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Indo-Nepal Consternation

 

Context

Nepal President Bidhya Devi Bhandari visited Delhi recently which was officially termed as a “grand success”.

But that India is losing clout and credibility in Nepal is no more a secret.

That naturally calls for serious introspection into what has gone wrong in the relations along with corrective measures to address them, especially during high-level bilateral visits.

 Happenings

  • India and Nepal have civilisational commonalities, culture, religion and people-to-people relations binding them together with open border, but still we have failed as states to go deeper into the current state of bilateral relations marred by a trust deficit.
  • Bhandari’s visit to Delhi, her first since becoming president in October last, failed to impress on either side that a serious effort was needed to repair the frayed relations.
  • The facilitation of the Maoists and their radical agenda was made a centrestage in Nepali politics through the intervention of India, by then Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, while gradually sidelining the moderate and traditional political forces. This policy is today seen as the main reason for the fragmentation of Nepali politics.
  • The failure on the part of Nepali actors to prepare a constitution involving all the political sections has only prolonged the transition process.
  • Both Mukherjee and Prime Minister Modi have reiterated that India’s stance is for the “peace, stability and prosperity of Nepal”, suggesting that “having all sides on board is a pre-requisite to achieve that objective”, with oblique reference to the sentiments of the Madhesis in Nepal who have cross border family links in Bihar.       

  Chinese factor

  • President Bhandari’s departure to Delhi coincided with the ten-day long Nepal-China joint military exercise, the first in history, in Kathmandu.
  • China has promised continuity and support to the Nepal army in combating terrorism, and for keeping peace.
  • While India is keen to do more to mend its relationship with the Nepal army, which got offended when the government of India stopped supply of arms and ammunition as part of its overtures to the Maoists to join the “peace process”. The Nepal army was then fighting the Maoists. It is to be noted that a significant number of Gorkhas serve in the Indian Army and has always played critical role in all wars, particularly Kargil due to their mountain combat skills.
  • Maoists, in PM Modi’s words, may have given up “yuddha” to embrace the “Buddha”, but they are largely responsible for the prevailing political instability, and the resultant erosion in the authority of the state.
  • The continued instability and loss of credibility of the Nepalese state, and the failure of the “India-mediated and influenced political agenda” of 2005, has also created a legitimate space for other countries, mainly China, to enter Nepal as a stakeholder.
  • In Beijing’s perception, China is as concerned about Nepal’s peace, stability and prosperity as India. The first Chinese military exercise, most likely to be followed by Nepal joining the One Belt, One Road initiative soon, is seen as an indication of the events to come.

 Maoism in Nepali politics

In 2006, the Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal emerged from hiding just as the decade-long insurgency he had directed was pushing the country’s monarchy to its knees. The rebel chief was picked up by a government helicopter, then whisked to the prime minister’s residence in Kathmandu to begin official peace talks.

  • By that time, after more than 20 years in hiding, he had become a legend, widely known as Prachanda, meaning “the fierce one.” Few knew what he looked like. India’s restive Communist circles came to extol and emulate his tactical prowess.
  • He had started the civil war, which took more than 16,000 lives, with two rifles from among those dropped by the C.I.A. for Tibetan rebels three decades earlier. The brutal war finally ended when 19,000 Maoist fighters drew an almost 100,000-strong state army into a stalemate and were close to realizing their audacious demand to end the monarchy, which had ruled the country since its birth some 250 years ago.
  • But already Prachanda was showing signs of what some considered pragmatism and, others, capitulation. He had promised a revolution, but he delivered compromises with Nepal’s older political parties. They dropped their support for the monarchy; in return, he accepted democracy.
  • In November 2006, a few months after his emergence, Prachanda signed a peace agreement with G. P. Koirala, then the prime minister, formally concluding the war.
  • Together, the former Maoist guerrilla and the tenacious elder statesman kicked off a historic transition to a federal democratic republic, to be enshrined in a highly anticipated new constitution. Two years later, the monarchy fell and Prachanda was elected prime minister in the Constituent Assembly, a tumultuous term that lasted just a few months.
  • In 2016, Prachanda became prime minister for the second time. Now there is little excitement and loads of skepticism, for this has been a volatile decade both for the man and the nation.
  • Indeed, Prachanda’s track record in open politics has been dismal. His slide began after he led the Maoist party to its surprise victory in 2008. During his short stint as prime minister, tales spread of his nepotism and newfound wealth. The poor and landless felt he had done little to redistribute resources. Thousands of people continued to leave the country looking for work. He was accused of muzzling the press. He attempted to sack the army chief, alienating an already doubting military establishment and its ally, India. Prachanda eventually resigned, furthering instability and eventually sending the party to electoral defeat.
  • For his supporters, the deepest betrayal came last September, when he was leader of the opposition during the Constitution’s highly fraught promulgation

Nepal’s constitution and the Maoists

Nepali society is diverse. And Nepali politics has always been exclusionary. The new Constitution was meant to resolve this impasse.

  • Since Prachanda had played a key role in the political awakening of Nepal’s historically marginalized communities, he carried a unique personal burden to deliver to them an inclusive constitution, a reconciliation between the upper-caste peoples of the hills, who have always monopolized state power, and the peoples of the southern plains, treated as a fifth column because of their cultural ties to India.
  • However, just before the current Constitution was signed, Prachanda turned his back on his opposition supporters and sided with the dominant parties, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), to back a document that reversed even the basic gains on inclusion achieved over the past decade, including its addition of discriminatory citizenship provisions against women. It was surely no coincidence that all three parties were led by upper-caste men of the country’s hills.
  • The passage of the Constitution last year incited a six-month movement by residents of the plains along the southern border with India.
  • The protesters, with tacit Indian support, blocked the huge flow of supplies from the border to generate pressure on the new government led by K. P. Oli of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). Kathmandu’s leaders responded by amending the Constitution to broaden representation in the Legislature, but refused to revise federal boundaries to give communities greater autonomy.
  • They also built a climate of ultranationalism, branding India interventionist and the protesters its pliable agents, and pivoted to China for support. Power games in Kathmandu used to be Delhi’s exclusive domain; it suddenly had competition.
  • So Delhi encouraged Prachanda to withdraw support from the Oli government. The Nepali Congress, the leading opposition party, chose to back him, seeing it as their only way to return to power.
  • As prime minister, Prachanda has pledged to amend the Constitution to address the grievances of the protesters in the plains.
  • And given the size of those communities — about one-third of the population — he knows that only when they approve the Constitution can it be fully implemented. This would involve first holding local elections, after which Prachanda has promised to hand over the reins to the Nepali Congress, as part of a power-sharing deal, in order to hold national and provincial elections.
  • Nepali Maoists rose to power because they persuasively fused class and identity and promised to address the country’s multilayered discrimination based on caste, gender and geography. Prachanda turned his back on that message last year by allowing the Constitution to pass in its current state.

Way forward

  • India should recognise the limitations imposed by the concept of nation-state and therefore should be wary to indulge too much into the politics of Nepal in the behest of civilisational links.
  • The immediate fallout will be intimacy towards China which is making its sway throughout India’s sphere of influence, be it in South Asia neighbourhood, Indian Ocean, Africa and Latin America. The geographical barrier between China and Nepal should not be seen an essential block element by India that will prevent their relationship, as global relationships today are far more robust beyond merely geographical proximities.
  • India can work towards tapping the hydropower potential of Himalayas abundant Nepal, which will keep a stable economic base not only in Nepal but also in backward areas bordering Nepal in Eastern UP and Bihar. It will eventually subdue the Maoist problem.
  • It should also be kept in mind that Nepal is very critical for the internal security of India, particularly in Maoist areas and Bodo groups which receive financial and arms support through Nepal from China and Pakistan. Thus India cannot afford to sequestrate Nepal’s politics much.

Practice Questions

  1. Trace the constitutional history of Nepal and the role played by India. Where has India gone wrong? Critically examine.
  2. What are the options available for India in addressing the sentiments of various groups in Nepal while still retaining the strategic clout there?
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