New Delhi’s ham-handed approach towards amending Nepal’s recently promulgated Constitution has united its top mainstream parties against India. The Nepali Congress (NC), Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) and Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) have stood united in their resistance to New Delhi’s efforts to amend their country’s new Constitution. What’s worrying for New Delhi is not the position taken by the two communist parties, but the Nepali Congress, which has in the past, stood united with New Delhi on various issues.
These three parties have an overwhelming majority in the 601-member Constituent Assembly. Although, New Delhi’s sympathy to the demands of Madhesis for greater representation in the Nepali Parliament and autonomy remains well-founded, the approach it has taken in the past few months has been bereft of any foresight and diplomatic nous. Moreover, as a result of New Delhi’s action, the Madhesis’ dependence on India to settle their disputes with Kathmandu has added more to fuel to the hill population’s insecurities on the ground. Recent clashes between the Nepal police and Madhesis has claimed over 50 lives.
Moreover, sections of the Nepali leadership, especially Khadga Prasad Oli (UML), who is tipped to become Nepal’s next prime minister, have accused India of initiating an “undeclared blockade”. India, however, has denied the imposition of any economic blockade. New Delhi has been rather categorical in its position that the movement of essential goods across the border has come to a halt due to protest by the Madhesis, who feel that Nepal’s new Constitution leaves them grossly underrepresented in the new Parliament. Ahead of the festive season of Dussehra, and given the growing hardships Nepalis are suffering due to a shortage of essential supplies from India, New Delhi has agreed to ease the flow of goods wherever possible. Nepal has even reportedly turned to the United Nations over alleged obstruction of a key border trade point with India.
Meanwhile, politics practiced on the ground by Nepali parties averse to India’s overtures could further escalate tensions between the two nations. According to report in a leading Indian new daily, Nepali officials have stopped trucks with Indian number plates that were on their way back to India and refused to let them cross the border on Saturday. Fortunately for the Madhesis, dissident UCPN-M leader and former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai has decided to fight for the cause of the Madhesis and Tharus, who mainly live in the Terai plains, a region bordering Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. During the protracted armed conflict between government forces and rebel groups in Nepal, the Maoists had promised autonomy to all major ethnic groups, including the Madhesis.
Moreover, he has challenged the long-held definition of Nepali nationalism held among large sections of the nation’s polity. Many within Nepal’s political circles, especially the communist parties, have long equated Nepali nationalism to ant-Indianism. Bhattarai has proclaimed that his political campaign would be based on the notion of “progressive nationalism”. Steps taken by the Indian government during the past decade have played a part in accentuating the problems the Madhesis encounter today. Under the UPA regime, Nepal was long ignored, leaving the Chinese fill the vacuum. The Modi government sought to improve the scenario, especially with its stated ‘neighbours-first’ policy.
In its desire to make up lost ground, however, the Modi government made some glaring strategic mistakes. The first mistake was Prime Minister Modi stated desire to address a massive public gathering in the Madhes plains in the midst of a deadlock over its Constitution during his visit to Nepal last year. It is apparent that Modi sought to tilt the balance of negotiations in favour of the Madhesis. The Nepali establishment, quite unequivocally, saw this as a blatant interference in the affairs of another nation. Subtlety was clearly in short supply. The second strategic failure was New Delhi’s inability to coax the Nepali leadership into accepting its demands through follow-up work on the ground (both intelligence and diplomatic), leaving the Madhesi leadership toothless during the negotiations. The fact that Nepal’s law makers had completely ignored all of New Delhi’s demands is a testament to this fact. Finally, in a desperate bid to retrieve the situation, New Delhi publicly presented a list of seven amendments to their Constitution.