There is a lot of political activity around the crisis produced by the Madhesi agitation in Nepal. But it is far from clear this is adding up to an enduring solution to a crisis that now goes to the heart of Nepal’s constitutional future. Nepal can have a vibrant and prosperous future but, as is so often the case in South Asia, political alignments often risk snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
The crucial element in the prospects for Nepal will be its internal political dialogue. In the end, a constitution is a social contract between citizens; it has to gain widespread legitimacy. There is plenty of blame to apportion, but Kathmandu made the mistake of denying the Madhesi agitation legitimacy. The agitation arose because the new constitution appeared to renege on three key elements: Proportional representation, allocation of seats on the basis of population, and identity-based federalism. There is agreement on the first two points. On the third, the Madhesis are insisting on a demarcation of state boundaries.
The debate over institutional architecture has now been burdened by layers of distrust and political brinkmanship. The denial of federalism was seen by marginalised groups as a ruse to deny them a legitimate share in power. In Nepal’s case, the demand for federalism is not just about identity, it is also a means of redressing historical marginalisation. The fact that something already promised was taken away led to a sense of betrayal. This sense of betrayal was compounded into polarisation. The Kathmandu political parties, including the Maoists, who are often undercutting each other in their jostling for power, hung together on this, lending credence to the charge that the denial of federalism was a conspiracy to deny marginalised groups their fair share.
The betrayal and polarisation was worsened by the way in which Kathmandu tried to deny the Madhesi movement legitimacy. It played the ultranationalist card: Presenting the agitation as largely an Indian conspiracy. This had a dual effect. On the one hand, it added insult to injury by portraying the Madhesi agitation as the fifth column of the Indian state. On the other hand, it led Kathmandu to miss the point. The main focus of politics in Kathmandu became standing up to India, rather than resolving a home-grown constitutional crisis.
The Madhesis used the blockade as an agitation tool to get Kathmandu’s attention. This was the main political instrument they had. India was blamed for the blockade. But the truth is that it is hard to see how India could have opened the blockade without intervening in Nepal’s territory. India did seriously err in being late in arranging airlifts of essential goods. There is no question that the blockade is causing immeasurable hardship. By creating a black economy, it is also altering Nepal’s political economy.
Where does Nepal go now? The Madhesis are adamant that there be some credible commitment to federalism, along with at least a sketch of a demarcation. Given the recent history of betrayal, a mere promissory note will not suffice. In principle, there are no insuperable obstacles to creating a working settlement on this issue. But the old elites are using nationalism as a ruse to protect their own power. And having unleashed the nationalism argument, the fear, whether real or imagined, of the ultranationalist backlash in Kathmandu is making political parties balk. They will need a narrative where a concession given to the Madhesis is not seen as a concession to India. It will take an immense degree of political finesse to make this distinction. Most political forces are more worried about being seen to be caving in to India than solving their problem.
How long can this equilibrium be sustained? At what point does the anti-India nationalism get tempered by a recognition of economic realities? It is easy to blame India for the economic hardship, but the truth is that Nepal’s government is, in no small measure, responsible for it. A credible and just engagement with the Madhesis would have made it unnecessary. In conceding a just settlement, the Nepal government would only be strengthening Nepal.
In principle, it is possible there could be significant differences within the Kathmandu establishment. The Nepali Congress has more of a base in Madhes and much to lose if there is greater radicalisation on both sides. But like India’s Congress party, it has been too complacent, and internally ambiguous, in the face of hypernationalist arguments to perform a conciliatory role. Constitutional settlements require a measure of statesmanship, generosity and courage. This is sorely lacking at the moment. Instead, like so many political elites in South Asia, you get the impression of a political class in Nepal not oriented towards the future, caught in too-clever-by-half games.
There are two risks if there is no political movement. The Madhesi movement will get radicalised. One consistent feature of this crisis has been the degree to which all parties, including Madhesi leaders, have underestimated the staying power of the movement. There is a sense that this is a “now or never” moment for Nepal. And radicalisation can feed counter-nationalism in turn. The other risk, not unknown in protests, is accidents: A precipitating incident of some kind that provides a pretext for both sides to escalate. At the moment, the Nepal army has, wisely, stayed away from being an instrument of repression. This should also give Kathmandu a reason for pause and make it wonder how long it can sustain the nationalist card.
India is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. Clearly, there was a failure to understand the political dynamics in Kathmandu. There was probably some mixed messaging. But in their zeal to show they can stare down India, Kathmandu politicians have also been mendacious about how they transmit India’s intentions. They have been oblivious to economic realities and the complex ties of interdependence that bind India and Nepal. Ironically, in this instance, they, rather than India, have tried to play the security card. India will have to deal with the genuine resentment that has resulted from the blockade. But it is clear India’s interest lies in a prosperous,united, inclusive Nepal. It is Kathmandu that seems to want the conflict to simmer: It is using the India card as a fig leaf to avoid confronting a structural problem of its own making. In the process, Nepal’s people, of all communities, continue to suffer.