European Union’s woes

Murari Sharma

If you are convinced that the European Union is robust enough to weather all challenges and proper, think again. The regional economic group is facing existential crisis, both old and new.

That however does not necessarily mean that the union is about to crumble. The union is the largest economy in the world. It remains a magnet for countries seeking to join it, like Turkey and Ukraine. Germany and France, two largest economies and members of the group remain robustly committed to the union.

It, however, does not mean that the economic bloc is secure from threats to its ideals and survival. Economic crisis, potential exist of Britain, refugee influx and terrorism have posed such threats.

The economic crisis in Southern European posits the potential of shrinking the union. Greece, teetering on the brink of an economic cliff despite several international bailouts, may be forced to leave the euro to make its exports competitive to ride out of the debt hole and depression. Spain and Italy, which also have unsustainable debt, may follow suit. The euro is a key plank of the European integration project.

Britain’s exit, if it occurs, may open a hatch for others to follow suit. Britain will conduct an in-out referendum on the EU membership in 2017. The number of people for opting out is increasing steadily in opinion polls. If this trend continues, Britain may abandon the union and seek Norway’s type of relationship with it. Other members that want greater control of their borders, policies and finances, may emulate Britain.

The unceasing influx of Middle Eastern refugees has been fraying the economic bloc. In the face of nearly a million refugees arriving in Europe so far this year, the bewildered EU officials have already ditched the Dublin principle for asylum. Eastern European members have rejected the quota of refugees and erected fences on their borders. Even Germany and Sweden indicated that they are not open to refugees.

The University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole, who published a piece in the The Washington Post, believes that the United States was responsible to create the Islamic State. The Western alliance is stepping up its campaign against the terror group in Syria, which will mean more refugees heading to the European shores and more terror groups coming into existence.

Now it is clear that one of the militants involved in the recent terrorist attacks in Paris had come recently through Greece. It confirms the fear that terrorists could enter as refugees to terrorise Europe. Consequently, even France wants to suspend free movement and reinstate some border controls to prevent the movement of terrorists.

All these elements have seriously undermined the key planks of the union: A broader Europe, a borderless Europe.

That should be allowed to happen. Weakening and killing the union will be a humongous mistake for Europe and for the world. The union has removed the old enmities, healed old wounds, kept Europe safe for last 70 years, and made it the most prosperous continent in the world.

A setback in the European project will likely reopen the old rivalry and wounds and make Europe once again an unstable and war-prone region. It will be a folly to let that happen.

Will the EU disintegrate soon? I do not know. But will it remain strong or become stronger? No, if the economic integration is not followed by political and strategic unification.


Two elephants trample the grass in Nepal

Murari Sharma

Hundreds of Nepalis protested against the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 12 November in front of the iconic British parliament, when he visited there. They shouted slogans against Modi and India, triggered by the allegedly unofficial Indian economic blockade of Nepal, after the new constitution of Nepal was promulgated on 20 September 2015. This mirrors the growing tension between Nepal and India, helping neither country.

The new constitution — which came after the Maoist insurgency that took 15,000 lives, abolition of monarchy, election of the Constituent Assembly for the second time, and devastating earthquakes in April and May this year — should have been a matter of happiness and celebration across the country. But unfortunately, that has not been the case.

On the contrary, a section of the population in the plains — known as Terai — have been protesting against the statute which they find not inclusive enough and does not meet their demand for one or two exclusive provinces for the Terai people. To force the government to amend the new charter, they have also picketing at a few Nepal-India border points, around which they are strongly represented.

They have mainly picketed Raxaul and a few other places, while most other border points remain free of obstruction. Yet India has reduced to trickle the movement of trucks from both sides  especially carrying petroleum products and medicines, at all border points, citing insecurity in Nepal.

Consequently, life in Nepal become extremely onerous. Hospitals have run out of medicine. Miles long lines for cooking gas, petrol and diesel have become a common sight in Kathmandu and other towns. Shortage of fuel has forced schools, colleges and factories to close and development activities to stop.

This has fomented anti-Indian sentiments in Nepal. Anti-India protests have become common in towns and in social media. Two Nepali deputy prime ministers have publicly blamed India for its unofficial blockade and the prime minister has joined the chorus, though less explicitly. The London protest was only its spill-over.

India has blamed Nepali politicians and the protests on the Nepal side for the obstruction and asked the government of Nepal to resolve the political crisis to ensure the normal flow of goods through the border points.

The situation has become so bad in Nepal that the United Nations has warned of a humanitarian crisis. The blockade has not only dampened the Nepali festivals, but also impeded the reconstruction of the earthquake devastated homes and infrastructures and normal development activities.

Kathmandu’s effort to resolve the crisis has not met with much success. Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa secured assurances from New Delhi to divert supplies from unobstructed border points, which were not followed through. Frustrated by this, Nepal has approached China for help and sought open supply lines from other countries as well.

Beijing has offered 1.3 million liter fuel in grant, signed a memorandum to supply one-third of Nepal’s fuel demand, and expedited the opening of the two roads that were blocked by the earthquakes. Suppliers from other countries have also shown interest. However, time and transportation cost are not on Nepal’s side. Opening new supply lines takes time. Transportation cost of imports from China and other countries is going to be much higher than from India.

This is not the first time India has imposed economic blockade. In the late 1960s, it had imposed it when Nepal removed the Indian check points from Nepal-China border. The second time, it used this tool when Nepal imported some weapons from China, against the treaty of 1950 between the two countries.

Such blockades recur because of the conflict between the strategic and economic interests of India and China in Nepal. India wants to bring Nepal into its security fold and monopolize the use of Nepal’s abundant water resources. China wants to break India’s stranglehold in Nepal, especially after Nepal opted for a federal structure and abolished the monarchy.

Although Nepal remains largely in the Indian orbit, India perceives that a stronger voice and vote of Terai people of Indian origin in Kathmandu will further strengthen its hand and repulse Chinese inroads. Therefore, it has provided tacit support to the protesting groups in Terai.

China sees it as detrimental to its interests for the same reason, fearing that ethnic federalism that Terai people are demanding may encourage it across Nepal, including on the borders of its volatile Tibet region. Therefore, China wants to help Nepal ride over this fuel crisis.

It is a fight between two elephants, and it is trampling the grass in Nepal.

That is not to suggest that the demands of the protesting groups are not genuine. Most of them are, and Kathmandu needs to address them as promptly and fairly as possible.  If it can address its internal problems swiftly, it will give less room for foreign powers to meddle in its internal affairs.

Although the public ire is directed against India now, people will soon begin to hold the government to account and the continued shortages of essential commodities will not win public favor. So Kathmandu needs to address the internal political problem quickly and promote its cause by striking a balance between its bigger neighbors’ vital interest.

It will be a mistake for Modi to antagonize Nepal — like Maldives, Sri Lanka and Pakistan — and push it into the Chinese embrace, when he needs regional support to win  a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. He should have understood it without the protests in London and Kathmandu.

Murari Sharma: Golden Age of Communists in Nepal

In 12 years, it is said, even a river changes its course. It has in Nepal, but in 65 years, shattering its old banks.

Established in 1950, during the Soviet heydays and soon after China became a Communist country, the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) had a humble beginning. It played no major role in toppling the 104-year Rana oligarchy in 1950. It only won four seats in the parliament in the first-ever multiparty general elections held in 1959.

It suffered a series of breakups. The CPN broke into two after King Mahendra in a royal coup dislodged the BP Koirala government in 1960, banned political parties and imposed the party-less Panchayat system. The pro-Moscow group supported the royal action and the pro-Beijing group opposed it. Other breakups followed due to ideological or personal differences, spawning a dozen or so Communist parties.

But in 1990, when the Nepali Congress Party (NCP) led a people’s movement to restore democracy in the wake of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the new wave of democracy on all shores, several Communist parties formed a joint front and joined the movement. Some even merged to create a strong CPN-UML (United Marxist-Leninist).

When King Birendra restored multiparty democracy, the UML emerged as the second largest party in the parliament in the 1991 general election. That is when the river of the CPN seemed to cut its banks significantly to change its course.

The 1994 general election catapulted the UML to the largest party in the parliament, but sans majority, and enabled it to form a minority government. But within 9 months, the government collapsed, thwarting the course change.

Nonetheless, the 2006 political change broke the riverbanks as never before. Communist parties insisted on suspending the monarchy. After the CPN (Maoist) emerged as the largest in the Constituent Assembly and communist parties put together attained more than 60 percent strength in the 2008 ballot, they became instrumental in abolishing the monarchy. Four Communists leaders (two from the UML and two from the Maoists) became prime minister and a Communist leader became the speaker of the house.

However, the presidency remained beyond their reach, until this year. In the 2013 elections, Communists retained their strength in the Assembly, though the Maoists were pushed to the third position. The Nepali Congress and the UML formed a coalition government and, with the help of the Maoists,  promulgated a new constitution in September this year.

In the subsequent change of guards, UML leaders bagged the presidency and premiership, defeating Nepali Congress candidates. A Maoist leader defeated his Nepali Congress rival for vice president. The Nepali Congress gave a pass to the speaker and deputy speaker. Thus, the political river has completed a course change.

Now Nepal has a Communist president, a Communist vice president, a Communist prime minister, a Communist speaker, and a couple of Communist deputy prime ministers. How long will it last?

Although predicting the political course in Nepal is no less difficult than forecasting the weather, this golden age for Communists may last for some time if the experience in the neighborhood is to go by.

In India, West Bengal and Kerala were under Communist parties for several decades. In West Bengal, the Marxists ruled for nearly four decades. In Kerala too, they have been a ruling party for a number of years. The signals are quite encouraging for Communists in Nepal also. The reasons for this are many, but let me cite a few key ones.

First, the Marxists in West Bengal went for land reform — confiscation of land of landowners and distribution to their core voters just before every election — to remain in power for decades. Never mind that the state became one of the poorest in India from one of the richest during that period. Communists in Nepal can take a page from there.

Second, other populist programs — such as redistribution of wealth through taxation, implementation of popular development projects without regard for their long-term value or sustainability, introduction of new welfare measures without considering the capacity to pay, and induction of new laws that make labor market rigid and production stagnant — helped them reelected. Communists in Nepal may follow suit.

In fact, the short-lived UML government in 1994 had introduced the old age allowance and another Communist-led government had started the old-age allowance, things the NCP government had rejected as unsustainable. This time, Prime Minister KP Oli has announced on the day of his taking office that all old dangerous bridges in the hills would be replaced with safe new suspension bridges. These programs are popular, though no one bothered to conduct feasibility and sustainability studies.

Third, the centrist NCP has shot itself in the foot so badly that it is unlikely to be up and running any time soon. Evidently, the NCP broke its gentlemen’s agreement to take the presidency and give the premiership to the UML and the speakership to the Maoists, only to lose everything.

Besides, the NC lost public confidence on nationalism. The leaders from the small regional parties protested against the new constitution arguing that is did not accommodate their demands for one state for the entire Terai region, that it made the citizenship provision more stringent than the Interim Constitution, and that it did not link number of constituencies in the plains to its population.

India sided with the regional parties. To give a boost to the fading protests in the plains, it allowed these parties to picket the access on its side of the common border with Nepal and imposed unofficial blockade on the flow of goods. To make it worse, it also presented its own seven-point demands for the amendment in the constitution as a precondition for smooth transit facilities.

The consequent shortage of petroleum and other essential products stoked anti-India sentiments in the rest of Nepal. What is more, India sided with the incumbent Sushil Koirala from the NCP to contest again for prime minister and twisted arms of the regional parties to vote for him under a constitution that they had rejected.

To win public sentiments and ease the constraints in supplies of petroleum products, Communist parties in power opened trade channels with China, breaking India’s monopoly for nearly four decades. This step has won wide public approval for them, as nationalist parties.

Consequently, if no major political or economic disaster happens from now to the next election, this Communist majority coalition is likely to remain on this golden shore until the next election due in two years and maybe in the following electoral cycle as well. At a time when Communists are vanishing elsewhere, they have reached the apex, after 65 years, and may remain there for next seven years.

Albert Einstein is perhaps right in saying, “It is not that I am so smart, it is just that I stay with problems longer.” Communists in Nepal have stayed long enough with their quest for power in Nepal.