1-7 January 2016 #789

The endless transition

A strong, stable and democratic Nepal left alone to solve its own issues is the best guarantor of India's national interest
Rubeena Mahato


Eight months after an earthquake and four months into an Indian blockade, as a new year dawns, Nepal is in crisis. The state, as usual, is nowhere to be seen.

Agitating Madhesi cadre blockade border points with India’s support, using violence to escalate protests and incite confrontation. Instead of exercising restraint, the police go on a shooting spree, killing innocents.

Ordinary Nepalis and earthquake victims have been left to fend for themselves as political forces battle it out. The blockade has pushed millions of Nepalis to destitution, and the economy has been irreparably hurt. We might be heading towards imminent state failure if things continue at this pace.

And yet, we can’t really expect anything different from a country where the intellectual leadership defends the rights of political groups to wield terror, violence and even a blockade against their own people. What else can one expect in a country where people are expendable for the sake of pursuing some abstract, untenable political goal?  What does democratic process mean when after years of war and political turmoil, Nepal finally gets a constitution through popular vote but is told to throw the document into the bin instead of improving on flaws because it doesn’t satisfy few groups?

The truth is that even if the government is able to fulfil all the demands of Province 2 activists including demarcation that stands at odds with claims of other ethnic groups, there will be no respite because we would have given legitimacy to political blackmail and violence.

For years we were told that Nepal can only achieve development and democracy if we get a new constitution through a Constituent Assembly. A civil war was fought to achieve this goal, but after the conflict ended we were told federalism was the answer.

The last decade was spent trying to figure federalism out. And now we are being told we need a new framework for defining Nepali nationalism. Whenever Nepal has tried to settle these issues through a democratic process, political forces who lost have trampled on them.

Ultimately we have to make a decision: do we want to continue the impasse by letting brute force decide our political fate, or do we want to evolve through continuous practice of democracy, accommodating grievances through inclusive policies and accountable politics? The second option is not possible in this endless and unstable transition.

Corrupt and incompetent leaders, weak institutions, structural discrimination over decades of authoritarian rule, economic inequality are key internal factors driving conflict and instability in Nepal. But it has to be said that being landlocked with an overbearing neighbour has been the bane of Nepal’s existence, and from which much of our current problems of state-building and democratic consolidation arise.

Constitution making is fraught with challenges and Nepal’s success in finally drafting one was an indication that we had passed a vital test of democratic transition and were headed on the right direction. But every time Nepal makes progress in institutionalising democratic institutions and achieving a semblance of stability, new problems are created.

Each time Nepal has tried to assert its independent status, India has responded with tough measures including blockades. India has been a destablising force for Nepal, fomenting domestic conflict to maintain its control. From Maoists in the past to the Madhesi Front now, this has been India’s tried and tested method to dominate internal politics. Constant upheavals has also left Nepal unable to focus on economic development and institution building. More significantly, there is little incentive for democratic politics in Nepal because India's approval matters more than popular endorsement, and ostensibly, dissatisfied political forces turn to India for gaining leverage in internal politics. Some civil society voices have become so servile and compromised that few dare to raise a voice against the Indian siege. People inside India oppose the blockade but here in Nepal our own say India is not responsible. Any criticism of Indian intervention is labelled ultranationalism. It is fascinating that while there is seething anger against the Indian blockade amongst common Nepalis, some of our prominent thinkers have disappeared from public sphere just so that they do not have to discuss the blockade or accept that there is one.

When enemies within are helping to weaken and delegitimise the state, there cannot be a positive outcome for Nepal. Eventually, a deal will be reached, the blockade will be lifted and the Madhes crisis will be resolved to an extent. But as long as India’s foreign policy in the region is dictated by its desire to maintain hegemonic control, neighbours like Nepal will remain trapped in endless transition.

India should know that a strong, stable and democratic Nepal left alone to solve its own issues is the best guarantor of Indian interests. Coercive diplomacy, inherited from the days of the Raj, no longer works, and will alienate allies and diminish its influence.

The only way Nepal can move forward is by rejecting violent politics of all kinds, balancing state-building with democratic deepening and redefining the terms of our relations with India, And this is where our efforts should be invested in the coming years.

Read also:

Year on year, Editorial

The enemy within, Editorial

When the blockade ends, Om Astha Rai

Survivors

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