Backing the wrong horses in Nepal
DURING periods of estrangement with New Delhi, Nepal's political class refers to the Indian Embassy as the Lainchaur Darbar. This is a paraphrasing of the hated Narayanhiti Darbar or the King's palace which was the centre of intrigue against the aspiration of Nepalis to be masters of their destinies.
The Narayanhiti Palace is now a museum. King Gyanendra is an ordinary citizen, living in a palace on the outskirts of Kathmandu far removed from its centres of power. But the term Lainchaur Darbar is back in popular discourse following two back-to-back statements by the Ministry of External Affairs. These were preceded by Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar's dash to Kathmandu after Nepal's Constituent Assembly (CA) had sealed the final draft of the new Constitution and President Ram Baran Yadav was about to promulgate it at a special function.
Both the Foreign Office statements were half-hearted in welcoming the new Constitution, a major breakthrough in Nepal’s political life. Instead, they focussed on the protests in the plains, called Madhesh and populated largely but not exclusively by people of Indian origin (Madheshis). Coming on a public holiday in Nepal to celebrate the event, the second statement came on a day most of Nepal glittered with a million candles to mark the occasion. Admittedly it was darkness in a few parts, all of them bordering India, as they mourned their dead or cowered while army troops marched in the lanes. The second statement continued: “we have consistently argued that all sections of Nepal must reach a consensus on the political challenges confronting them. The issues facing Nepal are political in nature and cannot be resolved through force.” It sounded confrontationist, almost as if New Delhi was chiding a badly governed state of the Union of India rather than an independent country.
What was the reason for this Indian ire that may have set the clock back on all the goodwill garnered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Nepal last November? Barring a few aberrations, the new Constitution is one of the most progressive in our part of the world. It abolished capital punishment and became the first Asian country to protect the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
Most important, the electoral system gives a second chance to all those who failed in the first past the post system. It was fitting that the promulgation of the Constitution was announced by Ram Baran Yadav, a Madheshi. Over 80 per cent of Nepal's parliamentarians voted in favour of the Constitution, about 12 per cent boycotted and four per cent voted against. If the Indian media's coverage is taken as a dipstick, one wouldn't get the impression that one of the poorest countries on earth has such forward-looking features in its Constitution. The Foreign Office's dirge and the Indian media coverage made it seem that the entire Himalayan republic was in mourning. Instead, TV screens resonated with the sound of gunfire and images of people out in the streets obscured by the smoke of teargas shells. One channel, presumably in all seriousness, quoted Prime Minister Narendra Modi as having told Nepal that its Constitution should be based on sehmat (consensus) not bahumat (majoritarianism). Does 80 per cent voting in favour of the Constitution by MPs elected on the basis of an all-time high voter turnout not reflect the will of the people? Wasn't the proportionate system that enabled two dozen parties with zero seats in direct elections to nominate one MP not a reflection of sehmat?
Nepal's political class did take one false step. It wanted to entrust this task to a commission. But its hands were forced by the Supreme Court which wanted the Constituent Assembly to delineate the new provinces while approving a new Constitution. They delineated six federal provinces. After protests broke out, a seventh province was created in the hills of mid-western Nepal. Madheshis felt Kathmandu had ignored their protests while accepting the demands of the ethnically closer hill people. But the only index of will of the people in a democratic set-up is the Parliament (Constituent Assembly). Of the 67 Madheshi MPs, 40 approved the Constitution. Of the 29 Tharu (tribal) MPs, 16 said yes. Many of the dissenters, however, owed their presence to the proportionate system pushed by the three big parties — Nepali Congress, CPN (UML) and UCPN (Maoist). The 100 candidates of Akhand Nepal Party, a votary of a Hindu Rashtra and one of the boycotters, together got just 12,500 votes in direct voting. Despite this dismal show, the proportionate system gave them one MP. The other false step is minor. The Assembly denied citizenship to children born to Nepali mothers and foreign fathers. This can be corrected at a later stage and is surely not as serious a crime to earn India's wrath. But there are powerful forces opposing the Nepalese Constitution. Did they influence the avowedly Hindu-tilting Indian Government's stand? The ordinary-looking men of the big three parties have made big enemies. They ended the privileges of the king and his men. The monarchists are backed by revanchists of the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh. “Around 100 crore Hindus are eagerly waiting for the framing of the new Constitution in Nepal. It is their desire that the Himalayan nation should again be declared a ‘Hindu Rashtra’,” BJP MP Aditya Nath openly declared this in July in Kathmandu. Overt supporters even announced a Rs 50 lakh compensation for every death to keep the agitation going. While the Nepal's Government has been saying the Constitution can be amended to reflect the aspirations of dissenting groups, these forces know the door has been firmly shut on their main demand of making Nepal a Hindu Kingdom. That could be the real reason for New Delhi's disproportionate ire. Pakistan and China, in contrast, have wholeheartedly welcomed the new Constitution. The Chinese President Xi Jinpeng will visit Nepal later this year. The three big parties of Nepal have earned their spurs through decades of toil, sacrifices and intense politicking. As pastmasters in power balancing, they might want to return the favour to China for supporting their efforts at framing the Constitution. New Delhi will then have no one but itself to blame.