From The Times of India (timesofindia.com, 03 May, 2017)
Nepal will be holding local body elections under its new constitution later this month. Kanak Mani Dixit, Kathmandu-based writer, publisher and civil rights activist, spoke to Nalin Mehta on the importance of Nepal’s local elections, the challenges in the Nepal-India relationship and the China factor in Kathmandu:
How would you characterise the current state of the India-Nepal relationship?
Everything is coming to a head in the coming year. Three tiers of elections are to be held as a start to implementing the new constitution: at the local, provincial and national levels. The local polls are planned for two stages, starting on May 14. After a lot of uncertainty, including calls for amendment of the constitution as a precondition, one can be hopeful now that the elections will be held as scheduled.
From a Kathmandu perspective, what do you think India is doing wrong?
In Kathmandu, there is ‘super suspicion’ about anything India does or does not do. That is the political reality of smaller countries vis-à-vis big neighbours. Back in 2015, India did not welcome but merely ‘noted’ the promulgation of the new constitution of Nepal, even though it was adopted through due process by an elected constituent assembly. To make up for that lapse, India now has the opportunity to publicly support Nepal’s democratic evolution by showing overt enthusiasm for the local elections.
Is Delhi choosing the wrong strategies in Nepal or is it ignorant?
New Delhi has worldwide concerns and is clearly not invested enough in Nepal to understand the fierce independence of spirit of South Asia’s oldest nation-state. India has not done its bit to back political stability in Nepal, which requires allowing the indigenous political process to proceed unobstructed. It also fails to appreciate that democratic political stability in Nepal is also good for Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and the other neighbouring states of India. We are today on a knife’s edge between disaster and immense success.
But the new Nepal constitution itself has been critiqued on several counts. Your comments?
The new constitution is not an ideal document but not for the reasons that it is pilloried in some quarters in India. Misinformation is rife – people have not read the constitution but are relying on hearsay from prejudiced quarters. Without doubt, the powers-that-be in Kathmandu continue in their old uncaring and discriminatory path, but the progressive implementation of the document will pave the way for inclusion in Nepal, to the advantage of the marginalised Madhesi and other communities. This is a rights-based constitution written by politicians rather than jurists, and it is full of promises. It is not a tight document that constitutionalism tells us to craft. The challenge of converting the provisions into reality must be met through step-by-step implementation, which includes first and foremost the three tier elections over the next year.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi created huge momentum for India during his Nepal visit. Why do you think that has been lost?
Your prime minister is a showman. He pressed all the right buttons during his first visit in August 2014. But once the deep state got active and interventionist, people became less enamoured. The low point was what I call the ‘Great Blockade’ of 2015, but I have a feeling that the authorities in both New Delhi and Kathmandu want to put that bitter chapter behind them.
President Pranab Mukherjee told Nepal’s president during her recent Delhi visit that India is happy Nepal is implementing its constitution and that India will support Nepal in accordance with the priorities of its people and government. You are asking for more categorical assurances than that?
Nepal has been kept on the edge of inter-community hostility for too long, and it is important to back away from the ledge. I have heard that the president of India told his Nepali counterpart that India welcomed the implementation of the constitution, but this did not come forth unequivocally in a statement or communique. The public posture still seems lukewarm.
What is your sense of why Beijing’s influence is growing in Kathmandu?
Yes, there has been a pivot in Kathmandu’s engagement with Beijing, and some of the momentum was created in reaction to India’s posture on the constitutional promulgation. But Kathmandu wants to take advantage of the infrastructure that is opening up to the north, with the railway arriving in Tibet. But it is not conceivable that Nepal will ever deliberately try to harm India’s security interests from that direction. Kathmandu does need to understand Beijing better than it has till now, but enhanced economic engagement with China is already a reality. The Himalayan range is no longer a barrier in that sense, and India needs to develop its own strategy rather than just be reactive.