‘Nepal needs to break free from the shackles of the past’

The government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been heavily criticised by the main opposition party Nepali Congress and the general public. The economy appears to be in the doldrums in the aftermath of the lockdown, in effect since March 24. A historical unity that Nepal’s political parties demonstrated surrounding the inauguration of a half-built road to Limpiyadhura by India last month had evaporated by the time the House started debating, and subsequently, passing a bill on citizenship. The ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) remains virtually besieged under the Millennium Challenge Compact pact, awaiting parliamentary approval for more than a year. NC leader Minendra Rijal is one of the fiercest critics of the government and the prime minister. “As an opposition Member of Parliament, my duty is to create constant pressure on the government so that it listens to the people’s voice,” says Rijal. Ram Kumar Kamat of The Himalayan Times spoke to the NC leader on these issues. Excerpts:

The government is upbeat about being able to control the coronavirus pandemic. Do you agree?

The government has utterly failed to control COVID-19 and the situation will become even worse. The lockdown provided us with an opportunity to flatten the curve, but the government let it go. We had time to put people in safe places, separate the infected from the rest of the population and slowly prepare for the economy to reopen in safe areas. But the government did not prepare.

Almost 20 per cent of our population lives outside the country. We knew well in advance that many would lose jobs and eventually return home, that those working in India would come back first and migrant Nepalis working in third countries would follow thereafter. We should have prepared adequately to bring them back and put them in safe quarantine centres, ensuring safe distance between people in quarantine centres and test them. We were supposed to separate healthy people from infected ones and finally take people to their homes. The government did not do anything during this period. It could have used the three months’ period for immaculate planning.

What the government was interested in was making bucks from purchases and agreements. It was hell bent on feathering its nest. When the government first tried to procure health equipment, people were up in arms against it and the government had to withdraw its decision. The government brought in the army as a shield.

That’s not how the government, the prime minister in particular, view things.

Within and outside of the Parliament, the prime minister delved into areas that were not areas of his expertise. He has tried to act like a medical doctor, the most knowledgeable persons on COVID-19, health care system and economics. People elected him as a leader and not as the best doctor or the best economist. Young people took to the streets recently to oppose the government’s poor handling of COVID-19. They are common citizens that are venting anger at the government. Instead of listening to their voices, the government is trying to punish them. People’s protests provided a good window of opportunity to the government to correct its mistakes, but the government has not done anything. COVID-19 is spreading across the country exponentially and it looks like we are heading for deep trouble. Three months of lockdown had provided the government ample opportunity to increase preparedness, but it did not do that.

The PM recently told the Upper House that in the face of COVID-19, the country’s economy was not as bad as that of some other countries. What do you have to say?

The PM absolutely does not understand how bad the economic situation is. The gap between expenditure and income is reaching almost Rs 200 billion and for a country whose budget is 1,400 billion, this gap is just too huge. That is why the finance minister has urged the business community to pay taxes as soon as possible. Remittance can decrease by about 20 per cent. People’s disposable incomes can shrink by six per cent. That’s like the economy itself shrinking by as many percentage points. This will impact people who are marginally above the poverty line. Despite all the troubles in the last 30 years, we lifted one-third of the population above the poverty line, thanks also to remittance. Now the risk is that the sorry state of the economy might push many people below the poverty line. The PM is entirely in a different world and has no idea of the risks we are facing. My earnest request to the PM is please listen to experts and listen to your own finance minister.

Recently, you staunchly defended the government’s move on our border issues with India. Can you shed some light?

With India, the issue of Limpiyadhura, Lipulekh and Kalapani are not new. We have been raising these issues for the last 23 years. In 1997, when then prime minister of India IK Gujral visited Nepal, we raised the issue and they were recognised as ‘pending issues’. In 2000, our then prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala visited India and we raised these issues again and they were recognised as ‘outstanding border issues’.

Nepal has been raising these issues in all bilateral fora since then — both coherently and continuously. We have been very patient. We know the importance of our relations with India. India has a very special place in the Nepali mindset. We hope there is equal goodwill among Indians about Nepal and Nepali people also. But the thing is India has to recognise that Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura are part of Nepali territory. We have tried to persuade Indian leaders that this land has to be returned to Nepal. We are not asking India to give its land to us. We are only asking India to give our land back. Let’s present our evidence and check facts and evidence. Let’s see whose case stands out clearly and who will prevail. We raised the issue in eminent persons’ group.

When a deal was signed between India and China in 2015 on Lipulekh pass, we sent our diplomatic notes to both India and China. We said that they could not do that on their own and Nepal had to be consulted. In November 2019, India published a new map depicting Limpiyadhura, Lipulekh and Kalapani as its territories. We have objected to that.

There are perceptions that our land has been encroached by China also. The government has, however, clarified saying that we have no border issues with China. What do you have to say?

We know that there are issues with China also. We will use our diplomatic channels to raise these issues. There are procedures and protocols to follow.

Are we using different yardsticks for India and China?

No. Our land on both southern and northern borders is of equal importance for us and there should be no misgivings that we employ two yardsticks as far as our two neighbours are concerned. The yardstick is the same and I will even go beyond that. Our relationship with India is very special. We have always honoured that and I am confident that the Indian people understand that. I hope Indian leaders at the policy-making level will understand that and respect us for what we stand.

What’s your take on the ruling party’s proposal to make foreign women married to Nepali men wait for seven years to obtain naturalised citizenship?

On citizenship, we have nuanced differences. A lot of people have not understood that we are a nation whose over five million people, which is more than one-fifth of the population live and work in foreign countries other than India. When we talk about citizenship issue, forget about India for a moment, how will citizenship bill affect over five million people living and working in several countries. That’s precisely why we have provision for non-resident Nepali citizenship. Once a Nepali, always a Nepali, but we do not understand that aspiration. They are our greatest resources. More than five million Nepalis working in foreign countries are our ambassadors living in all nooks and corners of the world. We have to be very serious about the citizenship bill affecting millions of Nepalis. That’s one of the reasons why there are nuanced differences between the parties on the citizenship issue.

Second, there cannot be disparity between men and women. We have to recognise the institution of marriage and the way it is changing. Citizenship issues are not the issues they used to be 25 or 30 years ago. Citizenship issues have various dynamics. While finalising the citizenship issue, we have to be very open-minded. We do not compromise our national security interests but at the same time we do not become too introvert a nation that will not use its six million people living outside the border to the best advantage in Nepal’s future endeavours.

What do you have to say about the seven–year waiting period for obtaining marital naturalised citizenship?

There could be one-year or five-year or seven-year waiting period. Then there is issue of equality between men and women. Many out of six million people living outside the country could get married to people of different nationalities. We will have to take into account these people, children born to these people who would get married to men and women of different countries. India should not be the only factor that we should look into while finalising citizenship issue.

We are a sovereign state. I know Indian people do understand Nepal and they have an enormous amount of love and affection for Nepal. I would urge Indian policy makers also to understand Nepali people’s aspirations. We are ready to make sacrifices for the benefit of our friends but we feel that our honour and pride should be respected. Nepalis have fought wars not only to defend their own territory but also India and the United Kingdom. Our leaders fought alongside their Indian brothers and sisters for Indian independence. If you give us a strong feeling of friendship, we are willing to reciprocate. We are willing to walk the extra mile to help our friends.

Your party has said that the Interim Constitution’s provision regarding naturalised citizenship on the basis of matrimonial relations should be retained. What do you say?

Not only in the interim constitution, but this provision was first introduced in the 1962 constitution and the provision served us well till now. Even before 1962, this provision was guided by common law, so when we want to change it, there must be national consensus on it.

Nepal Communist Party (NCP) has not decided yet about the fate of millennium challenge corporation agreement. What are your views on the MCC agreement?

I am pretty clear about MCC, but have not spoken about it. The reason: my position is not going to change the fate of the agreement. It is so sad that NCP leaders are so divided on the issue. Former PM Jhalanath Khanal and Bhim Rawal are on one side and Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and Pradeep Kumar Gywali on the other. How can party leaders be on two opposite sides on one issue? The NCP has to come up with consistent position on the issue. If they don’t endorse it, then they have to come up with an alternative plan to fund the project that would have been funded under MCC programme. But I have deeper worries. With the introvert nature that the ruling NCP has, it probably has not understood the increase in significance of Nepal internationally. China is the second largest economy in the world competing with the USA. India is following China’s footstep and it has also very strong ambition in the international arena. India, China and countries of the world that matter in the international arena take keen interest in Nepal and this should be good news for us. There should be no reason for us to take an introvert position. We need to come out of the shackles of the past and play a greater role in the international arena keeping in mind the best interest of our country.

A version of this article appears in e-paper on June 28, 2020, of The Himalayan Times.