Nepal needs quick resolution
The political stalemate between the Nepal government and its Madhesi population remains. Suffice to say, the Madhesi protests against the recently promulgated Nepali population and India’s unofficial blockade has led to the crisis. Due to these protests and the subsequent blockade, the entire country has been grappling with a lack of essential supplies, especially fuel and cooking gas. In response to the domestic crisis, the Nepalese government has managed to make up the fuel deficit by bringing in some from China. Although the amount of fuel supplied is not enough to meet Nepal’s needs, the oil trade between China National United Oil Corporation and Nepal Oil Corporation has allowed the erstwhile Himalayan kingdom to diversify its sources for essential commodities. Before the unofficial blockade, India was a key supplier of essential commodities flowing into Nepal. Although both the Nepalese establishment and the protesting Madhesi parties have undergone a series of talks, there has been no resolution in sight. It is imperative that Kathmandu steps up to the plate. With elections in Parliament to key constitutional positions resolved—including its Prime Minister, President and Vice President—mainstream political parties must address the Madhesi problem with greater urgency. “The parties seem close to an agreement on a few demands, especially those relating to delineating electoral constituencies according to population and providing for proportional and inclusive representation. The major unresolved dispute remains that of delineation of boundaries of provinces. If there is enough political will, this should not be too difficult to resolve either,” according to an editorial in Kathmandu Post, a leading Nepalese daily. A resolution needs to arrive soon for Nepal so that the country can implement and rework its Constitution and hasten the post-earthquake reconstruction work. Unfortunately, the protests have only grown worse. On Monday, an Indian national was killed when the Nepalese police opened fire on protesters who were trying to block a border checkpoint. As mentioned earlier, the India-Nepal border has been sealed and all vehicles, including fuel trucks, have been stopped. New Delhi is right is stating that “issues facing Nepal are political in nature and cannot be resolved by force”. However, one of the various causes behind the current stand-off between the Madhesis and Kathmandu boils down to New Delhi’s failures before the Nepalese Constitution was promulgated.
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. The first came when Prime Minister Modi sought to address a massive public gathering in the Madhes region during his visit to Nepal last year, despite the fact that negotiations over the Constitution were still going on. It is rather apparent that Modi sought to tilt the balance of negotiations in favour of the Madhesis, besides playing to the gallery back home. Strategic experts back in India have questioned whether New Delhi’s haste in establishing a presence in the Madhes region came as a result of electoral calculations ahead of the Bihar polls. As stated above, the Madhesis share close ethnic ties with Bihar. However, the Nepali establishment, quite unequivocally, saw this as a blatant interference in the affairs of another nation. 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 ultimate irony for New Delhi is that dissident communist leader and former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai has decided to fight for the Madhesi cause. Suffice to say, the entire exercise behind the formulation of the Nepalese Constitution was an open affair. With Indian agencies on the ground and a competent diplomatic mission in Kathmandu, New Delhi was more than aware of how the traditional “Hill elite” were trying to steer the Constitution-making process in their favour.