Interwoven issues and complexitiesMishandling of politics can extend Nepal’s transition phase and deteriorate its ties with neighbours
While China was mute, high level officials of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and the ministry itself welcomed the registration of the Constitution Amendment Bill in Parliament Secretariat, terming it as positive and an important step. This and the Indian ambassador to Nepal hosting a meeting with the agitating political parties (Madeshi Morcha) at his office on the contentious issue have provided testimony to the fact that Indian government, as always, has been interfering in the domestic affairs of Nepal, a sovereign state.
Bilateral relations between Nepal and India have not been cordial and effective, although there have been some measures to mend ties and the rhetoric of positive notes exchanged. The intervention and bullying could also be a residual effect of the British colonial mindset and an evolving strategy to counter China’s growing influence in the region and beyond. As the political standoff and interference continue, political analysts and intellectuals suspect that local political leaders are influenced or pressurised to serve India’s long-term strategic interests.
The ‘roti-beti’ relationship between the Madhesis and the Indians across the border is viewed as having antagonised the Madeshi Morcha leaders who are suspected of not having a close rapport with the Tarai people. This is disappointing. Nuptial and cross-cultural affinities among people of different cultures and countries are a worldwide phenomenon. Asking the Tarai/Madhes to not mix with people beyond national borders is deceitful and a form of child-like arrogance. Likewise, India’s security worries are probably a pretext to justify continual intervention in Nepal’s domestic affairs. In fact, the families living in the Tarai have been facing security problems from India due to land encroachment, inundation of land and settlements during monsoon and other aggressive behaviour. The economic blockade imposed for almost five consecutive months and the physical presence of Indian nationals taking part in the agitation opposing the constitution have also been a source of insecurity and destabilisation.
With the protests sparking in Parliament as well as in different parts of the country, and many ruling parties’ leaders opposing the amendment bill, appeals to “national solidarity” and other expressions of jingoism are being intensified. And the idea of federalism as introduced initially by the decade-long Maoist insurgency is now at risk while the political stand-off persists. To get out of it, critical thinking may suggest a few things. First, while implementing the new constitution, current Parliament—an adhoc arrangement through conversion from the CA—is responsible for holding the local, provincial and federal elections by January 2018. Second, the state has to be structured in a way that is broadly acceptable for all. The idea of the five development regions of the country, each with the incorporation of the three ecological zones of Tarai, Mountains and Hills, is considered appropriate by many even now. Discussion on it can be held in the newly-elected Parliament. And the new Parliament should, as a last resort, conduct a referendum on the remaining unresolved issues.
India and China have different approaches to cooperation with Nepal. It is India’s competition with China that requires Nepali political leaders to be at its beck and call. Nepali political leaders’ visits to India have made the situation even worse. Nepal is a sovereign state that has never been a protectorate or part of any alliance. Ironically, the visit of the Chinese President Xi Jinping to Nepal was withdrawn in the 11th hour for no compelling reason. Perhaps, in response, there was a rushed visit by the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee to Nepal. At the same time, the visit of Nepal’s President to India was already pending.
Both China and India, by their diplomatic conduct and style, are responsible for protracting Nepal’s political transition and for its grappling with underdevelopment, poverty and poor governance. Therefore, bilateral relations and cooperation need to be reviewed. Obviously, India should stop its interference and bullying, and quickly finish the promised bilateral infrastructure projects that have become notorious for endless delay. It should also withdraw troops from Kalapani (stationed since the Sino-Indian war of 1962) and cooperate with Nepal in revising the 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty, which has become archaic.
Likewise, China should go beyond seeing Nepal as a buffer state and seeking it to endorse a one-China policy. It should help Nepal to develop at a faster pace, for example by implementing vital physical infrastructure projects such as railways and road links, power generation, and fuel installations. Trilateral projects (between Nepal, India and China) of regional importance as proposed by Nepal should also be seriously considered. With only nominal cooperation extended so far by the two giant neighbouring countries while Nepal has been grappling with the vicious cycle of poverty and underdevelopment making it vulnerable for decades, and the political transition lengthened due to the Indian government’s interference in Nepal’s internal affairs, animosity might increase and peaceful coexistence jeopardised. This would make millions of people victims of political mismanagement.
Dixit is an expert in integrated development issues