The more India aligns itself with Madhesi issue, the harder it makes its resolutionLast week Indian President Pranab Mukherjee was in Nepal for a three-day visit, the first by an Indian head of state in 18 years.
Last week Indian President Pranab Mukherjee was in Nepal for a three-day visit, the first by an Indian head of state in 18 years. Mukherjee’s arrival signalled a warming of relations that had hit a low after India imposed a four-and-a-half-month-long border blockade on Nepal last year, expressing its displeasure with the new constitution. In an interview with this newspaper last week, Mukherjee also invited Nepal to be part of India’s growth story and focus on implementing the constitution and economic growth. He expressed satisfaction over what he claimed was Nepal’s efforts to make the constitution more inclusive and hoped that the row over the constitution would be resolved soon, evidently in reference to the deep Madhesi dissatisfaction with the constitution.
But the Indian President’s visit was not without controversy, both for his comments on Nepal’s constitution and an overly tight security arrangement the government accorded to him at the public’s expense. Anil Giri and Shashwat Acharya spoke with Narayan Kaji Shrestha, former deputy prime minister and foreign minister and chief of the CPN (Maoist Centre)’s foreign relations department, about the significance of Mukherjee’s visit, Nepal-India relations, and the importance Nepal accords to its ties with China and the Madhesi issue.
What is your assessment of Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit?
A presidential visit from a neighbouring country after an 18-year hiatus should be taken positively. That said, other than creating an environment for promoting friendly relations, we should not expect too much from a visit by a ceremonial president. A message of the Indian government that was clearly conveyed by this visit: that there is a continuation of India’s previous position on Nepal’s recent political developments, particularly its reservations about the constitution.
Given that Mukherjee is not an executive head, how should we read this message?
Even if he were an executive head, any prescription by the Indian government on Nepal’s constitution falls in the realm of interference, which is not a good thing. It is not right on the part of India to express its government’s opinion through any of its top officials on what Nepal should and should not do. We should understand that Mukherjee’s expressions were not his personal opinion, but that of the Indian government.
The issue of secularism was conspicuous by its absence in the opinion expressed by Mukherjee, although he did mention his government’s support for ‘federal democratic republic’ in Nepal. Do you think there was anything significant to be read into the omission?
‘Federal democratic republic’ is the standard phrase used by both Nepalis and foreigners to denote our historic political achievements [post 2006]. If we have to enumerate the major achievements, there are five: republicanism, proportional inclusiveness, secularism, federalism and incorporation of basic needs such as health, education, employment, etc. into fundamental rights. I do not read too much into the omission of the word secularism in Mukherjee’s statements.
He also used diplomatic language to parry repeated questions by this newspaper about the border blockade, let alone offer anything by way of atonement.
That was a point we could not press even during previous visits by our executive heads to India or by the Indian executive head to Nepal. It should not have been expected of a visit by a ceremonial president.
How would you respond to the claim that the current government has an India tilt?
We have to develop friendly relations between Nepal and India. I would even say that a truly patriotic Nepali citizen is not and cannot be anti-Indian. A close bilateral relationship is a necessity for both Nepal and India. This is not merely rhetoric. We believe that a good relationship with India is in our national interest.
But at the same time, we have to stand firm for Nepal’s sovereignty, independence and dignity. India has a long history of displaying a tendency to interfere in and micromanage Nepal’s internal affairs, and sometimes adopting policies and behaviour that undermine Nepal’s interests. Nepal has to protest and fight such tendencies, policies and behaviour. That is not going against Indian interests. That is to safeguard our own interests and ultimately to foster closer relations with India. We want to develop a relationship based on equality and mutual respect. Nepali political leaders have not been successful in doing so. We have to be attentive to and address any criticism about some of the lapses in the conduct of our diplomacy.
How do you strike a balance between Nepal’s ties with India and China, and reduce our excessive dependence on India?
Tilting towards one neighbour at the cost of alienating another is a faulty concept. We have to have good and close relations with both India and China, but at the same time, we do not want to tilt towards either. We want to maintain an equidistant relationship with both.
Although that may be true in theory, the failure of the current government to make any tangible gains in implementing the accords that the Oli government reached with China has given ammunition to the critics questioning the Dahal government’s equidistant policy.
It is true that the process of implementation of the accords with China has not moved forward in an organised way and at a desirable pace. We need to do so, and the Chinese want that too. As such, our prime minister has instructed concerned authorities to expedite the process of implementing the accords with China. We have to give it the highest priority.
We should strengthen our relationship with China, and our party is committed to it. The issue was not brought up for the first time by the Oli government though. It had been raised when Comrade Prachanda was the prime minister in 2008-09. I had also discussed it with the Chinese when I was the foreign minister. And our party was part of the Oli government too; it was with our active support that the accords were reached. They are in Nepal’s national interest too, as they play an important role in reducing its disproportionate dependence on a single country.
How practical do you think the concept of trilateral cooperation between Nepal, India and China is and how optimistic are you about its realisation?
It is a proposal that is in the interest of Nepal. We believe it is in the larger interest of India and China as well. But from the way India appears to approach it, it is not likely that there will be a working agreement on it anytime soon. Unless we can develop a good relationship between Nepal and India, a favourable environment for trilateral cooperation will not be created. It will be difficult as long as India continues viewing Nepal primarily through the lens of security and trying to exert political, economic and social hegemony on Nepal.
Are you implying that Delhi has given refuge to the Madhesi constituency and is, in the process, further polarising the Nepali public opinion?
I do not think that the demands raised by the Madhes-based parties can be viewed solely in the light of Indian interests in Nepal. One reason behind the Madhes movement is the feeling among the Madhesi people that they have been deprived of their rights or that there are shortcomings in the agreements reached with them in the past. At the same time, it is also true that some Madhesi politicians are exaggerating the issue to further their political ends. And the third aspect is that the Madhes issue is in some way linked with Indian interests.
However, the more India aligns itself with the Madhesi issue, the harder it makes its resolution. In fact, India’s involvement has created more complications in addressing the genuine demands of the Madhesi people. If India cared for the welfare of the Madhesi people and let Nepalis solve the Madhesi issue themselves, it would be so much easier.
What consequences do you foresee if the Madhesi problem continues to fester?
We have to hold local, provincial and central level elections by January 2017. Failure to do so would lead to a political void and a constitutional crisis. That, in turn, will create a foundation for political regression. The first
thing we have to do is to take the Madhesis and other disgruntled forces into confidence, and to start implementing the constitution in good faith. But I also want to stress that elections must be conducted before January 2017 at any cost.
Political and technical impediments to holding elections appear formidable. How do you hold election without overcoming the key political obstacles?
Technical problems will not stop elections from taking place on time if there is sufficient political will and commitment. Failure to hold elections is a proposition that is completely unacceptable to our party in particular, as that would risk losing the achievements gained through our sacrifice. The prime minister has stated that the only reason for him to head the government is to facilitate the constitution’s implementation.