November 30, 2016

Nepal: One Year Later… Has Anything Changed?

A year back, in September 2015, Nepal’s new Constitution was welcomed with hope and jubilation. As September turned into October, this jubilation and hope soon turned into despair. Now one year since, Nepal has witnessed a series of protests, a border blockade and seen two different prime ministers. As we enter October 2016, what remains of the hope and jubilation that initially greeted the Constitution? Following the lows of early 2016, where is Nepal on its journey to establish a national consensus? Are India-Nepal relations on the road to recovery? In tackling these questions, the commentary takes a look at the recent developments and considers possible future course of events.

The road towards drawing up the new Constitution lasted eight years. When it was finally implemented on 20 September 2015, the reception was not on expected lines. While a section of the Nepali population along with China was thrilled, the Madhesis in the Terai and the Indian Government were not that welcoming. Coming just on the heels of the April 2015 earthquake, the Madhesi lead protests and border blockade was the last thing Nepal needed, at a time when focus on implementing the Constitution and providing earthquake relief should have been a primary goal. Ties with its long-standing partner India were also a casualty of the ten-month long period of turmoil.

As we mark one year since the adoption of the new Constitution, Nepal is on the slow but steady road to recovery. When the Madhesi agitation was initially called off in February, there ensued an atmosphere of positivity. This period saw some progress including three Constitutional amendments; key issues relating to citizenship and division of provinces were not settled though. The protests lead by Madhesis and Janajatis which rocked Kathmandu in May 2016, appeared to be a sign that agitating groups had joined hands to pressurise the government.

The protests in Kathmandu never materialised and failed to have an impact like the border blockade. This second round of protests failed due to the choice of location. The Madhesis had hoped that joining with the Janajatis and taking the agitation to the capital city might have a greater impact. However, unlike the previous protests and border blockade, this protest did not impact the flow of basic supplies. The protesters as a result had a smaller bargaining power.

More positive signs about a national consensus have emerged after Pushpa Kamal Dalal (Prachanda) took over as the Prime Minister. Firstly Prachanda’s government has the support of the Madhesi parties in the national parliament. He became the Prime Minister based on his promise to come up to a national compromise on the Constitution. As a result Prachanda is obliged to work towards a national consensus that is acceptable to all.

Two months into his tenure, all indications point towards a constructive dialogue to iron out differences. The government has already taken steps to appoint a commission, which will probe into the atrocities committed by the police during the protests. A proper compensation package is also being worked out for the families of those killed and the injured during the protests. While these measures would not resolve the crisis, they are small but important steps in addressing the trust deficit. Giving paramount importance to dialogue with the Madhesis, Prachanda’s decided to skip the UNGeneral Assemblymeeting, in order to focus on discussions regarding the Constitution.

While these are highly positive signs, it is important to exercise cautious optimism. The dialogue process has been painfully slow. Considering the crucial phase that Nepal is going through, a quicker consensus would help in strengthening confidence in the new system. Importantly the current dialogue is only an informal dialogue, the formal talks have to still begin. Finally, there is the pressing question if the Constitutional amendments can actually be passed. Any Constitutional amendment requires two-thirds support in the parliament. Prachanda’s party is the third largest party in the house. One cannot help but question if the government can actually garner the support to pass the amendments.

Given Nepal’s location and its diplomatic history, the constitutional crisis had significant international ramifications. The most crucial one was its impact on India-Nepal relations. Since India is a very close ally and an indispensible trade partner, good relations with India is an important factor in Nepal’s experiment with democracy becoming a success. The last one-year has been a torrid time for India-Nepal relations. What started off with India’s cold response to the Constitution, snowballed into India being accused of starting an unofficial border blockade. The rocky times in the relations was largely due to India’s mishandling of the situation and former Prime Minister K.P. Oli’s hostile stand vis-à-vis India.

Under Prachanda significant progress has been made to mend fences. His recent state visit to India proved to be very successful with India agreeing to step up assistance. Indications have also emerged that India is more open to the Constitution and throwing its weight behind the dialogue. Like the process of building a national consensus, mending India-Nepal relations is also going to be long drawn process. The damage done over the last one year cannot be rectified in the span of a few months.

The last one-year has been a turbulent one for Nepal. It has witnessed a border blockade, seen two Prime Ministers in office and witnessed ties with a crucial neighbor nosedive. In the two months since Prachanda has taken office, Nepal seems to be flying in calmer skies. An informal dialogue has already commenced, in the hope of coming up to a consensus. This period has also witnessed a marked improvement in India-Nepal ties. At this point in time, it would be prudent to exercise a cautious optimism. Over the next few months, once more progress is made in the dialogue, a lot of the jubilation and hope that one saw in September 2015, would begin to re-emerge.

The author is a academic associate at Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. The views represented are his own and does not represent the views of the organization he represents.


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