To set the framework for its infant democracy, to recognize its rich pluralist character, and to enshrine its secular ideals Nepal had finally awarded itself a new constitution. Barely five months after earthquakes struck Kathmandu and neighboring districts an agreement that had eluded Nepal’s constituent assembly for eight years was finalized. Perhaps its resolve came from pressure exerted by global humanitarian donors meeting to award earthquake relief; perhaps in the face of this national disaster Nepal’s citizens realized how desperately they needed clear governance.
The constitution, signed into law September 20, provides the essential framework for country-wide elections, introduces a proportional electoral system at the federal and state levels, and spells out leadership powers. Many compromises had to be made but across the country most citizens felt a sense of relief and stopped work for two days to indulge in a self-congratulatory holiday.
The final document is far from perfect and there were disappointments over many provisions. Even before celebrations had ended serious discontent surfaced.
Notwithstanding hasty statements by some ministers that the constitution could be changed, opposition to the agreement in the south of the country turned violent. Eight police were killed; in the mayhem that followed another 45 people were dead. Within days, India advised Nepal that its hard won sacred document should be amended; a border blockade went into effect preventing essential imports, mainly fuel, from Indian suppliers. . This cutoff of fuel has disrupted life across the country and the resulting crisis is now in its second month. Although the embargo isn’t a stated Indian government policy, no one in Nepal doubts that Delhi is not fully supporting it.
Some say today’s emergency is as serious as the one which preceded the end of the monarchy in 2007. Except today there is no king to blame, or eject. This predicament is not new; it’s a manifestation of the entrenched imbalance of power between these neighbors. A dilemma that has confronted every leader in Nepal now challenges its newly elected prime minister, K.P. Oli. A Communist Party member, he relies on a coalition of minor parties when boldness and confidence are needed.
Nepal, although never occupied by a foreign power and enjoying the largesse of nations across the globe, has allowed itself to become perilously dependent on India for basic commodities. Every few years its vulnerability to Indian interests becomes painfully apparent.
Today, without India-supplied fuel, life across Nepal has been brought to a halt. Factories are shut, children and teachers cannot get to school; without propane gas businesses are idle, and intercity travel is impossible. Tourism (customarily at its peak during autumn months) is thwarted and projects designed to repair earthquake damage are suspended.
Why should India be unhappy with this harmless northern neighbor? Nepal poses no serious challenge to India. Barely a year ago, its people applauded Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a hero on his visit to Kathmandu, and following the earthquake Modi pledged $1 billion in relief aid.
It is seen as siding with a major block of Nepal’s inhabitants unhappy with the constitution. They are the Madhesi who populate the lowland strip of Nepal along its 1000 mile border with India. They’d wanted the constitution to demarcate a distinct Madhes province and to define Nepali citizenship to favor them.
Most Madhesi originated in the adjacent Indian provinces and they enjoy benefits from both countries. Moving freely across the frontier, they share more with India, including language, religion and economic interests than they do with Nepal’s hill people and Kathmandu residents.
With the fall of Nepal’s Hindu monarchy and the rise of democratic freedoms over the past decade, regional, religious, gender and language differences became the basis for ethnic awakenings across the country and these sentiments evolved into political interest groups, each demanding special rights constitutional rights. Indeed, competing interests of these communities was a major factor delaying the work of the constituent assembly.
Madhesi leaders, arguing that the new constitution marginalizes them in favor of other ‘ethnic’ groups, launched the current protest, employing their strategic position along the frontier to impose the blockade. Nepal’s Prime Minister (Communist Party) is a compromise candidate relying on a coalition of small parties and it’s already apparent that Oli lacks the personality to force a solution. His newly appointed foreign minister (from a small royalist party) returned empty handed from a meeting with India’s prime minister.
The United States, so active in fostering democracies across the world, shows little concern for Nepal’s struggling democracy. Perhaps that’s because of its close ties to India. Also, since the 1990s opposition movement that eventually led to the end of the monarchy and the creation of a republic was Maoist inspired, and with Maoists and Communists still major players in Nepali politics, the US may be less inclined to support this democracy. More reasons for new assertive leadership here.