Since its 13th General Conventions last month, Nepali Congress has been emphasizing on the need for timely resolution of Madhesh crisis, under its leadership if need be. Some of its leaders have declared the CPN-UML-led government 'incapable' of taking agitating Madheshi forces into confidence.
Can we witness a change in government in the near future? Dr Shekhar Koirala, who was elected NC Central Committee member with the highest number of votes last month, shared insights with Mahabir Paudyal and Ashok Dahal.
First of all, there needs to be a paradigm shift in the way we look at Madhesh. We must begin with the notion that Madhesh is within Nepal, Madheshis are Nepalis, and their struggle is for identity, representation and access to state power; that provinces we are going to create will be within the boundaries of Nepal. We must make this a basis to understand Madhesh. Unless we do so, I do not see any chance of Madhesh crisis being resolved anytime soon.
What plans does Congress have to resolve the Madhesh issue?
Sher Bahadur Deuba has made resolving Madhesh crisis a key agenda since he became the party president last month. You may ask me how Congress will settle federal boundaries. I admit that boundary is a tricky issue. But here again, leaders at the helm, it feels, continue to see Madhesh through India's lens. We need to look at Madhesh from the eyes of Madheshis.
We need serious discussion with Madheshi leaders as well as Madheshi people. So far our focus has been on talks with Madheshi leaders, not people. Congress and UML as parties with stake in Madhesh must reach out to Madheshi people as well.
You recently said that the sovereignty of Nepal needs to be redefined. What did you mean?
On one hand we talk about protecting our sovereignty. Then our foreign minister submits the famous four-point roadmap to Indian Foreign Ministry before making it public in Nepal. He commits with the Indian leaders that a political committee would be formed to resolve boundary issue in a time-bound manner, but there has been no progress. Yet he does not tire of harping on the mantra of sovereignty. Why this contradiction? We need to have confidence in our ability to resolve internal problems ourselves. This is what I meant by redefining sovereignty. We need to learn to stand on our own.
What will Congress do to settle boundary issue?
Boundaries cannot be settled only by talking to Madheshis. We should be talking to Janajati groups at the same time. Madheshis are speaking and we know what they want. Janajatis are quiet. But this silence can prove dangerous. Nepali Congress and UML had proposed seven-province model with two provinces in Madhesh, sometimes in 2014. Maoists and Madheshis together vandalized the CA over this issue in January 2015.Around the time of promulgation of constitution last September, Madheshis had almost agreed to that seven-province proposal. But Congress and UML then stood in opposition against this model. If not, province demarcation could have been resolved then and there.
Madheshi parties demand that the ToR of Political Committee should categorically state there will be 'two Madhesh provinces.' How do you see this demand?
This is why we need to talk to Madheshi leaders and people, persuade them and make them understand the complexity of the issue. The way I see it, the parties have made no effort to educate the people. The ruling and opposition parties together must reach out to Madhesh and tell the people about the ground realities.
Madheshi parties argue the state has constitutionally disenfranchised naturalized citizens.
Every country has its unique laws and practices regarding conferral of citizenships. Our constitution has listed rights and entitlements for the naturalized citizens. It has defined the constitutional and political positions that naturalized citizens can occupy. Even today we have a number of naturalized citizens as parliamentarians. Some of them have become ministers as well. So I don't see how the constitution is against naturalized citizens. As for the naturalized citizens becoming executive heads, it is required by law in every country: that a person vying for the topmost government post is a citizen of that country by birth. It is so in the US and the UK. You must be an American citizen by birth to contest and become American president.
If there are unnecessary restrictions they can be lifted. For example we can discuss age restrictions for naturalized citizens to assume top posts. If it is 15 years, let us bring it down to 10. I mean let us all be flexible on issues where we can be flexible. But on the fundamentals we must all abide by laws of the land.
Madheshi leaders claim they are not recognized as Nepalis.
They are right. This is bad. Our view on naturalized citizenship is guided by prejudice. We have no qualm in accepting Indians of Nepali origin as Nepalis even if they are Indians. We accept Indians from Darjeeling and Sikkim as Nepalis even though they may not have acquired naturalized Nepali citizenships. But Indians from the southern part remain Indians in our eyes even though they have renounced their Indian citizenships and become naturalized Nepali citizens. This faulty vision should be corrected. Then we need to have uniform approach on granting naturalized citizenships and define rights of such citizens.
Could you elaborate on what you mean by such a uniform approach?
It would be a mistake to limit naturalized citizenship issue to Madhesh. This is a globalizing world. Many Nepalis marry foreigners these days. The number of foreigners marrying Nepalis and settling down in Nepal is increasing every year. Of course, they are entitled to naturalized citizenship of Nepal if they have forgone citizenship of their native country and apply for naturalized citizenship here. But how can you accord them all rights that Nepali citizens by birth are entitled to? There are a number of American, British, Russian and Chinese nationals who have married Nepalis and settled down in Nepal. You cannot give them all the right to be the country's prime minister or president. Nowhere does this happen. We need to look into this issue holistically.
Madheshi leaders say late Girija Prasad Koirala had agreed to only-Madhesh provinces. What's the truth?
The understanding was that there would be federal provinces, including in Madhesh. There was no agreement on the number of provinces and how their boundaries should be delineated.
Nepali Congress has been criticized for failing to play the role of a proactive opposition.
Such criticisms are valid. There are reasons for this. For the past few months our focus was on party's general convention. But we will not remain passive in the next parliament session. You will see real face of Congress as opposition in the next parliament session.
Is this because Congress is desperate to topple KP Oli government?
Congress is not in a hurry to lead the government. Our primary responsibility at this moment is to address the concerns of Madheshis and Janajatis. The second responsibility is to keep a watch on government activities and bring it back on track, from parliament as well as the street. Now our sister organizations will raise issues from streets to make the government heed public grievances. But as you see, this government is mired in contradictions. Prime Minister himself admits reconstruction will take a decade if the government went about it at current pace, but he does nothing to expedite the process. He says black marketing is rampant but does nothing to control it. The foreign minister tells business people that not them but black marketers cooperated with the government during the economic blockade. Prachanda says 'my ministers have failed to work.' The government itself seems to be saying 'I am failing.' Worst of all, this government pushed the judiciary under UML control (emalekaran) and it tried to ruin the justice system.
So why didn't Congress oppose political meddling in judiciary?
We did. Even our party president spoke against politicization of judiciary. Congress has been opposing government inaction and wrongdoing. Personally, I have also been raising these issues through my newspaper articles.
It is said New Delhi wants Deuba as PM. Deuba is slated to visit Delhi this week. You were also in Delhi recently. What's the truth?
I was in Delhi for treatment. I could not meet any big leaders and top officials then because they were all away in the course of prime minister Narendra Modi's foreign trips. I don't know if Delhi wants to change the government. As for Congress, I ask: Why do we need to change the government? If it is for resolving Madhesh crisis, Congress has the right to claim leadership. But if Congress cannot do so, government should not be its priority. The best place for Congress at the moment is opposition bench.
Some say India's grievance is with Nepal not retaining its Hindu status.
It may indeed have been India's key concern but we must not forget that we have already enshrined federalism, republicanism and secularism in the constitution, despite nearly 85 percent people expressing views in favor of Hindu state during public feedback collection. If we had reconsidered this issue back then, perhaps it would be much easier. I am afraid we have gone too far now. That said I must tell you that religion and politics should be poles apart. Countries where religion has been used for political purpose have descended into anarchy everywhere. We must guard against it.
Again, we must not forget that India is not the only actor which is trying to have its say in Nepal. There is China and other western countries which are pushing their own agendas in the name of religion and other issues. We are in a very delicate situation. If we amend the constitution to please one power center, we may have to do so again to please another power center. Federalism, secularism and republicanism are interconnected. Try to take away one element and you risk losing all three. If you restore Hindu state, it will have its repercussion on republicanism. Monarchy may have the last laugh ultimately. So the best we can do about concerns on Hindu state is formulate laws for its protection. We have accorded status of national animal to cow. Let us make laws to maintain that status. Also there is provision against forceful conversion. Let us make laws for this too. This can solve many things. If we restore Hindu identity to please one power center, it will open a can of worms.