Nepal’s Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba begins his five-day India visit on Wednesday – his first foreign trip after assuming office in June – and is expected to raise and hold discussions on a range of subjects with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi and New Delhi mandarins. Visits by Nepalese prime ministers to India have become ritual exercises but this one comes at a time when problems beset both countries.
The hill district of Darjeeling, with which Nepal has much in common, has been on the boil for over two months because of an agitation for a separate state. India’s stand-off with China over the construction of a road in the Doklam plateau – claimed by both Beijing and Bhutan, with New Delhi backing the latter – is no closer to being settled three months after it began.
In Nepal, a political debate over an amendment to the Constitution has failed to make headway even as the government on Monday scheduled provincial and federal parliament elections for November 26. The Constitution requires a new Parliament to be in place by January 2018. The divide continues as parties from the Madhes – a region in Nepal’s south bordering India – who have demanded the amendment, say their grievances, including the revision of provincial boundaries, are yet to be addressed. In the meantime, the country is also reeling from floods that have ravaged its southern plains.
Needless to say, these are difficult times for both India and Nepal.
Nepal has, wisely, refrained from commenting on the Darjeeling protests and from taking sides in the Doklam conflict. Minister of Foreign Affairs Krishna Bahadur Mahara said on August 7 – three days before Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Nepal and a week before Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Yang landed in Kathmandu on August 14 – that Nepal would stay neutral on the China-India stand-off. This has historically been the position Kathmandu has taken whenever Beijing and New Delhi have been at odds.
However, there are other domestic matters of Nepal of which India needs to maintain an informed understanding.
Nepal’s Constitution is one such subject. Since its promulgation on September 20, 2015, India has expressed reservations over it and sought its amendment. During her visit to Nepal, though, Swaraj advised the Rastriya Janata Party Nepal – an alliance of six Madhes-based parties – to participate in elections to local government bodies scheduled for September 18 regardless of whether the amendment was passed. This was in response to the parties’ plan to boycott the polls till the bill was passed. Swaraj’s gesture signals the “safe landing” of the Madhes problem, which India had been backing openly all along.
Deuba looked keen on settling the matter before flying to Delhi. The amendment bill was put to vote in Parliament on Monday evening but it was rejected as the main Opposition, the Communist Party of Nepal, United Marxist and Leninist, and other smaller parties voted against it. This was expected.
The amendment bill has become contentious because, among other things, it seeks to curtail the rights of elected chiefs of local bodies to become members of the Electoral College, and allow the federal Parliament to tamper with provincial boundaries without taking the approval of the affected provinces (a provision rarely practised by federal countries elsewhere).
The whole exercise is now being seen as one aimed at giving India a face saver. “The agenda that RJPN [Rastriya Janata Party Nepal] once raised is no longer its own, it has become India’s,” political analyst Puranjan Acharya told Himal in July. “India needs face-saving on Nepal’s Constitution.”
But what India wants regarding Nepal’s Constitution remains only a matter of speculation.
Indian leaders and officials have maintained that their main concern in Nepal is the country’s “peace, stability and development”. But in Kathmandu, India is seen as a regional power keen on creating “controlled instability” through interference, say by breaking and making governments, splitting and uniting political parties.
During the 2015-2016 border blockade and Madhes protests against the Constitution, the Indian press seemed to suggest that creating “Madhes-only” provinces, as demanded by parties in that region, was its major interest. In Kathmandu’s political circle, it is often said top Nepali leaders “hurt the ego” of Modi by promising to accommodate in the Constitution his “Hindu state” concern during their India visit and by breaking that promise while promulgating the Constitution – though none of these leaders have divulged any such details. Deuba was one of those leaders who visited India in July 2015.
The big contestation is over alternation of provincial boundaries. It will continue to remain contentious. There are reasons these boundaries cannot be resolved to the liking of the Madhesi parties. And it goes beyond the usual argument of “reluctance of the hill elite” to concede equal rights to Madhesis.
Nepal’s hills and plains are inextricably linked, politically, economically and socially. In the 1960s, it was King Mahendra who encouraged the hill people to move to the Tarai plains. But in the following decades, more and more of them migrated to the plains for work, and health and education facilities. After years of acculturation and co-existence, the Tarai is a melting pot of sorts where Madhesis, Janajatis and people of hill origin have intermingled.
This is why when the Pushpa Kamal Dahal government floated the amendment proposal to hive off hill districts from Province 5 in September 2016, people there protested. In the eastern, western, mid-western and far-western plain lands, there are people with their roots in the hills but whose livelihoods depend on the plains. The exception is central Madhes – or Province 2 – which is a Madhesi-majority province. The rest of Madhes is comfortable with the existing boundary mapping whereby Provinces 1, 5, 3 and 7 share access to the southern border points, which serve as a lifeline for Nepal’s hills and mountains.
The great floods
While differences over the Constitution and provincial boundaries have been around for a few years now, Nepal’s immediate challenge is to deal with the aftermath of the floods of August 11. The floods wrecked its lowlands, left over 100 people dead and displaced more than 100,000, submerged hundreds of houses, and destroyed paddy crops worth millions.
Floods in the Tarai plains are often said to be caused by embankments, barrages, dams and roads built by India along the border, which obstruct the natural flow of Nepal’s rivers to the Ganga. This time around, the matter has become a subject of national debate.
Minister for Energy Mahendra Bahadur Shahi attributed the Tarai floods to highways built by India along the border. “The highways made by elevating the land next to Nepal-India border have restricted the natural flow of water, leaving Nepal’s Tarai plains submerged,” he said on August 13.
Two days later, Bhim Rawal, vice-chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal, United Marxist and Leninist, raised the matter in Parliament: “Our lands are inundated from the Mechi to Kanchanpur due to five different kinds of dams… built in India near the border.”
The Nepali press has urged Deuba to take the matter up with India during this visit. “The embankments and dams built by India along the border areas have caused floods and inundation in Nepali territory every year,” wrote Kantipur, a Nepali language newspaper published from Kathmandu, in its August 15 editorial. “Prime Minister Deuba should make this an agenda for bilateral talks.”
Madhes, ostensibly for whose cause India allowed its relationship with Nepal to sour in 2015, is under water. There is a strong feeling among flood victims that Indian structures are partly to blame for this tragedy. A few hundred million rupees that India may provide as assistance is not going to solve this problem in the long run.
The good news is that Delhi has started to understand how complicated the Constitution amendment is. The good news is that Delhi and Kathmandu are improving relations. This momentum can be maintained only when there is a greater engagement between the two sides, when Delhi stops relying on the elements that keep it misinformed on Kathmandu’s affairs.
Meanwhile, Kathmandu is watching what will happen during Deuba’s visit.
Will India welcome the Constitution? Will Deuba be able to convince India about its merits and explain why amending it has become such a difficult affair? Will he be able to make India heed the plight of the flood-hit people in Madhes? Will he be able to solicit a long-term Indian solution to at least minimise threats of floods and inundation on the Nepali side of the border? Will he be able to garner Indian goodwill for the upcoming elections and the implementation of the Constitution?
Much depends on the Nepali prime minister. The rest will depend on how India responds.
The writer is a journalist based in Kathmandu. His Twitter handle is @mahabirpaudyal