Time to Cut Losses? India’s Hyperventilation Over Nepal’s Crisis

07th Oct 2015 Featured, Political-Affairs

In the course of two weeks, the relations between India and its smaller neighbour to the north have hit a new low. Twitter storms have been raised and television channels have been cut in response to an ‘unofficial’ blockade of fuel and supplies.

On 20th September, the Nepal Constituent Assembly’s (CA) unveiling of the Constitution – its seventh in almost seven decades – witnessed fireworks and gaiety across the country. Further south in the Terai region however, the tension was palpable.

Hailed by many as the finish line of a tortuous nine-year odyssey since King Gyanendra’s ouster in 2006, the promulgation of the Constitution is largely owing to the united front presented by the three major parties in Nepal – the Nepali Congress, Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist(CPN-UML), and the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist. While the text of the Constitution was approved by nearly 85% of the 601 CA members, the main opposition came from 60-odd legislators belonging to the Terai region. Their defiance stemmed from the concerns of the Madhesi, Tharu and Janajati communities residing in the region, who feel that the new Constitution will lead to their political marginalization.

Genesis of Crisis

The bone of contention was the Constitution’s amendment to recarve the country’s 28 million population from the erstwhile fourteen provinces to seven federal provinces. The Madhesis, along with the Tharus and the Janajatis make up over 40% of Nepal’s population and, as such, expected a proportional representation on the basis of population. However, being divided across five of the seven with only one province with a clear Madhesi majority, a perceived political disenfranchisement became their rousing call.

The rift between the Madhesis and the central government is, at one level, the historical struggle of plains-folks vs hill-elite. Consider for instance, that the Madhesi predominance in the Terai region guarantees them the vote bank of the province, but the new demarcation of provinces essentially offers half the population (consisting the hill-elite) with 100 seats, while the other half (Madhesis, Tharus, Janajati) receive only 65 seats. Secondly, the ‘proportional inclusion’ clause provides several castes of the hill communities with reservation, a move that has left the Madhesis seething.

In the run-up to the Constitutional announcement, dissent turned into protest, cities were placed under lockdown, and police orders to quell the uprising led to 43 casualties, including an eighteen-month-old baby. With Madhesi and Tharu political parties announcing a grand alliance to commence the second phase of protest, the violence shows no signs of coming to an end.

Indian Response: From Suggestive to Abrasive

The almost paternalistic attitude with which India supported Nepal’s transition from royalist monarchy to a secular, federal democracy devolved into a pithy response to the September 20 announcement: “We note the promulgation in Nepal on Sunday of a Constitution.”

While Kathmandu grumbles over this lacklustre response, Indian officials claim that it has given them cause. The MEA’s official release stated,”We are deeply concerned over the incidents of violence resulting in death and injury in regions of Nepal bordering India following the promulgation of Constitution yesterday…” It went further, stating, “We had repeatedly cautioned the political leadership of Nepal to take urgent steps to defuse the tension in these regions. This, if done in a timely manner, could have avoided these serious developments.”

Over the course of the last few months, the Indian response to the developments in Nepal have gone from polite suggestions to cautionary warnings to, finally, barely-veiled disapproval. The official reason for Indian apprehension is the risk of “spillover” from the violence in Terai – which lies along the porous Indo-Nepal border – into Indian territory. Also cited are complaints by freight and transporters on difficulty of movement. However, there are two other significant causes behind Indian disapprobation.

First and more immediate, the upcoming Bihar elections. The politically fractious state of Bihar has been the keystone to any Indian election, and this year promises to be a keenly contested tug-of-war between the ruling NDA and the grand alliance of the Congress, the RJD and the JD(U). Any spillover from the Terai crisis could quite conveniently end up in the latter’s court. Safeguarding poll-bound Bihar from external infractions is, after all, a responsibility of the Centre.

Secondly, over the course of the Constitution’s progress, India has increasingly perceived itself to be the slighted party. Revisiting the heady days of 2006 when India brought together the forces that have finally delivered the Constitution, it had a key influence over its formation, even playing guarantor to some parties. However, it had sought guarantees for the rights of the Madhesi people. According to officials, none of these commitments were upheld by the Nepali government in the new Constitution. With its proprietorship over the Constitution-building process shrunk to a minimum, India was left seething, clearly evidenced by the Hon’ble Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s remarks in August of protecting the “Madhesis as Indians” (The Indian embassy was forced to issue a denial following Kathmandu’s protests). The natural Indo-Madhesi affinity means that India is strongly in their corner, even if it translates to being against the other 85% of Nepal’s lawmakers.

Skirting the ‘I’ Word

India’s efforts to stall the announcement and reach a more inclusive conclusion have included actors at the highest corridors – from Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar’s two-day visit to Sushma Swaraj’s remarks and PM Modi’s telephone call imploring his counterpart, Nepali PM Sushil Koirala, to obtain, “consensus, not numbers”. But apart from staying the announcement of the Constitution till the final deadline of 4 PM, Nepal didn’t bat an eye. Jaishankar’s visit met with a point-blank refusal by its three top leaders – Koirala, Maoist chief Prachanda and UML’s K.P. Oli. Swaraj’s requests were countermanded by an implacable Dinesh Bhattarai, Nepal’s Foreign Affairs Adviser, who baldly stated,”Flexibility has to come from both sides” (referring to the stalemate between the government and the Madhesis).

Yet beneath the veneer of polite denials and helpless shrugging lies the lingering suspicion that plagues each one of India’s smaller South Asian neighbours – interference. India has long been suspected, not unfairly at times, of casting its own shadow in the political affairs of Nepal. In this regard, instances like Rajnath Singh’s remarks and Jaishankar’s meetings with the Madhesi leaders during his visit will not allay Nepali reservations about India’s true motive in furthering their cause. Maoist chief Prachanda’s statement on September 22nd that Nepal does not want to be India’s ‘yes’ man is case in point here.

The Road Ahead

Considering the above, India doesn’t have many options on the table. Its dour response to Nepal’s announcement, along with Jaishankar’s bordering-on-blunt remarks had generated a major backlash from Nepal’s twitterati, with the hashtag #BackOffIndia doing the rounds on the viralscape.

There is also the China factor at play. India’s curt stance is in stark contrast to China’s warm congratulatory message on the eve of the announcement: “China sincerely congratulates Nepal on promulgating the new constitution[…]It is hoped that Nepal will seize the opportunity to realise national unity, stability and development” China’s open backing towards the CPN-UML supremo KP Oli for the prime ministerial berth is as unprecedented as it is worrisome in South Block circles. Its recent offer to train officers of the Nepali army, which already buys significant quantities of arms and equipment from China raises strategic concerns in Raisina Hill. In light of China’s economic and military overtures to Nepal, playing the disapproving uncle is perhaps not the best course of strategy for India.

Some however, such as Indian Member of Parliament DK Tripathi, think India shouldn’t have been too critical of Nepal’s decision in the first place. The concerns of the Madhesis can certainly be addressed in the coming months or years. “Nepal has adopted a Constitution, and like all other constitutions in the world, this too will mature and evolve,” he said.

India’s concerns, while somewhat masked, are justified to some degree. While Terai accounts for one-fifth of Nepal’s territory, it comprises more than half of its population. An unstable Terai is bound to shake up Nepal’s constitutional fabric, especially now since the Constitution’s opponents stand in resolute unity. Rather than engaging in a war of words, India should monitor the situation from a distance. It’s bonhomie with the Indian-origin Madhesis means it could play honest broker if the situation gets out of hand and, more importantly, when the need to act as facilitator is not just a necessity, but comes via invitation from Kathmandu itself.

This article has been published in IndraStra.com