| July 19, 2019

Tipping point

Stalled political negotiations

The political leaders affiliated with the Federal Alliance, which includes Madhesh-based parties, deserve a pat on their back. Instead of choosing highly disruptive forms of protest like border blockade that not long ago caused great hardships to common Nepalis, they have now opted for more symbolic forms of protests. First they picketed Singha Durbar and then on Tuesday they started their week-long relay hunger strike at Khullamanch. Such peaceful protests give them moral strength in the eyes of common Nepalis and also lend credence to their demands. But the government of KP Sharma Oli does not seem to take these relatively peaceful protests seriously. It has issued repeated calls for dialogue to protesting parties. But it is hard to take these calls seriously. The alliance does not trust the leader of the government talks team, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa. Thapa is the chairman of the pro-monarchy RPP, which is also against federalism. Moreover, alliance partners argue, the government talks team should be headed by either Oli or Pushpa Kamal Dahal who are better placed to negotiate important constitutional issues.
The alliance has a point. Thapa, the leader of the fourth biggest party in the parliament, can hardly be expected to negotiate on behalf of the Big Three. The government call for talks will sound more credible with either Oli or Dahal, or preferably both, on the board. As a confidence-building measure, the government could also drop charges against those arrested in the course of the recent Madheshi movement and adequately compensate the families of those who died at the hands of security forces. Harping on talks without creating conditions conducive for such talks makes one suspect that Oli is not serious. A more sinister interpretation of recent government actions might be that it is only trying to put off negotiations in the belief that the Madheshi agitation will fizzle out. It won't. The prime minister and his ministers would do well to visit any of the districts in Tarai-Madhesh and talk to people there. They are angry with the political establishment in Kathmandu. They don't feel heard. They feel that the center does not represent them. They are also increasingly attracted to the radical forces in Madhesh.

The longer the impasse, the greater will be the support for radical and secessionist forces in the Tarai. The sooner Kathmandu-based leaders understand this ground reality, the better it is for the country. But the alliance partners could also be reasonable. For instance it is not right to insist that the government first commits to two Madhesh-only provinces even before sitting for next round of talks. Such issues are things to be hammered out in high-level political negotiations. We would even urge them to call the government's bluff and sit down with the Thapa-led talks team, if only to prove that the government is not serious. But both sides need to understand the gravity of the matter. If contentious constitutional questions are not settled soon, no less than continued viability of Nepal as a unified nation-state may be on the line.

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