Council on Nepal. This may have stemmed from the “Nepal is our backyard mindset”. But it was counterproductive for it would have helped generate pressure on Kathmandu and the Terai killings would have become subject to international scrutiny. India was reluctant to use the leverage it has with Nepali security institutions and political parties – for fear of being labelled interventionist. This diffidence is a bit inexplicable. Once it had taken a public position, India should have followed it through with action on all fronts.

India now stares at lose-lose proposition. The Kathmandu establishment is convinced Delhi is behind the Terai unrest and was actively sabotaging the constitution, while the Terai feels India did not invest all its political might in pushing for a fresh constitutional settlement and political deal.

What next?

India is expected to issue a statement on Sunday after the Constitution’s promulgation – but while this will note the promulgation, it is unlikely that Delhi will welcome the development.

The triangular dance between Kathmandu, Terai and New Delhi will now determine events.

The gulf between Kathmandu and Terai will only increase in coming weeks and months. As the capital welcomes the Constitution with Diwali-like celebrations, the plains will observe it as a black day. Clashes are expected as ruling parties deploy their foot soldiers to counter protestors. Politically, all of Terai’s parties remain outside the process. They are likely to make it clear that they will neither accept this Constitution, nor participate in any of the political processes that take place within the constitutional framework, unless there is a major review. Emboldened with their victory, Kathmandu's leaders will probably turn even more conservative.

The gulf between the two national capitals will also grow. A new government is expected in Kathmandu soon, as a part of a power-sharing deal which drove this Constitution through. This government will probably make overtures to Delhi to soothe ruffled feathers. But India is miffed at the manner in which events have unfolded. And there is little appetite to invest energy in improving the relationship when Nepal has been so obstinate. There is a sense in Delhi that despite Modi’s personal investment in the relationship, two visits and an effort to allay Nepali insecurities, the generous support after the earthquake, the blank cheque to Nepali leadership on contentious issues like the 1950 treaty, Kathmandu’s leaders neither listen to Indian advice nor do they shy away from the old game of stoking anti-Indian ultra-nationalism. India will turn indifferent to the relationship, at least for a while.

The Terai-India relationship is sensitive. India has a Nepal policy, and not necessarily a Kathmandu policy and Terai policy for Nepal. That is why it was keen to see a harmonious constitutional settlement. But as the gulf between the two parts of Nepali polity increases, the Terai will increasingly look to India for help and support. Constituencies in Bihar will speak up for rights for Madhesis. And India will find it difficult to ignore these voices.

As Nepal promulgates its Constitution, one cannot but regret how an opportunity for defining a new nation was lost. What should have inaugurated a golden period could well be the harbinger of tougher times. India will be watching, as it enters a challenging period in ties with Nepal.

First Published: Sep 20, 2015 12:45 IST