The Madhesis, a people of recent Indian origin who had sworn that they would boycott the second phase of the Nepalese local body elections on June 28, ended up participating in them as voters as well as candidates.
The Madhesis are 20% of the population of Nepal and are a substantial section of the population in the Terai or plains region of southern Nepal and in Provinces 1, 5 and 7 were elections were held.
Madhesi parties like the Rashtriya Janata Party of Nepal (RJPN) had called for a boycott to press their demand for constitutional amendments to give the Madhesis equitable political rights. But their cadre stood as “independents” and the Madhesi population voted.
The Nepalese Election Commission said that the elections were conducted peacefully and that more than 70% had voted. Elections were held for 334 local body units in 35 districts in Provinces 1, 5 and 7.
Elections in Province 2 would be held in September.
Local body elections in Provinces 3, 4 and 6 had been conducted on May 14. The Madheis had called for a boycott of those elections too, but that call was politically meaningless because the Madhesis were not a significant factor in those hilly provinces.
According to Nepalese commentators, an increasing number of Madhesis are now realizing that election boycotts and disruptive tactics like strikes and economic blockades have not led to the realization of their demands for constitutional reform.
One commentator said that the Madhesis should go back into history and see how the 240 year old monarchical system was ended. The Maoists spent ten years trying to end the monarchy by violence only to fail. But the moment they entered the democratic mainstream and democratic institutions as a political party, they were able to abolish the system with the help of all other democratic parties.
Sustained failure in the recent past to coerce the larger, mainstream, hills-based parties of the native Nepalese into accepting demands for constitutional reform has also led to rethinking on the effectiveness of confrontational politics.
There were violent Madhesi movements in 2007 and 2008. There was a four and a half month economic blockade in 2015-2016 tacitly supported by India. But still, the Madhesis’ goals remained only a dream. This was because the Madhesis wanted all or nothing, here and now, and did not believe in making incremental progress over a period of time.
The mainstream parties of the indigenous Nepalese were ready to go half way but no further. To be fair to the latter, the new constitution ratified in 2015 had given major rights to the Madhesis. But the Madhesis still kept whining and running to New Delhi for support.
Weary of struggling for the ultimate goal fruitlessly, some Madhesi leaders like ex-Foreign Minister Upendra Yadav openly defied the RJPN and fought the May 14 local bodies elections. In fact, Upendra Yadav changed the name of his party from Madhes Jana Adhikar Forum (MJAF) to Federal Socialist Forum (FSF). Having been an ally of Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda’s Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center), Yadav joined Prachanda’s government, and served as Foreign Minister. It is said that he is trying to be an all-Nepalese leader, and Prime Minister of Nepal eventually.
Even the RJPN has shown that it can change. It was an ally of the CPN (MC)-Nepali Congress coalition in the May 14 local body polls in the hill districts, and its cadre were waving the Nepalese national flag during the campaign. The RJPN may well be only a few steps away from accommodation with the mainstream Nepalese parties. It could come to a fresh agreement with them on constitutional changes.
The prolonged struggle has also given rise to disunity. Caste and communal differences have begun to appear, weakening the Madhesis’ ardor.
Apart from local factors such as those mentioned above, there is an important external factor, namely, India. Being of recent Indian origin and with close social and marital ties with the people of the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the Madhesis are often dubbed as “Indians” by the indigenous Nepalese living in the hill districts and the capital city of Kathmandu. Due to their closeness to India, they are seen as being agents or proxies of the Indian state, which is allegedly out to absorb Nepal or make it a vassal state.
And India did use the Madhesis, just as it used various factions among the indigenous hill-based Nepalese off and on to further its interests in Nepal. In the 1950s and 1960s, India used the anti-monarchy and pro-democracy movement in Nepal on the grounds that a democratic Nepal would be good for India. Later, it courted the anti-Chinese parties to checkmate the pro-Chinese Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) led K.P.Sharma Oli.
India supported the Madhesis’ four and a half month blockade in 2015-2016.But the change of guard in Kathmandu in August 2016 made India look at Nepal and the Madhesis from a different angle altogether.
The pro-China Prime Minister K.P.Sharma Oli had yielded place to Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda, a Maoist turned democrat, who was in alliance with the pro-Indian Nepali Congress. New Delhi wanted to strengthen relations with the new government to checkmate Chinese influence. As part of this agenda, the Madhesis were asked to suspend their confrontationist politics, talk to the government, and participate in elections.
Initially, the Madhesi parties resisted Indian pressure, but gradually, they gave in, albeit only unofficially. Their formal statements are still belligerent, but there is a withering of support for the hard line among the Madhesi hoi polloi. As one commentator put it, the Kathmandu-based leaders of the Madhesi parties may well be losing touch with the realities on the ground in the Terai.
However, the grievances of the Madhesis cannot be brushed under the carpet for long as they are well founded. They are 20% of Nepal’s population, but have only 14% of the government jobs, and that too mostly in the lower ranks. Only 1.5% of the Nepalese army and police are Madhesis. They are under-represented in parliament because the constituencies are not population based but geography based. The Madhesis want more local bodies in their areas and the boundaries of some of the provinces changed so that they get greater political representation.
Poor Madhesis complain that they are discriminated against when they go to Kathmandu. CPN (UML) chief K.P.Shama Oli had said that they are “insects” and the party’s General Secretary, Shankar Pokhrel, had described them on Facebook as “dark skinned” – remarks which rankle in the minds of the Madhesis.