CPN (Maoist Center) leader Narayan Kaji Shrestha has been closely involved in inter-party negotiations surrounding the announcement of local elections on Monday. He also visited India last week and met a range of actors, including top Indian government officials. He reportedly informed them on the importance of timely local elections in Nepal. So why did the government announce election without first completing the constitution amendment process? And what is the Indian stand on the latest political developments in Nepal? The ex-foreign minister shared his
insights with Biswas Baral, Mahabir Paudyal and Kosh Raj Koirala Wednesday afternoon.
First of all, why did the ruling parties decide to move the amendment bill forward despite the opposition from Madheshi forces?
The amendment bill is being presented in the parliament for theoretical discussion today (Wednesday). The bill was registered and tabled in the parliament in consultation with Madheshi Morcha. But they say the bill needs to be further revised.
Morcha leaders have clearly said they won’t go to the election if the parliament rejects the bill.
Like I said, the bill was registered and tabled with their consent. As a force that has been agitating for constitution amendment, Madheshi Morcha may not be in a position to say ‘we will accept the outcome even if the bill fails’. Look at it from their side and this stand seems justified. They might even be looking to create pressure for the passage of the bill. To this extent, their objection is valid.
But they will have to accept the result of the parliamentary vote, for they have also been the part of amendment process. I believe they will accept the verdict of the parliament.
There is another side to amendment debate. Madheshi forces had signed a three-point agreement with Nepali Congress and CPN (Maoist Center) which mentions that an amendment bill will be registered and tabled in parliament. The agreement is silent on the bill’s content. The government tabled the bill as per the same agreement. The reality is that the ruling parties with whom they had signed the agreement do not command two-thirds majority in parliament, which is required to pass the bill. If Congress and Maoist Center together had two-thirds vote and we had still stood against amendment, their reservation would be more valid.
Congress and Maoist Center had promised to them that the government would table the bill and will try to get it passed by the parliament. We have been doing so. This is why they should accept the parliament verdict either way.
Madheshi parties were adamant that election dates be announced only after the passage of the bill. So why did you have to announce election first?
There is obvious reason. We are constitutionally bound to complete three sets of elections before January 18, 2018. Failing to do so will lead to a constitutional crisis, which will take us towards an even bigger political crisis. Then we might lose all achievements enshrined in this constitution. We had been trying to bring Madheshis on board and to work with them to implement the constitution. We wanted to settle the amendment issue through the parliament before announcing election dates.
But the main opposition was against the amendment bill and even some members of the ruling coalition had expressed their reservations with the bill. So there could be no common understanding on amendment. We had reached a point whereby if we had waited for amendment before the announcement of election the Election Commission would not get enough time to prepare. So we announced elections so as to give the commission enough time. The announcement of poll date has not ended the prospect of taking the amendment bill to its logical end. We are confident that the amendment issue will be resolved by the time of local elections slated for May 14.
You have just come back from a week-long Delhi visit. What impression did you get there? Would you say the Indian government supports the election decision?
I was not in India for a political visit. Actually I was there to take part in a convention of ‘Akhil Bharat Nepal Ekata Manch’. But I did meet some prominent Indian leaders and journalists there. I presented to them Nepal’s perspective of how Nepal-India relation can be strengthened and informed the Indian leaders about Nepal’s political situation and what we will do next. I got the impression that there was a kind of realization that last year’s blockade was perhaps a step too far.
There is this realization even in Indian establishment. But a section of the establishment still believes that even though execution of India’s policy in Nepal at the time of the blockade might have been wrong, the intent was right. So I cannot rule out some sort of coercion on Nepal but I also do not believe India will again resort to border blockade. There is a big lobby in India which wants timely elections in Nepal.
Would you say Nepal-India relations have improved after the formation of Pushpa Kamal Dahal government?
On the fundamentals, I don’t see much change even now. India still thinks it must have a decisive role in every historical and political change in Nepal, that no political decision should take place in Nepal without New Delhi’s go-ahead. You can see this thinking at play from the time of the signing of the 16-point agreement between the three parties in 2015, up to constitution promulgation and even thereafter. The 16-point pact was historic and instrumental in promulgation of the new constitution.
But India was not happy with this. So the Indian government sent special envoy to stall constitution process. When Nepali leaders went ahead nonetheless, we had to face the blockade. But Nepalis stood up to India and collectively faced the blockade. So there is a realization in India it perhaps went too far. Yet, like I said, the old mindset that India must still have a decisive say in Nepal’s big political events remains. This is why I say India has not changed its way of dealing with Nepal on fundamental matters.
In the recent times India seems particularly concerned at what it sees as China’s growing inroads into Nepal. Was that also your impression?
Yes, the Indians really feel that way. I had open discussion with them on this issue as well. I told them clearly: ‘Whenever our relation with China improves, you get angry with us. But we have unique ties with India sustained by common culture, religious affinity and open border. So there is no question of trying to use China against India.’ I told them clearly that the only alternative to Nepal-India relation is better Nepal-India relation.
Let’s come back to election and constitution amendment. Do you see extremist groups foiling election?
Some extremist groups might try to create disturbance. Even some constituents of Madheshi Morcha could fall for this. This cannot be ruled out, for we have had this experience in the past as well. But common Madheshis are in favor of elections. Local election does not have anything to do with dispute over province delineation.
Common Madheshis are patriotic. So they will never support secessionist forces. Some Madheshi Morcha leaders are also pragmatic. They confide with us that they are aware about the ground reality and that government is not in a position to pass the amendment bill on its own and election is the only way out of the political deadlock. It is this kind of responsible response from them that had given the government the confidence to register the amendment bill. But there are others who keep protesting whatever the government does. They spread rumors in the name of Madheshi rights. But most Madheshi people have understood the ground reality and have become aware about the rights the constitution has granted them. They are not going to fall for false claims. They will participate in the election.
Separately, how do you evaluate the government decision to appoint 14 new ambassadors, a decision that has become very controversial?
Extreme politicization of almost every sector is a big impediment to Nepal’s political and economic development. Every man is a flag-bearer of one or the other party. This happens because the parties do not value free-thinking intellectuals and politically neutral people. The extreme politicization has created a less critical mass. It’s hard to find a neutral personality. The problem is aggravated when the party also makes political affiliation the major criteria for appointment in public offices. This anarchy in appointment in Foreign Service is the result of the same tendency.