By Rakesh Sood
The Oli government needs to demonstrate an inclusive approach during the constitutional amendment process. For India, the challenge is to give greater political content to its engagement with Nepal even as cross-border movement of goods picks up
While media attention has been focussed on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise Christmas rendezvous in Lahore with Nawaz Sharif and the terrorist attack at the Pathankot airbase, significant developments on the Nepal front have been taking place. Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Oli telephoned Mr. Modi on New Year’s Eve to convey his greetings for 2016 and informed him about his government’s plans to move forward with the three-point package while undertaking negotiations with the agitating Madhesi leaders of the Samyukta Loktantrik Madhesi Morcha (SLMM). In response, Mr. Modi reiterated the need to find durable solutions to Nepal’s political problems on the basis of “consensus” and conveyed his greetings to the Nepali people for 2016.
Shift or drift?
Rakesh Sood However, there are subtle changes of position underway. The first sign came on December 21 following the decisions taken by the Nepali cabinet to address the demands of the SLMM. The three-point package consists of constitutional amendments on participation in the state organs on the basis of “proportionate inclusiveness” and delineation of electoral constituencies on the basis of population. Demarcation of provinces was to be undertaken in a three-month period through a political mechanism on the basis of consensus, and other demands — including those pertaining to “citizenship” — are to be resolved through negotiation and appropriate notification. Nepal’s Deputy PM and Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa had already briefed External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj about this road map during his visit to Delhi last month.
In an official statement, India’s Ministry of External Affairs welcomed these developments as “positive steps that help create the basis for a resolution of the current impasse in Nepal”. The statement further urged “all Nepali political forces to now demonstrate the necessary maturity and flexibility” so that a resolution to the current crisis could be found. The formal Indian statement has been followed by an informal easing of supplies, particularly fuel and LPG, by using border-crossing points other than the Raxaul-Birgunj crossing which remains blocked.
According to the Nepal Oil Corporation, the sole petroleum importing agency, its monthly imports were usually in the order of NPR 7 billion; these went down to NPR 1.5 billion during October-November but have picked up again and could reach NPR 4.5 billion during December-January. This would imply that more than 50 per cent of the fuel supplies are now going through legally, in addition to the cross-border smuggling activity which has also picked up.
Growing list of demands
However, the SLMM rejected the Oli government’s three-point package as “inadequate” and declared that it fell far short of their 11-point charter of demands. Originally, there were four principal demands — demarcation of provinces which related to five districts, Sunsari, Jhapa and Morang in the east and Kanchanpur and Kailali in the west; restoring population as the primary criteria for electoral constituency delimitation; proportional representation in government jobs; and issues relating to citizenship. With rising political polarisation over recent months and the inflexible approach adopted by the three principal parties — Nepali Congress, Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) or UML and the Maoists — the list of demands has grown. It now includes democratisation of the army and other security agencies; restructuring of the judiciary; declaring Nepal a multi-national state; equal status to other languages like Hindi and Bhojpuri; a reference to the principle of “proportional representation” in the section on Fundamental Rights and the establishment of a constitutionally empowered Inclusion Commission to monitor implementation of the proportional representation principle.
In December, the four SLMM leaders — Mahant Thakur, Rajendra Mahato, Upendra Yadav and Mahendra Rai Yadav — visited Delhi and cautioned that the agitation was taking the shape of a movement. Unless their demands were addressed in a timely manner, the movement could take a violent turn and the demand for separatism would grow. Their feeling was that the Oli government was not serious about reaching out and was keen to push through the amendments and postpone resolution of other issues. The import of this message was not lost on Delhi. The SLMM thought that this would make Delhi tighten the screws and push the Nepali government towards a comprehensive settlement; instead, worried about greater violence in the Terai with an 1,800-km-long open border, Delhi reacted differently, and as a result, differences have now emerged within the SLMM. Mr. Mahato would like to continue with the agitation while others are uncertain.
Division in the ranks
On December 26, Mr. Mahato decided to do a dharna at the Jogbani-Biratnagar crossing where truck movement had picked up and was badly beaten up by the Nepal police. He is currently convalescing at Medanta Hospital in Gurgaon. The other three did not join the dharna and Mr. Mahato’s supporters are miffed that a condemnation of the attack on their leader took so long coming.
Sensing an opportunity, the Oli government reached out to the SLMM leadership for a meeting in Kathmandu on January 3. Mr. Thakur, accompanied by relatively junior leaders, attended. On his side, Mr. Oli was accompanied by Nepali Congress president and former PM Sushil Koirala, Maoist leader and former PM Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ and others. Upendra Yadav and Mahendra Rai Yadav happened to be out of town. A week earlier, the Oli government had set the wheels in motion for the constitutional amendment process by formally tabling it in the Assembly. At this stage, no dialogue was underway with the SLMM to get them on board and in the debates that followed, Madhesi parties boycotted the proceedings. On January 4, the Assembly concluded its deliberations and after the mandated period of 72 hours for amendments to be tabled, will begin voting on the amendments. PM Oli has proposed the setting up of a task force to arrive at an agreed language for the amendments. Defence Minister Bhim Rawal (UML), K.B. Mahara of the Maoists and Mahesh Acharya (Nepali Congress) have been nominated by the three main parties; with the clock ticking, the SLMM may fracture if individual leaders try to go it alone in the task force.
PM Oli has been adept at flaunting the China card. In October last year, there was much fanfare about China supplying 1,000 metric tonnes of petroleum products to alleviate the shortage. Considering that the annual requirement is closer to a million tonnes, this is a tiny amount. Also the infrastructure in terms of roads and bridges to the Tibet border does not permit movement of heavy tankers and LPG bullets. Nepal’s attempts at negotiating long-term agreements with China have not gone very far. However, Nepali media had carried stories that Mr. Oli, in a departure from past practice, would undertake his first foreign trip to China instead of India. The only Nepali prime minister to have done so was Mr. Prachanda in 2008. He, however, insisted that it was not a bilateral visit as he was going to attend the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics and his first official bilateral visit would be to India. Apparently, in the telephone conversation on December 31, Mr. Modi reiterated his invitation to Mr. Oli to visit India and the missions have been directed to work out mutually convenient dates at the earliest. However, Mr. Oli will find it difficult to visit Delhi unless the border situation has returned to normal and movement of goods and supplies has been restored. If the SLMM agitation is called off, he can then claim with some justification that his nationalistic posture, together with the anti-India rhetoric, has paid off. Given the strain Mr. Modi’s “neighbourhood first” policy is under on the Pakistan front, it is understandable that he would like Mr. Oli to stick to tradition.
How did things reach such an impasse? The fact is that nobody thought that the Madhesi agitation and the consequent restrictions on cross-border movement of goods would last this long. As a result, nobody had a Plan B and rhetoric replaced communication. With the key players losing control, the situation went into a tailspin. The Oli government found it convenient to stoke Nepali nationalism and deflect attention away from its own incompetence by blaming India. The SLMM’s demands continued to grow with no negotiations in sight and rising anti-Indianism hardly sat well with Mr. Modi’s “neighbourhood first” diplomacy.
The supply situation has now eased but the Oli government needs to offer a healing hand to the Madhesis to get them on board. If he fails, he may find it difficult to deal with the ensuing instability. The Madhesis need to reach out to the Tharus and Janajatis, the other marginalised groups. For India, the challenge is to give greater political content to its engagement, rebuild trust with the Oli government, and revive the positive sentiments generated by Prime Minister Modi’s visits in 2014.
(Rakesh Sood, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation till May 2014, is a former Ambassador to Nepal. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Keywords: Nepal government, K.P. Oli, SLMM. Madhesis
The Hindu, January 7, 2016