Reaching the new normal

President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Nepal has helped restore equilibrium to bilateral ties.

November 18, 2016 01:23 am | Updated December 02, 2016 04:04 pm IST

Nepalese President Bidhya Devi Bhandari, center right, shakes hand with Indian President Pranab Mukherjee on his arrival at the Tribhuwan international Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. Mukherjee flew to Nepal Wednesday for a three-day visit that is mostly a goodwill and pilgrimage trip to the Himalayan nation. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha)

Nepalese President Bidhya Devi Bhandari, center right, shakes hand with Indian President Pranab Mukherjee on his arrival at the Tribhuwan international Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. Mukherjee flew to Nepal Wednesday for a three-day visit that is mostly a goodwill and pilgrimage trip to the Himalayan nation. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha)

Earlier this month, President Pranab Mukherjee concluded a successful >three-day state visit to Nepal (November 2-4). The last presidential visit was 18 years ago, by K.R. Narayanan in 1998, and the visit was long overdue. Mr. Mukherjee is no stranger to Nepal’s politics. For decades, he has been the ‘go-to person’ for Nepali politicians visiting Delhi. This added greater political significance to the visit.

The Nepali authorities pulled out all the stops to ensure that the visit was a success. Mr. Mukherjee’s itinerary included visits to Janakpur and Pokhara, and civic receptions in both Kathmandu and Janakpur. In Pokhara, he addressed a large gathering of Gurkha ex-servicemen of the Indian Army. These public events provided suitable platforms which he used in a statesmanlike manner to restore a degree of balance in India-Nepal relations that have been through a turbulent period since Kathmandu’s adoption of the new constitution in September last year.

A troubled period From the beginning, it was clear that the Madhesis were unhappy with the new constitution but at that time, the Pahadi leadership of the three main parties — Nepali Congress (NC), CPN(UML) and Maoists — were in a hurry to wrap up the seven-year-long exercise. By the time India reacted, it was too late and the new constitution was promulgated.

Meanwhile, unrest and agitations gripped the Terai. The government, headed by the then Prime Minister K.P.S. Oli, made little effort to engage in a dialogue with the agitating groups. Instead, it blamed India for imposing an economic ‘blockade’ to pressure the government to accede to Madhesi demands. Eventually, after harsh rhetoric, both sides pulled back but the damage was done. An anti-Indian sentiment had been fanned. Mr. Oli’s coalition collapsed, and he finally resigned in July, once again blaming India for his ouster.

Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda struck a deal with the NC to take over as Prime Minister for a period of nine months after which the Maoists will support NC leader Sher Bahadur Deuba as PM for a similar period till the next elections in January 2018. To his credit, Mr. Prachanda set about trying to repair relations with India with a successful bilateral visit in September. In the near future Nepal President Bidhya Devi Bhandari is expected to visit India. All this should mark a return to normal in the relationship between the two countries. Yet such was the damage done during Mr. Oli’s tenure that even during President Mukherjee’s visit, #PranabDaSaySorry was trending on social media. The Nepal government had declared November 2 a public holiday amid innuendoes that this was done to keep roads clear and prevent any embarrassing demonstrations.

A presidential message During his visit, virtually every Nepali political leader met President Mukherjee. In public, his message was consistent and unambiguous: Nepal needs to complete the political transition that began a decade ago when the Maoists came overground and agreed to join the democratic political process; and secondly, in order to consolidate the gains of multiparty democracy, all sections need to be brought on board for the new constitution to succeed.

In addition, he highlighted the historical and civilisational links between the people of the two countries and linked the destinies of the two countries by emphasising that they have a “vital stake in each other’s well-being and security”. He praised the people of Nepal for their achievement in the quest for peace and stability, describing it as a “historic undertaking”. In Janakpur, he talked of the spiritual ties among the people by invoking Ram and Sita but without mentioning either Hinduism or secularism, a sensitive issue in the new constitution. His visit to Pokhara to address the ex-servicemen was tribute to the bravery of the 32,000 Gurkhas currently serving in the Indian Army and the 126,000 pensioners.

Even in Nepal, not many are aware that in addition to the Nepali Rs.4,000 crore that is now disbursed annually after the OROP implementation in terms of pensions, India has substantial welfare schemes covering solar electrification and drinking water supply to ex-servicemen’s villages, medical care and provision of ambulances to their associations, and education and scholarships for their children. In Pokhara, he highlighted the advantages of the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship that enables Nepali citizens to find easy employment in India.

Mr. Mukherjee was not expected to announce any major projects though the announcements about renovating the ghats along the Bagmati river just below Pashupatinath temple and the construction of two dharamsalas adjoining the Janaki Mandir in Janakpur address long-standing Nepali requests. More significant was that Nepali students will now be eligible to sit for the entrance examinations for the IITs and the additional scholarships for postgraduate studies in water resources management and hydel power at IIT, Roorkee.

Prachanda’s challenges PM Prachanda has his hands full. A third of his nine-month tenure is over and the dialogue with the Madhesi groups has not made any discernible progress. Without forward movement, it will be difficult for him to have the local body elections during his stint. The issue pertaining to the number of parliamentary seats from the Terai had been resolved in January by a constitutional amendment restoring ‘population’ as the key criteria in delimiting electoral constituencies though the Madhesis have yet to accept closure on it. Issues pertaining to provincial demarcation, restrictions on appointment to high-level constitutional positions for naturalised citizens, status of Hindi and other languages and composition of the upper house are still pending.

These are contentious and require a degree of political consensus which is still missing. The NC and the Maoists do not have complete agreement between themselves yet and neither do the Madhesi groups have a unified negotiating position. Consequently, the dialogue has been desultory so far.

Of these, provincial demarcation is possibly the most complex but if movement is registered on the others, it would create a positive climate in which to devise a mechanism for the demarcation. The second difficulty will be to get the two-thirds majority necessary for a constitutional amendment. For this, the CPN(UML) will need to be brought on board, and Mr. Oli is not showing any signs of relenting though there are others who may be more amenable to a compromise.

Mr. Mukherjee’s successful visit, coming after Mr. Prachanda’s official visit to India in September followed by a second visit to Goa for the BRICS-BIMSTEC outreach summit, has helped stabilise India-Nepal relations. This has provided Mr. Prachanda with much-needed political room for manoeuvre; he now needs to use his considerable negotiating skills to make progress on the pending constitutional issues during the remaining part of his short tenure.

Rakesh Sood is a former diplomat who served as Ambassador to Nepal and is currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi.

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