16-22 June 2017 #863

Nepal-watching from Delhi

Is there really a shift in India’s approach to election and amendment in Nepal?
Akanshya Shah

There is heightened expectation in New Delhi that the government of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba will heed its concerns about consensus-building on the Constitution and addressing the grievances of the marginalised, especially the Madhesis.

India backed the power-sharing pact and used subtle diplomacy to persuade Deuba’s predecessor, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, to stick to his agreement to step down in nine months and not break with the NC to seek UML support.

This is being interpreted here as the “right move” on the part of the Maoist chief, who until recently did not enjoy the best of relations with New Delhi. He visited India twice during his tenure and assured the Indian leadership of his commitment to push for a constitutional amendment, an issue which had disrupted bilateral ties and led to the Blockade of 2015-16. The Indian establishment will seek from Deuba a similar assurance on the amendment. 

Deuba’s immediate challenge, as perceived here, is to keep the coalition intact and subsequently conduct local, provincial and national level elections by January 2018. But there is concern that the rift within the NC rank and file could derail the transition process.

“Deuba is in an unique position to address the issues confronting the Madhes and hold elections by bringing everyone together even if that means postponing the second phase. Otherwise, there will be deepening conflict in the Tarai, even the rise of secessionism,” one academic here said.

Deuba underlined three priorities after taking office last week: implement the Constitution, accommodate Madhesi groups and push development. Since then, his government has had four bilateral dialogues with the Indian side: Indian Prime Minister Modi called to congratulate him immediately after he took over, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj spoke with her counterpart, and the Indian Ambassador in Kathmandu, Manjeev Singh Puri met Deuba and his Maoist Foreign Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara this week (pictured).

Sources here say that they were given “credible assurances” the Madhes-based parties can be persuaded to take part in elections since the Maoists and NC together can muster support in Parliament to push for amendments. India will also urge Deuba to implement the three-point agreement between the SLMM and other parties signed in  August 2016, just before Dahal took office. 

New Delhi is said to be wary of how Deuba will handle Nepal’s relations with China. He is expected to engage with Beijing after his predecessor endorsed and signed China’s Belt and Road Initiative in his last few days in office. It will be a tricky balancing act for Deuba in the post-blockade period when China has stepped in to increase investment and influence in Nepal. 

Sources in New Delhi downplayed reports in a section of the Indian media that there has been a shift in New Delhi’s position vis-a-vis Madhesi politics in Nepal. The Indian Embassy in Kathmandu was said to have urged Madhesi leaders to drop the demand for amendments to the Constitution and participate in the second phase of local polls. They said this was a “misrepresentation” and that India still insists on constitutional amendments. It could well be that the Indian establishment is urging the RJPN to go for elections in the face of a threat of its political marginal-isation, while tacitly supporting its agitation.

India did not sincerely or seriously support Madhesi politics initially, and only realised its importance after Nepal became a federal democratic republic. New Delhi wanted a compromise amendment with the KP Oli government, and later with Dahal, to lift its Blockade, and only supported the deal hesitantly as it perceived the Madhesi leadership as weak and divided.  In that sense, there could indeed be a soft shift in the way India perceives local elections in Nepal. However, sources here say there has been no change in India’s belief that the Tarai is important to gain influence in Nepal, a country it sees slipping out of its sphere of influence.

The latest statements by the Indian leadership stress that India supports all initiatives by Nepal to make the new Constitution inclusive by taking in to account the aspirations of dissatisfied communities, adding that it encourages ‘dialogue and consultation among the political stakeholders’ in Nepal to ensure a broad-based political consensus and stability.

Akanshya Shah is a Nepali journalist based in New DelhI. This is the first of her new Nepali Times column, DEL-KTM.

Read also:

Deuba IV, Om Astha Rai

Looking at Nepal from New Delhi, Daniel Lak

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