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Can Prachanda use his India visit to resolve the Madhes issue at home?

Brig. Gen. (retd.) Umesh K. Bhattarai, PhD, is a Visiting Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.
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  • September 16, 2016

    Puspa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda” is on an official visit to India as prime minister of Nepal for the second time. Eight years ago, in October 2008, he had visited India for the first time as prime minister of Nepal. Even though that was his first ‘official’ visit abroad, it was steeped in controversy because he had chosen to pay an unofficial visit to China ahead of his India visit — purportedly to boost the morale of Nepalese participants in the Beijing Olympics — and had an informal meeting with the top Chinese leadership. As a Maoist leader with perceived sympathy for China, his visit to Beijing had raised eyebrows in India. An astute politician, Prachanda had perhaps intended his informal visit to China as a signal to his party men that he was bold enough to break from tradition, while at the same time expecting the Indian leadership to be content with his position that he paid his first “official” visit to New Delhi because he valued Nepal’s relationship with India. While this might have gladdened his followers in Nepal, the ‘snub’ was not lost on India.

    But this time around, the situation is different. Prachanda is trying his best to win India’s confidence and capitalise on it to resolve issues at home. He has committed too many things to his countrymen, neighbours and the international community. It would require a superhuman effort on his part and plenty of luck for him to fulfil these commitments.

    The first and foremost task ahead of Prachanda is to satisfy the Madhesi people in Nepal who are demanding at least two Madhes provinces in the Terai region, with their boundaries demarcated according to their choice. Fulfilling this demand is likely to prove to be a tall order for him. He can neither convince the people living east of the Koshi nor those living west of Chitwan who are demanding Akhand Sudur Paschim to be part of one of these proposed Madhes provinces. Moreover, the Madhesis are not in a majority in these areas and the people of Chure-Bhabar — an area that constitutes the Lesser Himalayas contiguous to the Terai plains but with distinct physiographical and ecological characteristics — do not want to be part of such artificial political units.

    Other challenges confronting Prachanda are: implementation of the constitution, post-earthquake reconstruction, ensuring transitional justice to victims of the civil war through successful functioning of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and improvement of relationship with India.

    While Prachanda seems intent to repair the relationship with India, the opposition in parliament is trying to leverage prevailing anti-India sentiments to its advantage. It is demanding the disclosure of the contents of the letter that he had sent to Prime Minister Narendra Modi through Deputy Prime Minister Bimalendra Nidhi. It is widely perceived that some assurances given to the Indian government in the letter run counter to Nepal’s national interest. His silence on the issue does not serve him well and has given rise to speculation that he is out to appease people who have gone against the constitution to please India.

    However, he knows, as much as the Madhesis do, that the constitution cannot be amended without the support of the opposition. He does not have the required two-thirds majority to amend the constitution. As a mature politician, he has to find a way of taking everybody along if he is serious about fulfilling his commitments to the people.

    In order to strengthen democracy by ensuring inclusiveness, the Nepali Congress (NC), Maoist Centre and Madhesi Front signed a three-point Agreement on August 3, 2016, wherein they agreed to declare all those killed during the Madhesi Morcha-sponsored agitation as martyrs and provide relief to those affected, and compensation to the injured. The agreement also stipulated that the government would seek a political consensus on the Madhesi Morcha's 11-point memorandum of demands and the 26-point charter of demands of the Sanghiya Gathabandan (Federal alliance) and move a constitution amendment proposal in parliament.

    The new coalition government headed by Prachanda seems more sensitive to the demands of the Madhesis, Tharus and Janajatis than the previous government led by KP Sharma Oli which stuck to the twin principles of geography and demography as the basis for the demarcation of provincial boundaries. However, it may not be easy to work out a solution acceptable to all (and especially to the Madhesis) on this issue.

    As far as the Madhesi demand of ‘one Madhes one Pradesh’ is concerned, it is not as relevant at the moment and is less discussed even in the Terai region today. The geographical spread of the Terai region and the demographic pattern therein present a different picture. From the Koshi River to east of Nepal, there is a mixed population with majority hill people. West of Koshi up to Parsa district and south of East-West Highway, the majority population is Madhesi. Chitwan has mixed communities with a majority of the people from the hills. From Nawalparasi to Bardia and some part of Kailali district, the Tharus are in a majority. Kailali was the nerve centre of the Sudur Paschim movement and it has fifty per cent of hill people living together with the Tharus. The advocates of Sudur Paschim do not want to concede their demands.

    Even if Prachanda were to commit to his Indian interlocutors that he would be able to fulfil the aspirations of the marginalised groups — the Madhesis, Tarus and Janajatis — the promise to demarcate the boundaries of the provinces to the liking of the Madhesis looks unredeemable.

    The mind-set in the initial phase of democracy was to raise as many demands as possible and find a way of realising them through constitutional means. However, as the democratic process unfolded, the leaders found it difficult to generate the required political consensus to fulfil the aspirations of different ethnic groups all at the same time.

    In sum, prime minister Puspa Kamal Dahal has a whole pile of problems lying unsolved at home. And he has only nine months, as set by his coalition partners, to deliver on his promises. In such a situation, if he has any concrete plan to share with the Indian establishment on resolving the issues at home to India’s liking, then his visit will be successful. Otherwise, he is likely to face intense criticism at home from all sides.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.