Nepal’s tryst with destiny has never been a smooth run. Ever since the initiation of the peace process in 2006 and after Nepal was declared a parliamentary republic in 2008, Nepal has been grappling with various forms of instability at the local, party and government levels. The current situation seems to be enshrined in the historical theory of ‘continuity and change’ with Nepal’s top three political parties – Nepali Congress, Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist, CPN-UML), and the Maoists – having agreed to hold local body elections in May and June 2017 (continuity in the form of persisting political instability and change in the form of local body elections to be held soon after a long hiatus). This election will give Nepal a democratically elected local body after two decades. The local body elections should have been held in every five years in Nepal but due to political instability, elections could not be held and have been halted since May 1997. Though, on one side, this election is supposed to be the culmination of a long-running peace process, on the other, it could now well be the cause of a prolonged conflict or even a civil war in Nepal. This is due to the fact that the Madhesi political parties have opposed the upcoming elections, juxtaposed to Nepalese Prime Minister Prachanda’s stated promise that the elections will be held under any circumstances. Prachanda had said he would amend the new Constitution to address the grievances of the minority Madhesis living in the southern plains to make the elections possible. But the Madhesis, right from the beginning, said that their grievances must be addressed before the election dates were finalised. They vowed to boycott and disrupt any election in their region without their demands being met. After a lot of uncertainty, including calls for amendment of the Constitution as a precondition, one can be hopeful now that the elections will be held as scheduled.
Elections and the Madhesi-Hill Confrontation
The local body elections, if held, will decide the future course of Nepali politics. Moreover, as per the provisions of the newly promulgated Constitution, Nepal needs to hold three tier elections (local, provincial and federal) by January 2018. If those elections are not held by then, Nepal may again find the nation sliding into a constitutional crisis that could undermine the fragile stability of the young republic.
The major political parties, especially the main opposition CPN-UML, demanded that the government call for the elections and rejected the idea of constitutional amendments. Conversely, Madhesi parties demanded that the government first address their concerns regarding Madhesi, Janajati and Tharus through constitutional amendments and then announce election. Meanwhile, the Election Commission of Nepal had asked the government to agree on election dates at the earliest for all three election processes to be completed within the stipulated time. The government was compelled to announce the poll dates due to these circumstances, in addition to the mounting pressure from the main opposition CPN-UML. The CPN-UML did not allow the House to discuss the Bill to amend the Constitution though the government had promised the Madhesi parties that they would announce the poll date only after addressing the issues of the Madhesi, Janajati and Tharu communities; and the issue of more representation of the Madhesis in Parliament and redrawing of provincial boundaries. The Madhesis and their regional political parties had already rejected a Constitution approved by bigger political parties in 2015, saying it concentrated power further among the hill elite that had long dominated politics in Nepal. In fact, this rift between the ‘hill’ and the ‘Madhesi’ is historical and might resurface if the demands of the Madhesis are not met.
As a matter of fact, holding the election without the participation of Madhesi parties is not feasible as well. It will further increase the rift between the Madhesi parties and the government. There will be chaos, leading to increased chances of serious clashes among the people of different communities amounting to massive instances of ethno-centric violence that will further worsen the situation. The worsening situation will have a direct and spill-over effect on India and, thus, India is watching the situation closely.
India’s Stakes and Dilemma
Nepal is very important for India. Strategic concerns have prevailed for long and India’s policy towards Nepal has always been shaped around such realities. India, however, has always maintained cordial relations with Nepal and on the eve of upcoming elections, it is visible once again. Indian Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi has assured his Nepalese counterpart Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda” that India will extend all possible assistance for the elections to Nepal’s local government bodies scheduled for May and June. On May 2, 2017, India gifted nearly 50 vehicles and motorcycles worth about 90 million Nepali rupees to Nepal for the May 14 local polls, the first to be held in over two decades. Earlier, Prachanda spoke about his government’s efforts to “take all stakeholders on board in the Constitution implementation process” and sought India’s assistance for the upcoming elections.
However, the mutual distrust surfaced once again in the form of confusion over telephonic conversation as to who initiated the call. Moreover, it is not clear as to what sort of assistance the Modi regime can extend to the Government of Nepal in this matter. Is New Delhi going to use its influence with the Madhesi leaders, with whom it has had a long association, thereby convincing them to at least not disrupt the election if they do not wish to support them? Or is Prachanda expecting the Modi government to send across a sterner message? At the extreme end, would Nepal want India to get too closely involved with what is strictly an internal matter of the Nepalese people? And if India does so, some sections in Nepal will again go brouhaha over Indian intervention in Nepalese internal affairs. These are the questions, the answers to which are not readily available.
The local body elections are important to Nepal, since they are taking place after close to 20 years. They are a crucial step to empower the people at the grassroots, which in turn would strengthen Nepal’s democratic fabric. But the counter view is as important: The significance of the democratic exercise gets considerably diminished when a large section of the population — in this case, the Madhesis — are dismissive of the move and have called for a boycott, and worse, a stepped-up agitation in protest. The situation before New Delhi, thus, is becomes tricky and India finds itself in a dilemma. On the one hand, it has consistently backed the Madhesis’ demand for a just representation in their country’s political system. Over the last many years, India has openly been articulating those sentiments. But on the other hand, India would not like to, at this juncture where steps are being taken to resolve the issue, be seen as opposing the conduct of local body elections. India trusts the Prachanda regime would be able to exercise greater political heft, after the elections to local body, to address the Madhesis’ grievances comprehensively. But the trust may not be emboldened if Prachanda gets huge success and he may then, theoretically, try to give the Madhesis the short shrift. The Madhesis, on their part, would expect India to persuade the Prachanda government to ‘see reason’ and would take it as a ‘betrayal’ in case India did not. Since New Delhi does not want unrest to erupt on the streets of Nepal in any situation, it will have to do a fine balancing act. Thus, the upcoming elections become important for India as well. It is now time to shed the diffidence of not appearing interventionist, for developments in Nepal are already having a direct impact on Indian interests.
The Nepal government has tabled a new constitution amendment Bill in parliament to address the demands of the agitating Madhesi parties which are demanding more representation and re-demarcation of state boundaries ahead of the local elections. Moreover, a positive outcome of the recent visit of Nepalese President Bidhya Devi Bhandari to India in the third week of April 2017 is the decision to give permission to Madhesis to contest local body elections. This decision may go a long way in overcoming the trust deficit.
According to the new Bill, the government may form a federal commission to recommend it on the issues relating to the number of provinces and their boundaries. Kanak Mani Dixit, Kathmandu-based writer and civil rights activist, said that “this is a rights-based constitution written by politicians rather than jurists, and it is full of promises. It is not a tight document that constitutionalism tells us to craft. The challenge of converting the provisions into reality must
be met through step-by-step implementation, which includes first and foremost the three tier elections over the next year.”
Enhanced economic engagement with China is already a reality. The Himalayan range is no longer a barrier in that sense, and India needs to develop its own strategy. With growing Chinese involvement in Nepal, India must manoeuvre all its diplomatic channels to make stability persist in Nepal. A stable Nepal will be the biggest advantage to India strategically. Nepal, and the upcoming local elections, thus becomes important calculative stage for India to secure its own interests.
[The writer is Assistant Professor (Guest) in History at Satyawati College (Day), University of Delhi]
By Dr. Rajeev Kumar