India must firmly push for Madhesi inclusion with the Nepali president
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India must firmly push for Madhesi inclusion with the Nepali president

India understands that an inclusive Nepal is essential for a stable and friendly Nepal. If the Madhesis are not accommodated, radicalisation would only grow in the Tarai. And if this grows, the instability could spill over across the border.

authors Updated: Apr 18, 2017 08:32 IST
Nepal,Madhesi,Nepal President Bidya Bhandari
Activists take part in a rally to support ethnic Madhesis during a demonstartion in Kathmandu, Nepal on March 9, 2017. (REUTERS)

A little less than a year ago, Nepal’s President Bidya Bhandari’s maiden state visit to New Delhi was cancelled abruptly by her government – then led by PM K P Oli. Oli had decided to stoke a strong sense of resentment against India to build his hardline nationalist credentials. The move was one more step in this direction.

It speaks of the progress in state to state ties over the past year that Bhandari is currently in New Delhi, as a state guest in Rashtrapati Bhawan. In November, her host, President Pranab Mukherjee had visited Kathmandu. The turning point was the election of Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ as the Prime Minister, with the support of the Nepali Congress. The Maoist leader committed himself to a ‘balanced foreign policy’, which meant re-steering the country back to its ‘special relationship’ with India from Oli’s push towards China.

As the ceremonial head of the state, Bhandari’s visit is more symbolic than substantive.

But India must use Bhandari’s visit to go beyond the formalities and discreetly discuss the difficult political situation back in her country.

Nepal is once again headed towards a political crisis. Its roots lie in the contested constitution, which was promulgated in September 2015. This constitution eroded political representation, diluted affirmative action, reframed citizenship provisions, and gerrymandered federal provinces in a way which hurt the interests of the Madhesi people in Nepal’s southern plains. They waged a movement for six months, disrupting the border supplies with tacit Indian support. Kathmandu was forced to amend the constitution - but this only partially met their demands.

Prachanda and the Nepali Congress came to power with the explicit promise that they would accommodate the Madhesi forces with a constitutional amendment. To be fair, the government has tabled an amendment. But this has not been passed. Instead, it has gone ahead with declaring local elections for May 14.

Madhesi forces argue that since they do not own this constitution, they cannot participate in elections held under its framework. Constitution implementation can only happen after broadening its ownership - through an amendment, which addresses their core demand of revision of federal boundaries. On Sunday, they announced a fresh movement.

Here is where India comes in.

Delhi has, since the constitution was promulgated, understood that an inclusive Nepal is essential for a stable and friendly Nepal. If the Madhesis are not accommodated, radicalisation would only grow in the Tarai - as has been happening over the past two years, with the emergence of a secessionist leader. And if this grows, the instability will spill over across the border.

The parallels with Sri Lanka - an alienated population with cross-border links taking to an extreme movement against a majoritarian centre - are uncanny. But do note that Madhesis and Tharus are one third of the population, their movement cannot be easily crushed, and they have been peaceful so far.

Delhi has been cautious over the past few months, fearing its well meaning advice could be used by Oli and his ilk to deepen ultra-nationalism. The dilemma is understandable. But not doing anything is no option. A movement is about to break out in Tarai. If elections are held in all parts but Tarai, it will reinforce the region’s sense of separateness and alienate them even further. If it is rammed through with force, there will be violence and it will be seen as illegitimate. Like last time, India will get affected and get dragged it, and sooner or later, have to take a stand.

Bhandari could be an important interlocutor because as head of state, she can counsel parties to adopt a more accommodative approach. She is also particularly close to Oli, who has been most obstructionist. India needs to remind the Nepali political elite of the consequences of closing the doors of the constitution on Madhesis with unilateral elections.

First Published: Apr 17, 2017 12:00 IST