Nepal Constitution crisis: Is PM Modi’s South Asia strategy slowly beginning to unravel?
by Sandipan Sharma Sep 24, 2015 20:44 IST
Nobody knows what would be more galling for the BJP: Nepal’s refusal to remain a Hindu state and instead turn secular, or Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inability to influence the Himalayan kingdom in spite of his two high-profile visits, stirring speeches, liberal economics and earthquake diplomacy.
Nepal’s decision to adopt a new Constitution, in spite of objections and diplomatic pressure from India, is turning into a major embarrassment for the Modi government. The sequence of events unfolding in Nepal has put India in the unenviable position of an intrusive bully who is being continuously rebuffed by a much smaller neighbor.
The ungainly spat being played out in public has already caught the world’s attention. “Modi makes a lot of overseas trips, but is he a diplomatic failure with India’s neighbours?” asks Washington Post, arguing that the PM’s sojourns have not yielded results.
“Just a year after Modi’s high-profile visit to Nepal — where he performed an elaborate prayer ritual at a Hindu temple, gifted sandalwood worth $600,000 to the temple, offered a $1 billion line of credit and addressed the country’s Constituent Assembly — comes the news that Nepal ignored many of New Delhi’s inputs in writing its new Constitution,” says the newspaper.
India’s reported advice to Nepal for making seven changes in the Constitution has elicited an angrier response. Nepali people have retorted by advising India to first settle its own internal disputes — with Kashmiris and Gorkhas — before poking its nose in the neighbourhood.
The relations came to a boil when the Constituent Assembly of Nepal passed the new Constitution defining the Hindu-majority nation as a secular republic and divided it into seven federal provinces. The division is being opposed by people living in the Terai, especially the Madhesis and Tharus. They believe the new boundaries will lead to their marginalisation in Nepal.
The Madhesis are mostly Brahmins, Bhumihars, Rajputs and people of similar clans residing in Nepal’s central Terai. They are both originally from Nepal and migrants from adjoining Indian states like UP and Bihar. They have close social and business links with people in Indian states. India sees them as a vocal support group and a buffer against any pro-Chinese tilt by the Nepal government.
Since the 1980s, there have been sporadic demands in Nepal for a separate Madhes as a single province. Since this has been ignored in the new Constitution, the Madhesis believe it is part of a conspiracy to marginalise them politically.
Apart from the Madhesis, the Tharus in the western plains and the Janjatis in eastern Nepal are also against the new Constitution. Several people have died in violent protests across Nepal against the new Constitution. India fears this may lead to large scale exodus of Madhesis and their migration to UP and Bihar.
Concerned by the development, India dispatched its foreign secretary S Jaishankar to speak to Nepal’s leaders about the concerns of the Madhesis. Jaishankar also invited leaders of an alliance of Madhesis, who have been leading protests against the new Constitution to the Indian Embassy. Earlier, there were reports that Modi has advised Nepal against allowing “Five-10 people to decide the fate of the country”.
But nothing seems to have worked. The queer Indian response of just taking note of the Constitution passed by a two-third majority evoked only anti-India sentiments and public derision. While the incumbent Prime Minister Sushil Koirla has refused to address India’s concerns, his possible successor KP Oli has rebuffed the Modi government publicly.
“We have not done anything against Nepali people, and why should anyone bother about it when we have not done anything wrong,” Oli said at an event on Wednesday. He went on to ominously add, “Let no friends be deluded that they can do whatever they like just because this nation is small…”
India seems to have yet again made the classical mistake of ignoring the neighbour’s history, geography and psychology. Nepali people have always resented India’s big brother attitude and intrusion into their affairs; they have been wary of Indian support to the Madhesi cause — seeing parallels between Sikkim’s annexation and the unrest in Terai; and have taken pride in their freedom and independence.
The Modi government should have taken a cue from the Nepalese reaction to the Indian media’s coverage of the recent earthquake and our boasts of providing timely relief to the victims. Perhaps the Indian reaction to the new Constitution could have been more nuanced and subtle.
This must be a major setback to Modi, who had energetically pursued a neighbour’s first policy after becoming the PM in a bid to position India as a regional super power and restrict Chinese influence in the subcontinent.
After a promising beginning, India’s relations with Pakistan have touched a new low. Unfortunately, Nepal too appears headed in the same direction.