Prachanda's India visit: What's next for India-Nepal relations?
Having replaced KP Oli of the CPN-UML, Prachanda faces the uphill task of internal peace and constitutional implementation whilst having to reset and recalibrate the topsy-turvy India-Nepal ties
The change in leadership of the Nepal government in August 2016 brought the former Maoist rebel leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda as the prime minister of a coalition government of the Maoists and the Nepali Congress. Having replaced KP Oli of the CPN-UML, Dahal faces the uphill task of internal peace and constitutional implementation whilst having to reset and recalibrate the topsy-turvy India-Nepal ties. The recent visits by the Nepali deputy prime minister Bimalendra Nidhi and the Nepali foreign minister Prakash Sharan Mahat to Delhi has laid the groundwork for Prachanda's four-day visit to India, at the invitation of his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi.
The historical nature of the India-Nepal relationship and the people-people relations do not need any introduction. However, in recent times, the promulgation of the Constitution of Nepal, 2015 and the subsequent protests and border blockade have been a major setback in the relationship. Nepal's subsequent signing of transit and other agreements with China has been regarded by some in India as a significant loss of India's influence in Nepal. Given the history of the India-Nepal relationship, it is unlikely that any deal between Nepal's agitating forces will be resolved without Indian blessings (explicit or otherwise). For Nepal, the continuance of the constitutional crisis is a major stumbling block to peace and development and resolution of this crisis is necessary for the implementation of the Constitution which sees Nepal as a federal democratic republic. In this backdrop, the significance of Prachanda's first foreign visit should be examined to check whether both nations can steer the relationship into a positive framework to ensure that the interests and concerns of both nations can be addressed equitably
At the outset, the choice of India as the first visit by Nepal's premier is a move to reassure India that Nepal has not moved over into China's orbit and is mindful of India's 'special interest' in Nepal. It is also a moment to reassure India and hear its concerns regarding Indian interests in Nepal, including on the Constitution. The visit to India of then Nepal prime minister KP Oli in February 2016 came during one of the most challenging times of the India-Nepal relationship. The strained relationship was evident by the lack of any joint communiqué at the conclusion of the visit, especially as there were sticking points with regards to India's refusal to 'endorse' the Nepali Constitution.
During his previous outing as the Prime Minister of Nepal in 2008, Prachanda chose to go to China first for an 'unofficial visit', though his first 'official visit' was to India. This was seen as a snub by many in South Block, and was seen as a factor behind his resignation for which the blame was laid on India. Prachanda now seems to be a changed man, and has placed the need for cordial relations with India as a priority. His 125 member delegation includes among others ministers, Members of Parliament and representatives of political parties including from the Madhes-based parties, government secretaries, businessmen and journalists.Apart from meeting the Modi on Friday, he is also scheduled to hold an interaction with the Nepali community organised by the Nepali Embassy and visit the Nathpa Jhakri Hydropower Project in Himanchal Pradesh and the Patanjali Yogpeeth and its industries in Haridwar.
Stated specific aims of the visit
In a speech to the Nepali parliament, Dahal stated that his visit would be focused on the implementation of prior deals agreed with India, particularly related to the development of physical and economic infrastructure. Specific projects mentioned include:
1) Further Construction of the Postal Highway (also, a key developmental demand of the Madhesis and other residents of the Nepali plains)
2) Financial Support to bridge the funding gaps for providing the housing aid to the victims of 2015 earthquake (as part of the $1 billion soft loan and grants pledged by India for post-earthquake reconstruction.)
3) Negotiations on the Detailed Project Report of the 5600-MW Multipurpose Pancheswor Project on the India-Nepal border river of Mahakali (the flagship item of the controversial Mahakali Treaty of 1996, this was revived during Modi's 2014 visit to Nepal. However unresolved issues include the supposedly unequal sharing of water and electricity and the border dispute of Kalapani over the origin of the Mahakali. The environmental cost of the Project is also expected to be quite high.)
4) Second phase construction and implementation of the power trade agreement (a key requirement for energy starved Nepal which sees load-shedding for up to 80 hours per week in summers.)
5) Discussions on trade concessions (a key requirement to reduce the huge trade deficit in Nepal's trade with India.)
6) Immediate construction of Integrated Checkpoints at Biratnagar and Bhairawaha borders, the completion of the cross border railway services and ensuring that the recent agreement to allow the Indian port of Vishakapatnam to be used for Nepali cargo is operational (currently, the Integrated Checkpoint in Birgunj is operational only on the Indian side, making it cumbersome to fulfill the paperwork at the India-Nepal border.)
7) Issues regarding flooding at the India-Nepal border (a sensitive issue for citizens living on both sides of the border).
Prachanda has been under enormous pressure both within his party and from other political parties in Nepal not to sign any new deals or controversial agreements against Nepal's 'national interest'. Thus, the stated agenda of his visit seems to steer clear of contentious issues and is more of a diplomatic effort regarding the strengthening of relationship between the two nations. In a bid to defuse any potential controversies, the prime minister has also stated that no new agreements would be signed during this visit. While the agenda clearly shows a focus on trade and developmental goals, it should be pointed out that it is very likely that his diplomatic parleys with the Indian establishment will include discussions on other unstated agendas as well.
It would be naïve to assume that this visit is solely about developmental issues. A lot of the issues stated by Prachanda were also agreed upon during Oli's February visit to India, and it is strange to see those agendas being repeated in this visit by the current Nepali premier. In addition, during the visit by Oli, names for the eight members Eminent Persons Group (four each from either side) whose mandate is to review bilateral relations including the treaties and agreements since the contentious 1950 India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship and recommend measures to further enhance bilateral relations, were also finalised. Thus, the spectrum of India-Nepal relationship contains many irritants, both historical and current ones, and it is inevitable that these issues will be discussed during this visit.
Nepal's Constitution has already seen amendments, especially with regards to proportional inclusion and the primacy of population over geography over the delimitations of election constituencies. While the Madhes-based parties did come to vote Oli out of power, and while there is an outward veneer of calm, the demands of the Madhes-based parties are far from fulfilled. While India had earlier merely 'noted' the promulgation of the Constitution, these amendments were welcomed, and India continues to push for further amendments.
While taking office, Prachanda had promised to register amendment proposals to the Constitution before embarking on his visit to India. However that has not happened, but the prime minister continues to express commitment to amend the Constitution to address the demands of the Madhes-based parties. While the remaining demands are based on language, citizenship, representation to the National Assembly, the single most contentious demand is that of the redrawing of the boundaries of the different provinces. This is however a very divisive issue in the districts concerned, given the mixed demographics and multiple claims.
It is now up to Prachanda to walk the talk and limit the trip to his stated aims, rather than search for an extra-territorial prescriptions for internal issues.
In addition, without the backing of Oli's CPN-UML, the requisite numbers for constitutional amendment cannot be mustered in the Nepali Parliament. It seems very unlikely that they would agree to such changes in the provincial boundaries.In addition, Article 274 of the Constitution of Nepal prevents the redrawing of the provincial boundaries without the approval of the provincial Assembly. If however the federal boundaries are redrawn, such changes will have to be endorsed by the future provincial assembly within three months of the formation of such provincial assemblies. Thus, any current change in federal demarcation could be potentially overturned by the future provincial assemblies and is therefore not a perfect solution for lasting peace. The constitutional amendment process is therefore getting more and more complex, with every passing day.
This brings us to the next part of Nepal's complicated transition and constitutional implementation. The issue of local body restructuring (local units at the grassroots level) is yet to be completed, and that has to be done before elections to the local, provincial and national levels can be held. The Local Body Restructuring Commission (LBRC) has proposed 565 local units across the country, but there are massive disagreements on all the different political parties over that number. Time is running out to complete these transformations, as the current Parliament only has 16 more months to complete the constitutional transformation into a federal Nepal.
Without a deal in place between Nepal's agitating parties, there is a likely scenario for the 'failure' of this Constitution. Such a scenario can only lead to more instability in Nepal, and it is very unlikely that it would be conducive to India's national interests to have an unstable neighbour with whom it shares an open border and free movement of nationals. Having already chosen sides in a very complex issue of constitutional design in a sovereign neighbouring nation, there is an onus on the Indian establishment to pave the way for an acceptable solution to the current 'constitutional mess'. However, such constitutional amendments cannot be an explicit agenda of the Indian side, nor should it be a quid pro quo for better India-Nepal relations.
'Fast track' and Indian interests
Another missing agenda is that of the Kathmandu-Nijgadh 'fast track' road. It was proposed during the prior government led by the Nepali Congress' Sushil Koirala to give the responsibility of this project to an Indian company. However, the terms of the proposed agreement were alleged to be unfavourable to Nepal and a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) remains pending at the Supreme Court of Nepal on this issue. The Oli government then decided that the 'Fast Track' road would be constructed by Nepal, instead of providing the contract to the Indian company. With the return of the Nepali Congress to power, there have been speculations that the contract will again be awarded to the Indian company.
This issue, though not as complex as the issue of constitutional amendment is an example of the never ending 'Indian interests versus national sovereignty' debate that continues in Nepal, where opposition to Indian 'hegemony' is a good way to garner public support. However, this has to be seen in the backdrop of other issues of Indian interest, where the 'big brother' activities of the Indian establishment are quite apparent, especially in attempts to micromanage events in Nepal.
Yet, it would be harmful not to listen to Indian interests in Nepal. India has traditionally looked to Nepal as within its sphere of influence. With the open border, and Nepal's location between China and India, there are security concerns as well. Nepal has always actively sought to allay India's security concerns. In addition, India has significant economic and investment concerns as well.The Indian establishment is also often frustrated with the inability of Nepali politicians to keep their promises to the Indian establishment, especially regarding investments in hydropower and related development projects, and most recently on the drafting and amendments to the Nepali Constitution.
Other issues: Nepali citizens in India
The open border between the two nations (as allowed by the 1950 treaty) facilitates significant number of Nepalis to work in India (including in the Indian Army). Similarly, Indian citizens (including those of Nepali origin) continue to work in Nepal. There is no proper method of transferring remittances from India to Nepal, and allegations of mistreatment of the returning Nepali workers by the Indian SSB, including the looting of the hard-earned money at the India-Nepal border continue to be reported. Similarly, with the introduction of the Aadhar card and stricter documentation rules, Nepalis in India continue to find it harder to continue to enjoy these rights as guaranteed by the 1950 treaty. The recently introduced 'National ID Card' pilot project in Nepal could also provide for a similar deterrent for Indian citizens in Nepal. Thus, there is an immediate need to address the vulnerabilities of Nepali citizens, without limiting the employment and educational opportunities available. This could be done through a regulation of the currently mostly-unregulated open border between these countries.
Expectations from the visit
It is likely that unlike during Oli's visit, there will be a joint communiqué issued at the end of this visit. The important question however, is whether that positivity actually translates to a better relationship between the two nations. The India-Nepal relationship is a close one, but filled with multiple challenges. While Prachanda has explicitly stated that there is no link between the constitutional amendment and his visit to India, it is difficult to deny the intrinsic link between the constitutional amendments and the current India-Nepal relations. However, to put that as a minimum requirement is again a huge mistake.
Given the rousing reception received by Modi during his first visit to Nepal, it is clear that developmental support is applauded by the Nepali government as well as its people. However, promised projects have to be executed on time, and should not be used as pressure tactics for micromanagement and intervention. From the Nepali perspective, it is not easy to bridge a chasm that has been built on the structure of 'constitutional intervention' and blockade politics. A blockade can never be the act of a friendly neighbour. Yet, Nepal's geopolitical limitations and India's historical role mean that India has often been the stabilising factor in Nepali politics. Nonetheless, the current actions of the Indian establishment in trying to dictate the provisions of the Nepali Constitution through both covert and overt micromanagement cannot lead to better relations between the two sovereign nations.
It is therefore time to focus on the stated agendas of trade, transit, development and investment between the two nations. The Indian establishment both bureaucratic and political; must respect the sovereignty and independence of its much smaller neighbour. "We, the people" as defined in the Constitution of India, 1950 does not envisage its amendments being discussed in bilateral discussions with other nations. Neither does the Indian establishment brook any interference from neighbours such as Pakistan over its internal affairs. There is no reason then, why "We the People" of Nepal should not be allowed to charter their own constitutional voyage and find their own solutions. The best way to bring the India-Nepal relationship back on track is therefore to just let Nepal to sort out its own political and constitutional challenges without interference from "Bade Bhai".
It is now up to Prachanda to walk the talk and limit the trip to his stated aims, rather than search for an extra-territorial prescriptions for internal issues.
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