India should reflect on why their projects in Nepal are stuck in limboEven three months after the end of the border-centric protests, the government and the agitating Madhesi Morcha have not been able to hold meaningful talks.
Even three months after the end of the border-centric protests, the government and the agitating Madhesi Morcha have not been able to hold meaningful talks. Instead, several days of Kathmandu-centric protests by Madhesis and Janajatis last week shed light on the unresolved issue of Madhesi and minority aspirations. Nepal’s relations with India continue to remain strained, while the government is moving towards implementing some of the accord signed with Beijing. Mukul Humagain and Kamal Dev Bhattarai spoke to Pradip Gyawali, the ruling CPN-UML party secretary and a close confidant of Prime Minister KP Oli, about the government’s failure to hold meaningful dialogue with agitating parties, UML’s failure to find common ground, Nepal-India ties and the government’s perceived pro-China posture.
Although a political mechanism has already been formed to address the Madhesi concerns, why has dialogue with dissenting parties not progressed?
Before Prime Minister Oli left for India, it was decided—in agreement with the Madhesi parties—that the government would push for amendments as per the Madhesi demands. To address the contentious issue of demarcation, a political committee led by Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa was formed. But the Madhes-based parties were adamant that the committee’s Terms of Reference (ToR) should clearly state that there would be two provinces in the Tarai. We could not agree and we tried to find a middle ground. The Madhesis were also concerned about the statutory limit of the recommendations made by the committee. We were discussing these matters, but since then the dialogue has come to a standstill.
Meanwhile, it has been evident that rather than talking with the government, the Madhesi parties have preferred to continue their protests and been involved in political games to bring a change in government. Although the prime minister has asked them numerous times to come to the negotiating table and the deputy prime minister has sent them an official letter to that end, they have not responded. So dialogue with the Madhesi parties has not progressed as hoped.
The Madhesi parties allege that the UML has been the most rigid party during the negotiations and that if their top leaders would join the political mechanism, they will come back to the negotiating table. What are your thoughts on this?
This is a political strategy and propaganda aimed at sullying the image of the UML. As the ruling party, it is natural for the UML to get targeted. We want to bring an end to all the problems facing the country. Our constitution is a historical document which will help us achieve this. Still, the Madhesi communities do have concerns, which we are ready to address through dialogue.
As far as the political mechanism is concerned, once it was established and a head appointed, commenting on the appointee was inappropriate. If a political party says that it does not want to negotiate with a particular Madhesi leader, how will it sound? The Madhesi parties will not be negotiating with Kamal Thapa but the country’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister.
There are many layers to negotiations and the senior leaders will be involved in the final stage.
How do you assess the possibility of two provinces in the Tarai?
That is unacceptable. People rejected the idea of identity-based provinces a long time ago. The Maoists and Madhesis walked out of the first Constituent Assembly (CA) on this very issue, but what was the result in the second CA election? There might be issues on boundaries and allocation of resources, but let’s at least start the process. The US and India are fine examples of how federalism evolves over time and how new states can be created. The new Indian state of Telangana was established in 2014. So federalism is an evolving process and one has to start somewhere.
Many say that cancelling the President’s visit to India and recalling the Nepali ambassador to Delhi have once again created a rift in Nepal-India relations. Do you agree?
Nepal-India relations are strong enough to withstand a few isolated incidents. The events you cited are definitely noteworthy. After Prime Minister Oli’s visit to India, the relations between the two countries had normalised to a great extent. Then suddenly there were conspiracies to bring about a change in government. This was not the will of the Nepali people or of our neighbours as no one will benefit from a destabilised Nepal. But there are some elements that are trying to spoil Nepal-India relations.
Could you be more specific?
India’s political landscape is enormous and there are different interest groups within the country. For instance, there is already a controversy over letting one Indian company undertake the Kathmandu-Nijgadh fast-track project. These are petty interests, and such interest groups are present in India. It is imperative for both the countries to sort out their differences and restore bilateral ties to the level they were during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit in 2014.
How would you respond to the claims that the UML has not been as dedicated to restoring ties with India as it has been to signing deals with China?
Fear of a growing Chinese presence in Nepal is the outcome of a narrow mindset of certain policy makers and media outlets in India, especially when India and China themselves are witnessing improved economic cooperation. China is soon going to be India’s largest investor and the trade between them already amounts to billions of dollars. In comparison, Nepal-China trade is insignificant. So increasing Chinese investment in Nepal should not alarm anyone. We have strictly said time and again that Nepal’s territory will never be used against any other state and we want to remain non-aligned. But we need the help of both the countries for our growth.
Another crucial issue that India needs to reflect on why so many Indian projects in Nepal have remained in limbo. We are waiting for the Pancheswor project for 18 years. Our party split because of the differences over ratification of the Mahakali treaty in 1998. Other projects such as Upper Karnali, and the Hulaki highway are in a dire condition.
What do you make of the government’s decision to build the Kathmandu-Nijgadh fast-track highway on its own when negotiations were in process to give it to an Indian company?
We are not against foreign investment and certainly not against Indian investment. But no country in the world has developed solely on the basis of foreign investments. We need to be able to use our own resources. We should be the ones building our nation. Moreover, the deal with the Indian company was not at all favourable for the country. We had to bear the cost of construction, which we were to acquire through a soft loan, pay compensation if the project was delayed or if the agreed number of cars did not ply the road. Such terms are ridiculous; it is amazing how our leaders agreed to them. So the decision was not about India; it was purely business.
What would you say to those who feel that Prime Minister Oli is prioritising development to distract people from the contentious task of implementing the constitution?
The promulgation of the constitution was a watershed moment in Nepali politics. We have entered a new era with our constitution, and economic prosperity is now the nation’s main priority. Prime Minister Oli has been asserting this new vision. If we do not prioritise development even now, we will disappear in the enormity of India and China. We have been unable to go beyond political manoeuvrings. Prime Minister Oli is only trying to change this mindset and promote a narrative that places development at the centre.
Is there any truth to the rumours that there will be a change in government after the budget is presented?
The past few weeks have been a bit too dramatic for the country. We signed a nine-point agreement with the Maoists to keep the coalition intact so that the country does not slide back into political turmoil. As far as a change in government is concerned, we believe that if there is an agreement for a national government, the prime minister will facilitate it. But in case the political parties cannot reach a consensus, only a change in government is not going to make any difference. But claiming that this government’s days are numbered will not be correct.