Murari Sharma: Nepal heading into crisis

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal is rushing blindfolded to a precipice with his proposal to amend the constitution. If he does not listen to the calls to open his eyes before it is too late, he will fall off, taking the country with him. That is scary.

Dahal’s blindness to the apparent facts is baffling. He needs 396 votes out of 595 in the parliament to approve his proposal, which he does not have, even if all his coalition partners stick with him.

Here is the math. The UML and other parties that have 200 members are openly opposing the amendment. The Rastriya Prajatantra Party, a coalition partner with 27 members, has made it clear that it would not support the amendment.

Besides, the Madheshi parties, with around 18 seats, have said they would support the amendment only with further concessions, without mentioning what.

It gets even more complex. Some leaders of Dahal’s own party have openly opposed the amendment in full or part. The Nepali Congress Party, the largest coalition partner, has the same problem.

A five-year old child can see this simple math, but Dahal does not see or care.

Why? Enter India. Dahal has been pushing the amendment to appease India, rather than satisfy the Madheshi parties. Indian leaders want the amendment and the Indian ambassador in Kathmandu had overtly lobbied the Nepali leaders to deliver it.

What is India’s motivation? India has provided development assistance to win the hearts of the Nepali people in virtually all sectors of the economy: From education and health to agriculture, roads, and power.

India has also sought to integrate Nepal in its security and economic architecture since it became independent from Britain and punished whenever Nepal has defied its dictate.

The 1950 treaty provides the framework for such integration. It established common security interest and granted equal rights to each other’s citizens in residence, trade, contracts and movement. Further steps followed.

For instance, in 1953, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru extracted agreement from his counterpart Matrika Koirala to coordinate the two countries’ foreign policy, only to be pushed back by a fierce opposition in Nepal.

The 1965 letter, exchanged as part of the 1950 treaty, has stipulated that Nepal acquire all defense supplies from India and obtain India’s approval before importing them from third countries.

India has punished Nepal whenever its dictat has been defied. For example, it imposed an economic embargo on Nepal in 1969/70 to chastise King Mahendra for removing the Indian check posts from the Nepal-China border.

In 1989/90, India imposed the second economic blockade (reduced the number of transit points from 14 to 2) because King Birendra imported Chinese weapons without Indian approval.

The king paid a huge political price. The blockade crated enormous shortages and angered people. The banned democratic parties launched a democratic movement, tapping the anger, and India support it. The movement reduced the king to a constitutional monarch.

The growing protests ended with the induction of multiparty democracy, and the king became a constitutional monarch.

Similarly, King Gyanendra lost the monarchy in 2008 for insisting, among other things, on making China an observer in SAARC.

Indian punishment has extended to the elected leaders as well. For instance, in 2009, New Delhi openly prevented Pushpa Kamal Dahal from becoming prime minister again because he had criticized India.

In 2015, India imposed the third economic embargo when Prime Minister Sushil Koirala refused to delay the promulgation of the new constitution written by the constituent assembly.

New Delhi said Nepal’s Madheshi parties had obstructed the border, but it was only partly true. The Madheshi picketed some border points, notably Birgunj, but India curtailed the flow of sensitive goods, such as petroleum and medicine, from even those points where there was no obstruction.

In 2016, India openly campaigned against Prime Minister KP Oli because he had criticized the Indian economic blockade and had signed trade and transit treaties with China to reduce Nepal’s economic dependence on India.

Dahal succeeded Oli by promising to become friends with India and amend the constitution. And he is trying to keep his pledge. He is aware that, if he fails to deliver, he will lose his chair.

But he has bitten more than he can chew, substantively and constitutionally. In substance, the proposed amendment covers re-demarcation of state boundaries, citizenship, language, and representation in the upper house.

The boundary issue is by far the most explosive. The Madheshi parties insist that all districts in the plains should come under one Madheshi state or two  Madheshi states. The Hill people do not agree with that demand.

Dahal has sought to placate the Madheshi parties by disengaging the hill and plain districts in State 5 and by referring other plain districts to a boundary commission. But the districts in State 5  have raised the hell of protests against the proposal. That is a clear indication as to what could happen if a similar solution is found for the remaining plain districts.

On citizenship, the Madheshi parties want foreign women married to Nepali men to obtain Nepali citizenship as soon as they initiate the process of renouncing the old citizenship and to have all the rights of the Nepalis born in Nepal.

No other country in the world has such a generous provision. For instance, it takes 7 years in India for Nepali women married to Indian men to get Indian citizenship. It takes 2 to 5 years in Western countries. India prevented Sonia Gandhi, a naturalized Indian citizen, from becoming prime minister. The United States bars such citizens from becoming president.

On language, the Madheshi parties want Hindi to be recognized as one of Nepal’s national languages. India has included Nepali in its constitutional schedule. But it has no fear that the Nepali language will crowd out Hindi there. In Nepal, Hindi might wipe out Nepali language and identity altogether.

The representation in the upper house is relatively simple to resolve. Currently, each state is given eight members, regardless of their size, as the two senators from each state in the United States. The Madheshi parties want the representation based on population only. An accommodation is possible by setting aside the equal minimum number of seats to each state and assigning the rest based on population.

Constitutionally, amending the statute requires the consent of the two-thirds of states, which are yet to be created. Yet, the first amendment had gone through early this year because no one raised its constitutionality.

But this time, the UML has placed the matter front and center, and the Supreme Court is hearing cases in this regard. If the court sticks to the letter of the constitution, the amendment would be impossible without fulfilling the due process.

Politicians blame each other for the impasse, and partisan political pundits parrot their leaders. Do not believe them. Actually, the issues on the table are complex and delicate, and they cannot be resolved without concessions and compromises from all sides.

The solution must be found to hold the elections, due in a little more than a year, and avert a constitutional crisis. It can be found if Prime Minister Dahal removes his blindfold and opens his mind. Otherwise, he will fall off the precipice, taking the country with him.

 

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