Explained: How Prime Minister Oli’s Anti-India Belligerence May Backfire And Trigger Turmoil In Nepal

Explained: How Prime Minister Oli’s Anti-India Belligerence May Backfire And Trigger Turmoil In Nepal

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Jun 1, 2020 07:55 PM +05:30 IST
Explained: How Prime Minister Oli’s Anti-India Belligerence May Backfire And Trigger Turmoil In NepalK P Sharma Oli, Prime Minister of Nepal
  • The Madhesis are supporting the constitutional amendment brought by Oli, but they want another amendment of their choice to be passed as well.

    And it is here that may lie the seeds of Nepal’s next domestic strife.

Nepal Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli’s anti-India project to alter Nepal’s national emblem, featuring the country’s map, to include parts of India's Uttarakhand state is slated to sail through Parliament this week.

But while Oli would have achieved his objective of diverting attention from his domestic failings and staved off serious challenges to his chair through his jingoism, he, perhaps unwittingly, opened the doors to a grave crisis that he will find difficult to handle.

Indications of this impending crisis came last week itself when Janata Samajbadi Party Nepal (JSP) renewed its demand for amending the country’s Constitution to incorporate its demands that Oli is deeply allergic to.

The JSP, the primary party of the Madhesis who form over 19 per cent of the country’s population and have close kinship ties with India, demanded that the current move to amend Nepal’s Constitution to change the national emblem is also an opportune time to meet its demands.

The Madhesis have, since 2015, when the country’s new Constitution was adopted, been demanding its amendment to redraw the country’s provincial boundaries, grant official recognition to regional languages, address issues related to citizenship  and expand representation in the National Assembly (the upper house of Nepal’s bicameral federal parliament).

Soon after the adoption of the Constitution in 2015 (Oli was the Prime Minister then), Madhesis and other ethnic groups in Nepal launched intense and often violent agitations that led to a total halt in movement of goods from India to Nepal through the Madhesi-dominated Terai region. Oli blamed India for the blockade and used it as an excuse to increase his country’s engagement with China.

Internal power struggles forced Oli to step down as PM in mid-2016, but he blamed India for toppling his government. Ever since he returned to power in February 2018, Oli has doggedly pursued an anti-India line and steered his country into China’s embrace.

But Oli, considered to be a headstrong and alienating politician with little administrative skills, had faced a serious threat to his chair last month (read this). It was only China's intervention on behalf of Oli that saved the day for him.

The inauguration of a road to Lipulek in Uttarakhand state’s Pithoragarh district came in handy for Oli to divert attention from his domestic failures and ward off the challenge to his post from powerful rivals within his party. Nepal lays claim to a 335 square kilometer parcel of land comprising Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura and Kalapani along its border with India.

The conversion of a narrow mountain track used by pilgrims enroute to Kailash Mansarovar into a paved 75.5 kilometer road to Lipulekh, which leads to Tibet, by India, came in handy for Oli to indulge in jingoism and whip nationalist sentiments. Many say it was at China’s instigation that Oli upped the ante against India.

Last week, Nepal unveiled a new political map of the country showing the 335 square kilometers of land in Pithoragarh district as its own. This was followed by a declaration to move an amendment to the Constitution to alter the country’s emblem updating the map its portrays.

Nepal’s Law Minister Shiva Maya Tumbahangphe tabled the amendment bill before the lower house (House of Representatives) Sunday. A Constitution amendment bill has to get the support of at least two-thirds of the members of both the Houses in Parliament, and while the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) has a two-thirds majority in the 59-member National Assembly (upper House), it falls short of the figure by 10 in the lower House.

The passage of the Bill is a foregone conclusion since the Nepali Congress (NC) with its 63 members and the JSP (33 members) have also pledged support to the Bill since it is a “matter of national importance”.  The government’s aim of securing unanimous approval for the amendment bill is also likely to succeed.

However, the catch lies in the JSP’s demand for another Constitutional amendment bill to address the long-standing demands of the Madhesis. The Nepali Congress, which supports the Madhesi demand, has decided to table another Constitutional amendment bill that will address the demands of the Madhesis.

In fact, it was during the NC government under Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba (who is now NC president) in 2017 that a Constitutional amendment bill was introduced to meet the demands of the Madhesis. But the Oli-led opposition blocked the passage of the bill. In the then 592-strong Parliament, 395 votes were required to amend the constitution. Of the 553 members present at that session of Parliament, 347 voted in favour, while 206 voted against.

Oli has consistently opposed the demands of the Madhesis, who feel that the new Constitution that Oli thrust on the nation during his earlier stint as Prime Minister in 2015 is deeply discriminatory against them.

The Madhesis hold that the boundaries of the new provinces created under the 2015 Constitution introduced by Oli denies fair representation to them. Hence, they want the boundaries to be redrawn. They also want regional languages, including Hindi that’s the most commonly spoken language in the Terai, to be accorded equal status as Nepali.

The Madhesis also say the new Constitution discriminates against them on matters of citizenship. Children of single women are denied Nepali citizenship while children of Nepali women who marry non-Nepalis but dwell in Nepal cannot also become Nepali citizens. Since most Madhesis have close ties with people of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh  and many Madhesi women marry Indian men, their children are affected by the citizenship laws of the new Constitution.

Another major Madhesi demand relates to increasing the membership of the 59-member National Assembly. At present, each of the seven provinces elect eight members, and three members are nominated by the government. The Madhesis feel that their representation in the upper House is grossly unfair. There are just three Madhesis in the upper House and make for only 5 per cent of the House’s total strength where they form nearly 20 per cent of the country's population.

The Madhesis are also deeply suspicious of Oli, who they feel has backstabbed them repeatedly. The Madhesis say that they were let down badly by Oli in 2015. Oli had, before introducing the new Constitution, assured the Madhesis that their demands would be met.

The two primary Madhesi parties--the Samajbadi Party Nepal and the Rashtriya Janata Party Nepal--had joined Oli’s government in 2018 on the understanding that Oli would amend the Constitution to incorporate Madhesi demands. But Oli’s flat refusal to do so within a year led to both the parties leaving the government within months of each other last year.

The Madhesis have another genuine reason to be deeply distrustful of Oli. Last month, Oli suddenly promulgated two ordinances that would have facilitated a split in the Samajbadi Party (read this). Oli’s act drew strong criticism from Constitutional experts and lawmakers (read this and this, including senior members of his own party.

The move boomeranged and instead of fracturing, the two Madhesi parties stitched a midnight deal to merge and form the Janata Samajbadi Party Nepal (read this). Oli was left with egg on his face.

Now, the united Madhesis are demanding what they call a ‘package deal’: a comprehensive amendment of the country’s Constitution to alter the map of Nepal on the country’s emblem and to meet the demands of the Madhesis.

But Oli will reject the opposition’s demand, thus leading to another bout of unrest in the country. A number of leaders in the ruling Nepal Communist Party are sympathetic to the demands of the Madhesis and will oppose Oli’s intransigence on the issue.

Thus, Oli will face twin problems in the weeks ahead: protests by Madhesis that can intensify and create turmoil within the country that is struggling to handle the coronavirus pandemic, and also intensified challenge to his position from within his party.

Quite like his move to split the Madhesi parties that boomeranged on him, Oli’s jingoism and anti-India rhetoric might also to recoil on him.

Also readThe plain truth: Why Nepal stands to gain nothing from belligerence over ‘territorial dispute’ with India

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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