Nepal’s top political leadership has agreed to amend Nepal’s controversial, new constitution “within three months” to address the demands of the agitating Madhesi population in southern Nepal, but an important meeting on Saturday among the concerned parties failed to end the deadlock. It is to be seen now if any progress occurs once the Madhesi leaders — in Delhi to meet senior Indian leaders, including the prime minister — return to Kathmandu. Last week, the talks between Nepal’s Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj — which, according to Thapa, helped clear existing “misunderstandings” — appeared to be the most positive development in India-Nepal ties in a long time. The bilateral relationship hit its nadir against the backdrop of the ongoing blockade of Nepal’s southern borders. While Kathmandu has accused New Delhi of sanctioning and continuing the blockade, which began soon after the promulgation of the constitution in late September, the Union government has cited the violent unrest in Nepal’s southern plains by those aggrieved at the allegedly exclusionist constitution. The suspension of essential supplies has caused a humanitarian crisis in Nepal.
The downward spiral in bilateral ties is a lose-lose for the two subcontinental neighbours bound together by civilisational, political, economic and demographic ties, symbolised by their hitherto open border. Despite the renewed warmth in the relationship, which began with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s August 2014 visit and culminated in the aftermath of the April 2015 earthquake, Delhi’s apprehensions about Nepal resurfaced with the promulgation of the constitution, seen widely as discriminatory against the Madhesis, Tharus and Janajatis.
Whether known India-baiter K.P. Sharma Oli’s assumption of office as PM in October worried Delhi further or not, India took the unprecedented step of reporting Nepal to the UNHRC. Nepal hit back by cosying up to China and opening border trading points with its northern neighbour.
While Nepal’s leadership has wasted no time in exploiting the situation for political mileage at home and abroad,
Delhi’s handling of the affair has been far from diplomatic and effective. The hardening of its stance hasn’t led to Kathmandu addressing the alleged problems of its constitution so far. But it did paint Delhi into a corner. If India is to fill the symbolism of the PM’s “neighbourhood first” foreign policy with substance, it will need political leadership and direction from the top. It can’t leave ties with Nepal hostage to the bureaucracy’s penchant for knee-jerk reactions and sticking to outdated scripts.