Strained ties

Print edition : November 13, 2015

Motorists queue up outside a petrol pump in Kathmandu on October 15. Fuel rationing has been implemented after the blockade of a major border checkpoint by protesters against the new Constitution. Photo: PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP

K.P. Sharma Oli, Nepal's new Prime Minister. Photo: K.C. Rawjendra/AFP

Nepal’s new Prime Minister declares that normalising relations with India is top priority, even as the landlocked nation reels under a supplies shortage following an economic blockade that has dragged on for a month.

After the adoption of a controversial Constitution in September, Nepal’s lawmakers elected the veteran Communist leader, K.P. Sharma Oli, the country’s new Prime Minister on October 11. He replaced Sushil Koirala of the Nepali Congress. Koirala again contested for the post, but Oli won comfortably with 338 votes in the 597-member Assembly. Oli, the leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), has a tough job ahead of him. The CPN(UML) is the second biggest party in parliament and has the backing of the third biggest bloc, the Maoist United Communist Party of Nepal, and most of the smaller parties.

The recently promulgated Constitution has ignited a firestorm in the Madhesi-dominated Terai region bordering India. The Madhesis feel short-changed by the Constitution for a variety of reasons, some of them valid. The community, which has close cultural and linguistic links with India, is historically a politically and economically marginalised group.

India is extremely unhappy with Nepal’s new Constitution, which, it says, discriminates against a significant section of that country’s population. The Indian government has tacitly encouraged an economic blockade, which has now dragged on for more than a month, causing immense hardship to ordinary Nepali citizens. Nepal has barely started recovering from the devastating impact of an earthquake in April this year that caused an estimated $10 billion in damage.

The 63-year-old Oli is known for his outspoken leadership style. He has not shied away from criticising Indian policies as an opposition leader or as a senior Cabinet Minister. He has also been critical of the official Indian position on the new Nepali Constitution. However, soon after being elected Prime Minister, Oli called for a quick return to the bonhomie that earlier characterised Indo-Nepal ties. He expressed concern about the deterioration in relations, which he said were because of “some misunderstanding at present” over the new Constitution. Oli had previously stated that the “whole world” had welcomed Nepal’s adoption of the new Constitution, with the notable exception of India.

“I am surprised that our reliable and permanent friend India only took note of it. If the biggest friend only notices, it will cause surprise. We did not expect this. Some confusion can be created in this but our relations cannot be damaged,” Oli told an Indian news agency.

Obliquely criticising the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in New Delhi, he said that “nobody should harm the wider relationship by getting involved in small matters”. India’s External Affairs Ministry had merely “noted” the promulgation of the new Constitution while at the same time expressing its deep concern “over the incidents of violence resulting in death and injury in regions of Nepal bordering India”.

Oli has pointed out that the Constitution was approved by 85 per cent of the members of the Constituent Assembly. “One thing being said to us is take everyone on board. It is not possible to get 100 per cent support in a democratic country,” he observed.

Nepali’s leaders have been claiming that their Constitution is the most progressive one in the entire region. The leaders of the two main Communist parties in Nepal have said that they will not brook interference from any quarters regarding the Constitution, describing the promulgation as a matter of national sovereignty and self-respect.

The Nepal political establishment has been indicating that India would have overlooked the alleged “raw deal” given to the Madhesis if Nepal had been declared a “Hindu republic” and if special concessions had been given to Indian business interests in the hydropower sector.

The Indian government officially expressed its misgivings about the Constitution at the eleventh hour. The Indian Foreign Secretary was sent to Kathmandu only a few days before the Constitution was promulgated. Relations between the two countries have soured rapidly ever since. In contrast, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was given a rousing welcome when he visited Kathmandu in August last year. It was the first bilateral visit by an Indian Prime Minister in 17 years. Modi was the first foreign leader to be given the privilege of addressing the country’s parliament. During his visit, Modi promised to review the contentious 1950 India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship on the basis of recommendations from a group of eminent representatives from both sides.

Public opinion in Nepal seems to have turned against India owing to what many see as its churlish and crude attempts to interfere in Nepal’s internal affairs. People have to queue up for hours to buy petrol and gas. Traffic in Kathmandu has come to a virtual halt owing to the lack of petrol and diesel.

Oli dispatched Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa to New Delhi in the third week of October to find a breakthrough on the blockade issue. Oli has said that normalising relations with India is his “first priority”. After taking over, he also said that he would expeditiously look into the concerns of the Madhesis regarding constituency delimitation and political representation.

The fortnight-long Dasara is the most important festival in this landlocked country, but a shortage of essential supplies, especially fuel and cooking gas, has acted as a dampener to the festive spirit. All of Nepal’s fuel is imported through India. Supplies to Nepal were cut off two days after the promulgation of the Constitution.

During his talks with the Indian leadership, the Nepali Foreign Minister raised this issue and asked India to help in the movement of food and essential supplies. At the same time, Thapa acknowledged that there were some shortcomings in the new Constitution and that his government was taking steps to work out a consensus with all parties concerned in Nepal to bring about required changes in it.

India’s External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, told Thapa that India had no role to play in the transport blockade, adding that domestic problems in Nepal prevented the movement of goods across the Indian border.

During the talks, she gave the assurance that India would try to speed up goods traffic into Nepal through the five or six crossing points that were comparatively free from violence.

An Indian Foreign Office spokesman told the media that the movement of goods was affected by “disruption on the Nepali side of the border”.

The Indian government maintains that there is “no blockade on Nepal, neither formal nor informal”. Thapa, who is the coordinator of a three-member group formed by the Nepal government to find a way out of the impasse, told the media in New Delhi that he was “confident that initiatives would be taken to solve the political problems between the two countries”.

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