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Nepal: A lost opportunity

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi hobnobs with the high and mighty in New York, closer to home a crisis continues unabated. The protests in the Madhes region of Nepal against the promulgation of its new Constitution have veered out of control. Leaders from Nepal’s major parties have held meetings and sought reconciliation with protestors from the region. For the uninitiated, the conflict stems from the Madhesis and Tharus inhabiting the Terai plains in Nepal, a region that is contiguous to India. The Madhesis constitute approximately 31 percent of Nepal’s population, a significant chunk.  Moreover, Madhesi people share close ethnic ties with Bihar. Certain leaders of the Madhesi community allege that Nepal’s lawmakers backtracked on its promise to create “fully autonomous” federal state in the plains. The Constitution, though, has sought to merge the plain areas with provinces that will reportedly include large tracts of the hills. Such crass gerrymandering, according to the Madhesis, will leave them under the thumb of the hill population.  

Those defending the Constitution are right in proclaiming that it was passed by 82 percent the vote in Nepal’s Constituent Assembly. Moreover, out of 116 seats occupied by representatives from the Tarai-Madhes plains in the Constituent Assembly, 105 voted for the Constitution, while 11 boycotted it. However, such figures only accentuate the sense of distrust that has emanated from the region. These numbers, according to noted social scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta, “suggest that the Madheshi leadership is not effective in making its presence felt in Kathmandu; even when it does, it does not seem to carry the authority of its constituents”. In a nation, where the democratic process is in its infancy, a diminishing faith in representative politics does not bode well for the future.  Somewhere along the line, the steps taken by the Indian government during the past decade has 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 of influence. 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. 

Despite the advent of technology, certain rules of diplomacy remain unchanged. Subtlety, discretion and a quiet follow up on the ground through back-channel negotiations continue to determine how foreign policy initiatives are achieved. Therefore, the first glaring strategic mistake came when Prime Minister Modi sought to address a massive public gathering in the Madhes <g data-gr-id="34">plains</g> during his visit to Nepal last <g data-gr-id="40">year,</g> while negotiations over its Constitution were going on. It is rather 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. Although the Nepali administration publicly stated security reasons behind the cancellation of Modi’s public address, the signal was rather unambiguous. 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 <g data-gr-id="35">law makers</g> 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 the Constitution, besides sending Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar to visit Nepal as the Prime Minister’s special envoy. It was a bit like closing the barn door after the horse is out. India looked desperate and a bit like that <g data-gr-id="36">over-bearing</g> big brother. The Chinese, meanwhile, have reaped the harvest.
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