If signed into law, the bill will grant citizenship rights to thousands of people, mostly of Indian origin. How the proposed law could help the ruling coalition at the hustings might be a matter of debate, but at the moment, the president has thrown the spanner in the works.
Nepal’s president Bidya Devi Bhandari refused to sign an amended citizenship bill cleared by lawmakers from both houses of its bicameral rastriya sabha or national assembly.
Political observers see a constitutional crisis in the making as the president, a constitutional head of state with no executive powers is putting the brakes on a legislative process.
The president has powers to return a bill once – as she had already done with the bill that has the weight of the ruling coalition.
If signed and approved to become a law, the bill will grant citizenship to over 500,000 people, giving the eligible among them the right to vote in the parliamentary elections due later this year when 275 seats in the national assembly will be up for grabs.
More importantly, it will pave the way for thousands of Madheshis, or people of Indian ancestry to become citizens and to vote. The present law does, however, provide for women married across the porous international border between Nepal and India to opt for citizenship (People on both sides of the border have a shared culture and marriages across the border are commonplace.)
These new citizens can tilt scales in favour of the ruling coalition in the country’s Terrai plains bordering India.
The proposed law will provide citizenship rights to children whose parents’ whereabouts are not known. It will also enable foreign nationals of Nepali origin to do business in Nepal.
If the bill is approved and becomes law, it will allow tens of hundreds of Madheshi community members – a term to define those people in Nepal with Indian ancestry who mainly reside in the plains of the Himalayan nation — citizenship and voting rights.
The Madheshis are often discriminated by the dominant ruling (upper) caste groups, often described as the Baun-Chettri combine.
But the president has sought a thorough review of the bill, and political observers suspect her stand will help the country’s main opposition party, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) led by former prime minister K P Oli, whose blames India for his ousting from power. Oli is known to use the nationalist card.
The CPN-UML says that such an expansion of the voter base will support political parties attached to the present ruling coalition seen leaning towards New Delhi – a euphemism for parties compromising on the Nepali identity and Nepali national interests.
KP Oli, the former prime minister, along with other opposition parties, said the analyst, is “using the nationalist card.”
Oli and his party are demanding a tweaking of the bill, so that they do not appear altogether insensitive to the issue of nationality, a sensitive subject in the Terrai. They suggest that the bill could include a seven-year window provision for women of foreign origin to acquire Nepali citizenship.
In the meantime, the president’s refusal to sign the bill into law threatens to become a big political issue that could well take the centre stage in the run-up to the elections.
And though the Nepalese constitution provides for impeaching the president, an impeachment might well remain a pipe dream as the term of the lower house is approaching its end and the ruling combine cannot muster a three-fourths majority to impeach the president.
President Bidya Devi Bhandari’s present term too will also end around the same time as a new lower house is elected.
The other option the government has is to move court. But this is a grey area.