Nepal’s attempts to transition from a unitary to a federal polity have divided the country and the latest constitutional crisis is only widening the cracks. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s proposed amendment to the 2015 constitution, aimed at addressing the demands of the Madhesi population, has led to protests from the opposition Communist Party of Nepal Unified-Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UMN) led by his predecessor K.P. Oli and in many regions across the country, including in Rolpa, the bastion of the Maoist insurgency in the 1990s. The near constant tension has hurt Nepal’s economy, stability and political discourse.
Madhesis — Nepalis of Indian origin inhabiting the Terai region — occupy less than 20 per cent of Nepal’s landmass but form nearly 50 per cent of its population. They had hoped that a federal polity under a new constitution would have allowed them greater political representation and parity with the hill population. When the constitution was finally passed in 2015, their demands for a separate province and equal citizenship rights were not met. The protests and embargo that followed led to widespread resentment against India, which is perceived as supporting Madhesi aspirations and interfering in Nepal’s affairs. Under K.P. Oli, Nepal moved closer to China in an attempt to balance its dependence on India. Dahal, as PM, has made overtures towards New Delhi once again — visiting the country and receiving President Pranab Mukherjee — much to Beijing’s chagrin. Now, with the hill population protesting the amendment towards meeting Madhesi demands, the distance between the country’s largest ethnic groups threatens to grow even further.
The root of the problem in Nepal has been its top-down approach to federalism, reflected in the constant delays and tussles over the constitution. Issues of boundaries and ethnicity are deeply emotional. Nepal’s political class and successive governments have been unable to build a consensus among their people or even among themselves. Balancing the aspirations of minorities and ethnicities is no easy task, and requires political maturity, ideological magnanimity and strong institutions. Nepal’s leadership must work towards building the institutional mechanisms and broad consensus that are a necessary prelude to a far-reaching and stable political transformation. New Delhi, for its part, must resist the temptation to interfere in its neighbour’s internal politics.