President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Kathmandu, the first by an Indian head of state in 18 years, has been declared a public holiday in Nepal. The 2 November holiday has been ridiculed by many in the Himalayan country. To deflect criticism, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal or Prachanda as he is popularly known, promptly said that a holiday will also be declared when Chinese President Xi Jinping visits later in the year.
The dates for the Chinese visit have not yet been announced. The government’s argument is that the holiday was to ensure that the general public are not inconvenienced during the visit as there would be many road blocks for security reasons. Critics are questioning why the government is going out of his way to please Delhi by this gesture.
In his second innings as prime minister, the fiercely independent former Left wing guerrilla commander is seen as decidedly soft on India as he tries to "correct" his predecessors China tilt. Since the change of government, ties have progressed well. "India and Nepal has had intensive engagement in the last few months. The President's visit will add to our current forward looking ties,’’ MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup said.
The President himself knows Nepal well, having dealt with that country in his capacity as senior minister in various Congress governments. He knows nearly all the political leaders, cutting across party lines.
The anti-India feelings in Nepal, triggered by several months of economic blockade have now settled down. People now believe that former prime minister was brash to overplay the China card. Despite periodic outbursts of anti-India sentiments, the Nepalese have much more in common with India than they can ever have with China. Centuries of people to people contacts as well as religious and cultural links tie Nepal closely to India. But China is also increasingly playing a more important role in Nepal, though at the moment India has the upper hand.
At least the political parties are back to the fold and the new government is committed to ensuring that the Indian-origin Madhesis and other smaller groups living in the Terai areas also get their due place in the Republican Constitution. One of India’s top priority in Nepal is to ensure that the Constitutional amendments are passed and quickly adopted by Nepal’s Parliament. That is the crux.
But at the moment lawmakers are distracted by a major issue: The move to impeach the anti-corruption chief Lokman Singh Karki. This bureaucrat, appointed in 2013, as the head of the Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Authority (CIAA) has had unprecedented powers and had let loose a witch hunt not just against those who are corrupt but also against the press.
Well-known media persons like Himal editor Kanak Mani Dixit and his brother Nepali Times editor Kunda Dixit, had been consistently harassed. So much so that Himal, one of Nepal’s best known magazines is closing shop. But Karki did not just go after the Dixit brothers, the entire press corps critical of him have been tarred with the brush of corruption. Dixits are well-known for their feisty journalism and their commitment to upholding freedom of the press. The arrest of Kanak Mani Dixit led to outrage not just in Nepal but among all free thinking people across South Asia and beyond. Kunda Dixit had to flee Nepal in September to evade arrest.
As always in Nepal, the impeachment of Karki is also indirectly linked to India. There are murmurs of an India-hand in this case too. Nepalese say he was appointed with the blessings of the Indian authorities. Once a loyalist to the monarch, he came to India on a spiritual trip and spent months with his Indian guru. When he returned to Nepal, he switched allegiance from the monarch to the Republican cause. Since then he is alleged to be close not just to the India but also to Madhese political leaders. Nepalese believe that Karki has now become a liability and India finds no value in pushing his case.
Karki’s problems began when he tried to investigate the political class, including the ruling Maoists and opposition CPN-ML. To counter this move 157 UML-Maoist, MPs have filed an impeachment motion against Karki. He has stepped down but the Nepali Congress is yet to give the green signal for the impeachment. The impeachment motion will be taken up again on 18 November, when Parliament reconvenes after a break. The stability of Dahl government is intertwined with the impeachment motion. If the NC supports the move, it will be well and good. If they oppose it, there are chances of the government being toppled yet again.
According to sources in Kathmandu, the Nepali Congress, is trying to link the impeachment with the constitutional amendment and present this as a package deal. They believe that India is working through the NC to get it approved. If the Maoists want to go ahead with the impeachment, they should also not dither on righting what is seen by India as a wrong. Signs are that the government and Madhesi parties have more or less come to a comprehensive agreement on fixing of provincial boundaries, citizenship, representation on the upper house and recognition of the languages spoken by Madhesis and Janajatis.
Pranab Mukherjee is visiting at a time when impeachment is the current hot topic. India’s efforts will be to ensure that the Constitutional amendments come through. If linking the impeachment to the Constituional amendment is the only way to get it through Parliament, Delhi has no problems.