With the election of Bidhya Devi Bhandari as President of Nepal, the first woman to grace the largely ceremonial post, Prime Minister Kharga Prasad Sharma Oli now has a strong ally from his own party ‘Communist Party of Nepal – United Marxist Leninist’ (CPN-UML) to strengthen his hands. He has his task cut out, with rebuilding the country’s quake-shattered economy and improving relations with India. Relations with India have nosedived over the new constitution adopted by the Nepal parliament recently, greeted by violent protests claiming more than 45 lives and a perceived blockade of oil and essential supplies from the Indian side. The Nepali constitution has created a secular, democratic republic with a federal structure under which seven states have been drawn up. The Madhesis and Tharus making up around 30 percent of the population, along with several other ethnic and linguistic minorities, have opposed the creation of the new states for cutting into and parcelling out their homelands in southern Nepal. These groups are now facing prospects of miniscule political representation in the new states, along with loss of privileges they earlier enjoyed. They suspect that elite sections of the domint pahadis living in the hills have pushed through parliament a flawed constitution, designed to permanently deny power to the communities inhabiting the southern terai region.
The Madhesis have close ethnic and cultural ties with India, leveraging their roots in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to great effect in New Delhi. With the Samajwadi Party ruling UP, and Bihar going through a tumultuous election — the BJP-led government at the Centre has its hands tied as far as the Madhesis are concerned. So when the Nepal parliament approved the new constitution on 16 September, New Delhi’s reaction was guarded. Expressing concern at the violence, the Exterl Affairs ministry called upon the new ruling dispensation in Nepal to ‘address the remaining political issues in a spirit of dialogue and reconciliation’. This was straightaway interpreted in Kathmandu as Indian interference, exacerbated by the Madhesi blockade of Indian goods carriers on the Indo-Nepal border. Kathmandu has alleged that India is enforcing a de-facto economic blockade against the landlocked Himalayan country, triggering a crippling fuel shortage there. Beijing has meanwhile taken full advantage of the situation, rushing oil tankers and goods carriers through a recently repaired mountain route to Nepal. This adds to the fact that Chi has been the biggest investor in Nepal since the last two years. There is now a perception that New Delhi has lost crucial diplomatic ground to Beijing as far as Kathmandu is concerned, despite Prime Minister rendra Modi visiting the Himalayan country twice in the past one year as well as pledging almost 1 billion dollars for its quake reconstruction.
The present trust deficit between the two neighbours is unfortute, which for long have had open borders with lakhs of Nepalis seeking their livelihood in different parts of India, including Assam and other NE states. New Delhi has long considered Nepal to be within the Indian sphere of influence, but now Kathmandu may seek to balance India against Chi. In fact, the Nepal Maoists led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal have been espousing closer ties with Beijing ever since giving up arms and later coming to power in 2008. The constitution making exercise began that year but got bogged down, before legislators were jolted to deliver after the disastrous earthquake in April this year. Prime Minister Oli has received the support of the Maoists, the ‘Rastriya Prajtantra Party-Nepal’ (RPP-N), the ‘Madhesi Jadhikar Forum-Loktantrik’ (MJF-L)and other smaller parties to form his coalition government. The Nepal parliament is likely to consider promised amendments to the constitution to accommodate demands for political power by different groups. With Prime Minister Modi speaking to the new Nepal PM immediately after his election and his likely visit to India soon, it is hoped New Delhi and Kathmandu will lose no time in putting bilateral relations back to even keel.