Tarai tells a tale

Madhesis in the plains of Nepal have voted overwhelmingly for local resistance parties and the Maoists, because they don't want to be betrayed and humiliated anymore by the Kathmandu elite like the Koiralas

Prashant Jha Kathmandu

Post-elections, even as all the focus is centered on the Maoist victory, there has been an important shift with long-lasting consequences in the country's politics. For the first time in Nepal's political history, true regional and ethnic politics has found space within the democratic system. In the country's southern plains, the Tarai, Madhesis have voted for ethnic Madhesi candidates, correcting a long-standing historical injustice. Madhesis - the people of plains-origin who share extensive cultural, ethnic, linguistic, kinship ties with those across the border in Bihar and UP - have been fighting against identity-based discrimination and exclusion from State structures.
For too long, the people of hill-origin - the Koiralas, Acharyas, Amatyas, Dhunganas - thought of the plains as their personal fiefdom while treating the people who elected them with utter contempt. For too long, Madhesis invested their faith with the existing 'national mainstream', voting always with the major parties, hoping that somewhere, some force will be kind to them and address their grievances. For too long, Madhesis were silent about the pain they suffered every time someone dismissed them as a 'dhoti', repeatedly asked them if they were ‘Indians', made fun of their Nepali accent or colour, deprived them of the benefits of citizenship, or refused them entry into a government office because they did not look or have a similar ethnic background as the pahadi district administrator and police chief.
The Madhes people's movement of January 2007 changed all that. Through the past year, we have seen enormous ups and downs - Kathmandu's lies and deceit, the Madhesi leadership's betrayal of its people and inconsistency, the incoherence and criminality of the armed groups claiming to fight for Madhesi rights, but most importantly, the refusal of the Nepali State to reach out to an angry population with sensitivity and justice. The April 2008 elections is a result of all that the Madhesi people have gone through for decades, and during the last year - it is an effort to stand up and be counted.
With almost 34 per cent Madhesis, 33 per cent women, 38 per cent indigenous ethnic groups, and about 10 per cent Dalits, the Constituent Assembly (CA) promises to be the most inclusive and representative assembly in the history of Nepal.
The MJF has emerged as the winner in the Tarai, winning 52 seats. Brand recognition of the 'Forum' seen as synonymous with Madhesi aspirations after leading last year's movement, especially in eastern Tarai, and the presence of experienced election hands like former NC leaders Bijay Gachhedar and JP Gupta, helped the party win many seats. It has emerged as a key player in national politics, tilting the balance in favour of either force in Kathmandu.
The MJF must remember that Madhesis have voted for the party for it to forcefully champion the aspirations of the Madhesi people. It is fine if they want to join the government. But this is not a mandate for them to get sucked into the addictive and manipulative power politics of Kathmandu. There is often suspicion about the Forum's democratic credentials - the presence of active royalists like Gachhedar and former RPP and RJP leaders, along with rumours of Upendra Yadav's meetings with the king's advisors does not help. The king is history and the MJF must not make any effort to cosy up to a declining reactionary power centre - this will never help Madhes. The Forum must continue to fight for representation, respect and regional province - this is the desire of the people who have voted for it. It also needs to move beyond merely identity politics and link it with issues of livelihood - plight of landless Dalits, agricultural productivity, employment generation.
The elections have not only been marked by MJF's victory, but it has also given birth to multi-party democracy within Madhes. The Tarai Madhesi Loktantrik Party (TMLP), headed by former NC veteran Mahant Thakur, has got about 20 seats in the CA. This party is seen as close to the Indian establishment and has a largely upper-caste base. Thakur himself got defeated in the polls, but the party played an important role in moderating identity chauvinism and reducing inter-communal tensions during the Madhesi agitation earlier this year. Given that this is only the beginning of Madhesi ethnic politics; the TMLP leaders could see the party as a long-term political project. Thakur could use this opportunity to spend time on the ground, broaden the caste base of his party, build an organisation, while co-operating with MJF and other forces on common issues. The Sadbhavana Party (Rajendra Mahato faction) has also emerged as a player, though relatively marginal, with nine seats in the assembly.
The Maoists are a strong force within Tarai politics, besides their role at the national level. They have won 42 of the 116 direct seats in the Tarai. The support base of the Maoists has implications for the kind of battles that may spring up in the future. The Tharus of the west and Rajbanshis of the east have voted for the Maoists: clearly, they support the Maoist federal model of dividing up the plains into different provinces which comes into direct clash with the aim of other Madhesi parties to carve out a single province across the plains. The pahadis of Tarai have shifted from CPN(UML) and gone to the Maoists -they think of the former rebels as more reliable protectors in case Madhesi extremism rises. Crucially, the Maoists have got the support of the Dalits and landless and may seriously pick up land reforms - an issue on which the Madhesi parties have no clear aim.
If there is one loser in Madhes, it is the NC which has lost out in its erstwhile stronghold. The NC faces the real threat of extinction in Tarai if it does not engage in immediate introspection, change its mindset, encourage young, articulate Madhesis to emerge at the district and national level leadership positions. They must learn to back Madhesi issues in national politics and stand with their struggle. Given the NC's track record, they are already engaging in petty blame games; it is unlikely that they will do any of the above.
The support that NC still had in Madhes had a lot to do with the fact that it controlled power centres and the bureaucracy. With its decline in power, the party can't even rely on patronage. What incentive is there for a Madhesi to join, or remain in NC now? Those who are still in the party will move to the Madhesi parties, armed groups or Maoists. Like the Congress(I) declined in Bihar and UP with the rise of caste politics, NC may be reduced to a rump in the Tarai.
The elections and its results are only the beginning. With the power and faith that has been invested in the new Madhesi forces come enormous responsibilities. The Madhesi parties have not done enough homework - one Madhes as a federal province may be a good slogan but is it feasible given Tarai's demographic mix and resource base? Is there a need to think of inter-linkages with the hills that can be mutually beneficial - but on an equal and respectable basis?
What are the different ways in which Madhesis can be recruited in the army at a time when it is crucial to downsize the military? Is the Madhesi struggle only for power in the Madhes, or is it also for an equal stake in Kathmandu? How will the issue of Tarai's minorities, especially Muslims, be addressed at a time when Muslims feel under-represented in the CA and there is rising discontent in the community? The answers to all these questions have to be carefully analysed not only by the Madhesi forces, but also by other parties and Kathmandu's establishment. Only then can the seeds of hope become an authentic and long-term realisation of political and social democracy.
As the CA heads to redefining Nepal's state structure, Madhesi parties will play a major part in redefining what being a Nepali means. The Madhesi people have voted for change - they have given a chance to Kathmandu to reform itself, build new institutions, and alter its mindset. They have also sent out a message to armed Madhesi groups fighting for secession that the people of Madhes do not want a separate country, only equal rights within Nepal. The onus is on the political class to honour the Madhesi mandate for respect and representation.

The writer is Contributing Editor, Himal South Asia, Kathmandu