IT is unusual for an Indian Prime Minister to be the reason for a strain in relations with a friendly neighbour. But Narenda Modi is different. A series of actions his government has taken since he came to power in 2014 has pushed Nepal, an ally with whom India shares an open border, to initially take defensive positions and, later, to explore pathways to get out of the Indian bear hug, which is choking the Himalayan country.
The latest Modi act was to announce at the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (or BIMSTEC, a grouping of seven countries: India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand) meet in Kathmandu that member countries would participate in a military exercise, the first of its kind, in India. Although the Nepalese Army, independent of its political establishment, decided to participate, it had to pull out because of last-minute oral instructions from Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli. According to The Indian Express : “The last-minute decision of the Nepal army to ‘cancel’ its participation came after an oral instruction from PM KP Oli, barely a day before a group of five officials and 30 junior personnel from the country were set to leave for Pune.” Although there was overwhelming support in Nepal for pulling out of the exercises, some sane voices, mindful of India’s reach and capacities, advised caution. Charan Prasai, a human rights activist, tweeted: “It is not welcome decision to participate as an observer as well.” (Thailand sent observers to the exercise.)
But in a country where patriotism and nationalism are thriving primarily because of the anti-India sentiment, which arose in 2015 with the unofficial blockade on goods and services entering Nepal from India, it pays to be anti-India. Officials in Nepal expressed anger and surprise over the Indian move to hold a military exercise, even if it was for disaster management, counterterrorism and capacity building at the officer level. In the view of one official, though Modi had met the Nepalese Prime Minister when he landed in Kathmandu for the summit, he did not bring up the issue of the military exercise.
India-Nepal relations slid down the Himalaya with the Indian blockade. Nepal depends on the Indian ports of Kolkata and Visakhapatnam to get its supplies. The blockade drove up the cost of fuel tenfold, forcing an upward revision of the prices of all commodities. The anger former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi caused with his ill-advised blockade of the Himalayan country in the late 1980s took more than a decade to subside. The 2015 blockade is still fresh in the minds of people, and this is evident from the comments of a cross section of the people that this correspondent had casual conversations with in Kathmandu.
Many said that the blockade had curtailed the supply of essential medicines and even earthquake relief materials and inflicted untold miseries on the people. The Indian response was that the government did not have anything to do with the blockade and that it was essentially one led by the Madhesis (people of the plains in Nepal) owing to their rights being snatched away by the ruling Hill-elite of Nepal. Not many in Kathmandu believed that the Madhesis could pull off something like this without direct Indian backing. In the aftermath of the blockade, Madhesis are being looked at with suspicion as people wonder where their loyalties lie.
So, the first priority of the new communist coalition government was to undo this overdependence on India. Embracing China was the only way out, and sure enough, the Nepal government did just that. On September 6, Nepalese and Chinese officials signed an agreement to allow third country goods transit to Nepal via Chinese seaports, including Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang, Zhanjiang, and dry ports, including Lhanzou, Lhasa and Shigatse (Xigatse). Nepal was free to choose viable routes from the ports, and more ports could be added if needed without a new treaty, and Nepalese trucks could go to the Xigatse railhead without new permits. Commenting on the development on Twitter, the journalist and civil society leader Kanak Mani Dixit said: “It is time to make the roadways ready to link Nepal to Shigatse (Xigatse), only then can we say #ByeByeBlockade forever. The fastest and most practical connectivity, probably the Kmathanka corridor in Province No. 1 should be prioritised.” Although the distance from Nepal to these ports is twice or more than that to Kolkata, the Nepal government is determined to open another route so that any government in New Delhi will think twice before imposing another crippling blockade.
There is also anger in Nepal over the perception that India is behind the frequent changes in government in that country. Nepalese politicians and civil society leaders argue that if India wanted a stable government in Nepal, it could easily have ensured the same. The “proof” that India did not want it, according to their reasoning, emerges from the reality that not a single government has completed a year in office in the past few decades.
Once the two big communist parties came together and won the elections, the question was whether this combination would last. But with a constitutionally mandated guarantee that the new government cannot be pulled down before a minimum of two years, Nepal has sorted out the biggest problem that it has faced in the past few decades, that of unstable governments.
The new government in Kathmandu is expanding its frontiers, talking to China and a host of other countries for investment in the country, and is in the process of putting in place rules and regulations based on a new Constitution. The primary need in Nepal is political stability, and the new government is in the process of securing that stability by seeking to rectify the many problems in the new Constitution. This is no easy task. Forty years and seven Constitutions later, Nepal is trying to make its newest Constitution work. It was adopted in 2015 after an elected Constituent Assembly drew it up. Several provisions were rushed through without debate, leading to serious concerns among minority groups. In the actual plan, the writing of the Constitution was to have been completed in two years, but it took six years. The peace process in Nepal was supposed to have been completed in six months, but that took six years. This delay in progress prompted Kul Chandra Gautam, international diplomat and Special Adviser to the Nepalese Prime Minister (2010-11), to demand that civil society step forward and take an active role.
At an international conference on the new Constitution organised by Kathmandu University School of Law and the South Asia Trust in early August, he said that civil society should hold elected representatives to account so that issues did not take too long to get resolved. What was evident at the conference was a new urgency among all sections of people to work together and allow for criticism to be openly heard.
There was plenty of criticism because this is a country where almost all the top positions are held by one ethnic group (Khas Arya) and two castes within it (Bahun and Chhetri). Although Khas Aryas constitute only just over 30 per cent of the population according to the 2011 census, members of this community occupy all important posts. Prime Minister Oli, President Bidya Devi Bhandari, Speaker of the Lower House Krishna Bahadur Mahara, Speaker of the Upper House Ganesh Prasad Timilsina, Army chief Rajendra Chhetri and police chief Prakash Aryal hail from this community. The only top post not occupied by a Khas Arya is that of the Chief Justice. Om Prakash Mishra, who was appointed Chief Justice early in September, is a Madhesi. “This is a regressive Constitution for indigenous people, the Madhesis and Dalits,” said Prof. Mahendra Lawoti from the Department of Political Science, Western Michigan University. He agreed with the view that this was a very good Constitution for the dominant community. He pointed to the ethnic distribution among the top positions in the country and said that the provinces did not have any substantive powers.
All these criticisms were intently listened to at the conference. There was room for improvement, and this process was very much on, said Subash Chandra Nembang, former Chairperson of the Constituent Assembly of Nepal and the Deputy Parliamentary Party Leader of the Nepal Communist Party in the House of Representatives. “We cannot deny the fact that the Constitution is an organic document which may be duly amended as per the need, desire and demands of the people… The amendments should be made solely looking at the necessity and rationale of the same, and not under any capricious political pressure or otherwise,” he added.
Nepalese politicians still have a long way to go before the various ethnic groups in the country are granted equality, but the fact that many important Nepali voices are part of an effort to operationalise the Constitution is an indication that the effort is well focussed.
The second part of the agenda of “setting the country right” involves a set of recommendations the Eminent Persons Group made to the government, including several wide-ranging ones dealing with how to ease the stranglehold that India has on the country.
Nepal has watched with interest the manner in which the Maldives has rebuffed Indian attempts to force it to hold elections in a free and fair manner and also how Sri Lanka has joined hands with China to curtail Indian influence in the island nation. In Sri Lanka, the anger over the Indian support to the Tamil liberation forces in the north and the east led to it to look to China. In Nepal, the anger over the Indian blockade is leading it right down the same path, and neither the Indian Ministry tasked with the responsibility of maintaining relations with other nations nor the Prime Minister’s Office seems unduly perturbed by the turn of events.