You are here

India’s Predicament in Post-Blockade Nepal

  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • May 28, 2016

    China, the US, and some EU countries prefer continuation of the Left alliance in Nepal for their concern over replacing “secularism” with “Hinduism” in the Nepal’s Constitution. Therefore, the EU, which has a reputation of backing human rights and social justice for the marginalised groups, surprisingly keeps silence even when the Janajatis and Madhesis feel that their interests are not accommodated in the new Constitution. Despite facilitating Nepal’s experiment with democracy and its continuing aid for humanitarian causes, India is projected as an overly interfering neighbour. India has nobody to blame but itself for the growing influence of other countries in Nepal for consistently poor assessments of the Nepal’s political situation and half-hearted measures to mitigate the issues

    The hope of a stable and thriving Nepal seems to be slowly fading away after the promulgation of the new Constitution adopted in September last year. The Constitution is increasingly losing support and faith of a large number of people. It has failed to take the democratic process forward. After a gap of three months, the Federal Alliance (FA), a conglomeration of Janajatis and Madhesis, has started the second round of agitation against the new Constitution after rejecting the Government’s offer of peace talks. Around 27 marginalised and Janajati groups/political parties are participating in the agitation in Kathmandu at present. Further, the prevailing political turbulence is catalysed by differences between ruling and opposition parties on emerging political issues related to the implementation of the Constitution, suppression of the views of coalition partners, and the fact that external rather than internal influences are shaping the dynamics of the ruling UML-CPN coalition.

    Democracy in peril

    The coalition partners backing the Oli Government, as well as the opposition groups, have criticised the Government’s decision to hold local bodies’ elections by December 2016 without finalising the provincial boundaries. They have also been critical of Government policies and programmes and called them “false assurances”. Even the CPN-Maoists, the second largest coalition partner of the Oli Government, has been critical of the Government’s decision to recall Nepal’s Ambassador to India and cancellation of President’s visit to India in a hurried manner.

    Civil society groups have filed a writ against the nine-point agreement signed in May 2016 between the UCPN (Maoist) and the UML. Section 7 of the agreement talks about bringing amendments in the new Constitution, transferring insurgency-era human rights violation cases from the Supreme Court to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and offering blanket amnesty to the rights offenders during the insurgency period. At the same time, the Government is extremely intolerant of any criticism levelled against its policies and is allegedly suppressing freedom of expression. While one Canadian national, Robert Penner, was deported from Nepal for criticising the Government’s apathy towards the Madhesi people, the Press Council of Nepal has demanded public apology from a private TV channel for airing an interview with CK Rout, a Terai leader, who has been reportedly demanding an autonomous Madhesh province.

    Recently, a section of the media reported illegal arrests of some journalists and political activists during the ongoing Federal Alliance agitation in Kathmandu.

    Collusion of interests

    Instead of focusing on governance and reconstruction issues, the Government in Kathmandu is mostly focusing on retaining its hold on power by fuelling ultra-nationalist sentiments and cleverly putting all blame on India for non-cooperation. Meanwhile, the Government has successfully garnered external support by pitting major powers (read China, EU, USA and India) against each other.

    The same tactic is being used to keep its coalition partners silent and ensure their continued support to the Government. When Prachanda highlighted the failure of the Government to address the demands of the marginalised groups, problems of governance, and snags in reconstruction efforts and wanted to form a national unity Government by bringing the Nepali Congress on board in May this year, Oli reportedly used the “China card” and forced Prachanda to continue with his party’s support to his Government.

    From the Chinese point of view, this is being projected by analysts as a unique opportunity for China to extend support to the alliance of the Left-wing political parties (an alliance of the CPN-UML, Maoists and some other left parties) both to neutralise India’s influence in Nepal and to checkmate perceived US-India efforts to mobilise Tibetan refugees against China.

    Recently, China signed ten MoUs with Nepal, including one for providing transit facilities to Nepal, infrastructure connectivity and joint feasibility study for proposed oil and gas deposits in Nepal. Of these MoUs, Oli Government has already implemented the MoU on construction of Pokhara international airport, and projects for exploration of oil and gas within a month’s time. The Government has also accorded high priority to projects by China in its policies and programmes. Therefore, it has been a win-win situation for China to ensure loyalty of the Left-alliance in return for economic and strategic support at a time when the ruling elite in Kathmandu is looking away from India.

    Interestingly, while China is suspicious about the US interests in Nepal and wants to counter it by nurturing the Left-wing parties, as per many perceptive observers in Kathmandu, the US has, quite paradoxically, extended its support to the ruling Left-alliance to ensure that it does not pander to Indian Right-wing’s anxiety over forced conversion in Nepal. Although the US does not officially show any policy differences with India on Nepal, privately, its embassy officials articulate that they do not trust the Modi Government because it has the potential to revive Hinduism in Nepal. For example, despite being aware of shortcomings in the new Constitution, Alaina B Teplitz, the US Ambassador to Nepal, said in a statement on May 11, 2016, “Nepal’s Constitution is a milestone… the debate around the new Constitution has been dominated by political rhetoric rather than specifics of the Constitution…the concerns of the United States (pertain) to gender parity in conferring citizenship, and restrictions on religious conversion.” There is also a

    perception in Kathmandu that the US encourages evangelist activities by some NATO member countries and international NGOs.

    Like the US, some EU countries also prefer continuation of the Left alliance for their concern over replacing “secularism” with “Hinduism” in the Constitution. Though the EU has a reputation of backing human rights and social justice for the marginalised groups, surprisingly, it has maintained its silence even when the Janajatis and Madhesis feel that their interests are not accommodated in the new Constitution, and more than 50 Madhesis lost their lives during the anti-Constitution agitation. Although EU and India asked Nepal to make the Constitution inclusive in a joint statement during Prime Minister Modi’s Brussels visit in March 2016, the EU Ambassador to Nepal is far from responsive to any such commitment from EU’s side.

    Isolated actor

    It appears that these three major powers prefer continuation of the present Left coalition to any dramatic change in Nepalese polity under pressure from Madhesis or Janajatis backed by India. This has unfortunately isolated India which has been fighting for inclusion, federalism, peace and stability in Nepal. India has been unfairly blamed for interfering in internal affairs of Nepal and trying to topple the Oli Government, which was linked to the visits of senior Opposition leaders from Nepal to New Delhi recently.

    Despite facilitating Nepal’s experiment with democracy and its continuing aid for humanitarian causes, India is projected as an overly interfering neighbour. This perception has flourished ever since India expressed its reservations on the new Constitution and raised its concerns over failures to accommodate marginalised groups’ demands. The same issue reappeared during Nepal Prime Minister’s visit to India and both the countries failed to issue a joint statement at the end of the visit. India reportedly wanted to mention the phrase, “Addressing the remaining Constitutional issues in a time-bound manner, and promote political stability and economic growth,” in the statement, which the Nepalese Government refused to accept.

    India has nobody to blame but itself for the growing influence of other countries in Nepal over a period of time. Its consistently poor assessments of the Nepal political situation and half-hearted measures to mitigate that since September 2015 have left India with very limited options in Nepal. When the Nepalese media and ruling party leaders accused India for attempting to overthrow the Oli Government in May 2016, and PM Oli took unilateral decision to cancel the President’s visit and called back its Ambassador from Delhi, India remained a mute spectator. The South Block reportedly panicked while rumour floated in Kathmandu that the Oli Government might declare Indian Ambassador to Nepal as a persona-non-grata.

    Geo-political constraints

    However, it would be wrong to conclude that Oli took all his recent decisions only with Chinese backing. While China factor remained important, a number of other factors have played a key role. Oli and the Kathmandu elites are aware that India cannot go beyond a point. First, it cannot close the borders or limit Nepal-India trading points, as it did in 1989 due to security seasons. In fact, as Nepal laboured under the political and economic crisis because of Madhesi protests, the armies of both countries played an important role in calling off the border blockade in February 2016. Any such measures from the Indian side in future could affect the security cooperation between the two countries. India cannot afford that. Second, Nepalese nationalism is rooted in anti-Indianism. The UML-Government, especially Oli, has successfully capitalised on the situation since mid-2015 and emerged as an unchallenged India-basher in Nepal. The UML’s electoral position has improved further with the support of China and some of the EU member countries. Other parties in Nepal are extremely fragmented and fear that any future political line they take to address the Madhesi issue by bringing about amendments in the Constitution may affect their electoral performances.

    Thirdly, three key institutions of Nepal the bureaucracy, judiciary and Nepalese Army could be used successfully to implement the 16 and 9-point agreements. While the bureaucracy seems to be in favour of the UML, the party is trying hard to control the judiciary, which recently over-ruled parliamentary procedures while appointing the Supreme Court Chief Justice and eleven judges. It also expects that the Army could be made to fall in line by raking up insurgency-era crime charges and other national security issues. In this regard, the party has prepared a comprehensive national security policy by identifying potential future security challenges.

    Lastly, in the last one decade, Nepalese society has undergone drastic changes. The thinking of the new generation Nepalese youth about India and India-Nepal relations has changed. Their reactions to the “border blockade” by the Madhesis were unprecedented. They do not want to be dependent on India. They prefer to work and study in other countries than India. Therefore, reducing dependency on a single source as well as diversifying connectivity and supply options has been a major foreign policy goal of Nepal during the post-blockade phase. It would require innovative and responsive diplomacy by New Delhi to bring back warmth into an otherwise waning relationship.

    (The writer is an Associate Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi)