Murari Sharma: Nepal should not just wait for peaceful settlement to Doklam Dispute, urge for it

India and China, both nuclear powers, are at loggerheads at Doklam located at the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction. It has sent shock waves across the region and beyond. The neighboring countries and the powerful countries across the world have remained loudly silent on the issue, which could prove devastating for the region and the world. 

Reportedly, the dispute escalated when the Chinese came with bulldozers and excavators to repair the road in the area claimed by both China and Bhutan. India, responsible for Bhutan’s defense under the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, sent its troops and built bunkers there. As India did not heed its request to dismantle the bunkers, China bulldozed some of them on the Sikkim side and denied Indian pilgrims the permission to visit Mansarovar through the route, opened in 2015. 

Border disputes and skirmishes between India and China are not new. Both countries have conflicting claims at several places of their common border, including in Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir. Skirmishes had occurred between the two countries near Doklam, the current flash point, in 2008 as well. 

Obviously, territorial disputes occur when two or more countries claim the same land based on legal and historical evidence. Until the rival claimants go for arbitration, there is no way to know whose claim is stronger. So such disputes prove a minefield for friends and allies, more so if they occur between big powers. If the friends and allies step at the wrong place, they will wound themselves politically and economically. 

Perhaps that is why the international community has remained largely quiet about Doklam. But that is a wrong option for China and India’s neighbors, which will be directly and seriously affect if a full-scale war breaks out between these countries. 

The neighbors have three options. First, they can leave the two countries to sort out the problem whatever way they like, including war. Second, they can undertake shuttle diplomacy to bring the two sides to an amicable resolution and failing that, to maintain the status quo ante. Third, they can ask both countries to take the case to the International Court of Justice or some other mutually agreed framework and accept the judgment.

The famous painter Pablo Picasso has said, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” So Nepal should shed its inferiority complex, get out, and try to do something. 

Because its options are limited, Nepal should take up the issue carefully and in a balanced and matured matter. Let me start with the second option. Usually, shuttle diplomacy succeeds when the mediator is a powerful and rich country that has the capacity to reward or punish the parties to dispute or when it is a neutral small country without any vested interest. Nepal does not in a position to reward or punish the disputing parties. Nor is a completely neutral party because of the 1950 Treaty with India. 

To make our case worse, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is visiting India at this inopportune time. If he can use this visit to voice Nepal’s view on the Doklam Dispute, he should certainly visit New Delhi. Otherwise, he should postpone the visit for now and wait until normal times.

Though the third option has worked in several places between small countries to resolve their border disputes, it rarely works for the big and powerful nations. The disputing party whose claim is weaker will not accept the jurisdiction of the ICJ and the arbitration by the ICJ or any other mechanism. So, the third option could be stillborn.

That leaves only the first option, in a strictly limited context, for countries like Nepal: Call both sides to find a peaceful solution. Will India and China listen to Nepal? Perhaps not. But that does not mean Nepal should not try its best or be seen trying to do it. Friends should help each other and not let friends fight and shed blood. 

That indeed is the only option that is available for Nepal to pursue in the Doklam Dispute. But sitting quietly is not an option. If we do, our friends will not come to help us when we need them. We need measured but proactive diplomacy that takes into account our limited capacity to influence our neighbors but understands the imperative to try to de-escalate the situation as quickly as possible.

If the dispute is allowed to fester, it will have a direct impact on the lives of Indians, Chineses and other people around them. There will be epidemics, economic hardships, social dislocation, political instability, refugees. The problems faced by the region when India and Pakistan fought over East Pakistan before the birth of Bangladesh is still fresh in our mind.

The thing is a China-India was will be several times more devastating because of their killing capacities. 

Lao Tzu has said, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” So, Nepal should not be swimming in the pond of inferiority complex. It should get out and try to do something to diffuse the dispute in Doklam just for the sake of good will if nothing else. 

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Murari Sharma: Main lessons of local elections

Recently, Nepal has completed two phases of local elections in six provinces, covering 617 local bodies, town and village municipalities, in 67 districts. It leaves Province 2 with 127 municipalities in 8 districts for the third phase. The election result in the first two phases has imparted important, some expected and some unexpected, lessons for Nepali politics.

First, people were eager to participate in the elections. The average participation level reached 71 percent. It was only expected in view of the fact that local elections were conducted after a hiatus of two decades, during which time the local bodies were run by bureaucrats.

Second, Madheshi leaders, now organized around the Rashtriya Janata Party-Nepal, were disconnected from Madheshi voters. RJP leaders had called on the Madheshi voters to boycott the election. But the voters enthusiastically participated in the 14 Terai districts where the elections have been held in the first two phases. Voter participation in these districts was much higher than several hill districts, including Ramechhap, Dolakha, and Bhojpur. The RJP leaders had not expected it.

Third, broad-based politics triumphed sectarian identity politics, at least this time. The CPN (UML) and the Nepali Congress, which believe in broad-based politics, emerged as the largest and second largest parties from the elections winning in 276 and 226 local bodies. Among the pro-identity parties, the Maoists came a distant third with 84. The Federal Socialist Forum and Madheshi Janadhikar Forum (Democratic) bagged only 8 and 7 mayors. Other pro-identify parties did not win any mayorship at all.

Fourth, boycotting elections is a poor strategy if the majority is willing to participate in them. Sure, when King Gyanendra organized local elections before he was suspended, the mainstream political parties did not participate and those who were elected could not assume their office, proving the whole exercise a fiasco. But this time, RJP lost the opportunity to participate in the polls in the 14 Terai districts due to the boycott and some of its senior leaders and many supporters defected to other parties to take part in the ballot.

It would be apt to quote Franklin D. Roosevelt here. He has said, “In our personal ambitions we are individualists.”  All leaders pursue their personal goals and forget about the common good until the next election is due. But RJP leaders failed to read the mind of the Madheshi voters, who want better schools, hospitals, sanitation facilities and roads. So the Madheshi voters participated in the local elections and supported those political parties that could potentially deliver.

That is not to suggest that identity politics has no role to play. Such politics has relevance to energize the oppressed people to fight for their rights. But it often ends in disaster if it is not contained in time. The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy suggests, identity politics “has troubling implications for models of the self, political inclusiveness, and our possibilities for solidarity and resistance.” It appears that Nepali voters have understood the negative implications of identity politics before their leaders and voted against them.

The CPN (UML)’s performance in the election has surprised the leaders of other political parties, particularly of the RJP. The RJP leaders had publicly vilified the UML leader KP Oli as insane needing treatment in a mental facility and dubbed his party as anti-Madhesh and anti-Madheshi. But the UML secured an unexpectedly good result in the Terai districts. According to some assessments, it is likely to repeat its impressive performance in the remaining 8 Terai districts, the heartland of Madheshi uprising since 2006, on 18 September 2017 in the elections for 127 local bodies, if the RJP demand is not met by that time.

The RJP leaders have demanded that the Constitution must be amended before the third phase of elections, something India has openly backed. But there is a serious constitutional problem to meet the demand.

A democratic constitution must protect the due process and provide equal protection all citizens. If we claim the Constitution of Nepal 2015 as democratic, then we cannot hold the first two phases of elections under the un-amended Constitution and the third phase under an amended constitution without breaching the due process and without treating the voters in the first two phases and in the third phase unequally.

So the mainstream parties and the RJP must not do anything that shreds the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Both sides sit down and move to the middle in order to preserve the sanctity of the due process and equal protection of the Constitution while keeping the door open for amending it as necessary for the greater good of the country. Though politics is a game of possibilities, the political parties should not go too far to undermine the law of the land every time they have problem or disagreement.

The local elections and their result had made this clear. But it is yet to be seen whether our leaders have understood their voters’ desire and sentiment.