Nepal has teetered on the brink of the election-or-no-election ledge for the last two months. Twice postponed, the elections for the Constituent Assembly, scheduled for 10 April, hang fire as we go to press. This is largely due to the challenge of the ‘Madhes’, the amorphous term used to denote a non-ethnic, caste-based plains identity that ropes in a large part of the eastern Nepali Tarai plains.
The assertion of Madhesi identity, long denied by the hill-centric Kathmandu establishment, suddenly invaded the national consciousness with the Madhes Movement of last winter. It was a movement driven by the fear of the people of plains origin that they would not get proper representation at the Constituent Assembly polls. Energised by the perceived weakness of the Nepali Congress and the Maoists in the Tarai, new political groupings began simultaneously to compete and collaborate in an effort to represent the Madhesi people. These groups, bent on building a base in the little time available, adopted ultra-populist rhetoric that has heightened agitation to an unprecedented level. The reluctance to go to the April polls was not lost on observers, and was evident in the reliance on public rhetoric, each leader making pronouncements more dire than the other. The leaders also seemed hemmed in by the presence of militant groups working mayhm from across the open border in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, including targeted killings in a clear attempt to foster a hill-plains communal divide.
It was the Madhes Movement that forced the interim government and parliament in Kathmandu to concede to demands to place ‘federalism’ in the interim parliament as a declaration of intent vis-à-vis the scheduled Constituent Assembly polls. As 2007 turned to 2008, and as many politicians from the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) jumped ship to start or join regional plains-based parties, the demands and preconditions began to add up. In the latest instance, these calls included the declaration of the Madhes region (used by the activists to mean the entire Tarai) as one autonomous province; adjustment in the electoral system (so that the Madhesi parties would not be restricted by the rules of proportionality in fielding more Madhesi candidates) and the acceptance of the principle of self-determination.
The reluctance of the newfound political organisations to go to elections was thus clear. However, the primary fault for getting the country to such a pass resides in Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, and secondarily in the nature of the government he commands. Essentially ruling from a sickbed, and increasingly isolated from the political players, the 84-year-old Koirala’s ego has seemed to demand that he and he alone have the final say in matters of both governance and negotiation. Koirala has not maintained a prime minister’s office (‘PMO’) worth the name, nor has he allowed a trusted political lieutenant or two to represent his views and act as conduits and interlocutors. Thus, the prime minister diminished the capable colleagues within his party into straw figures, even as he neglected ties with the CPN (UML), a partner in government and the only other democratic force with size and credibility.
The prime minister, in keeping the cards so close to his chest, seemed not to understand the urgent nature of identity politics that had so suddenly taken hold in the hills and plains. As a result, he was unable to respond to demands that could have been addressed with ‘modest’ concessions before they escalated – and added the suggestion that an interim parliament and government had no right to make potentially momentous decisions that were the prerogative of the elected, sovereign Constituent Assembly. Among the topmost political leaders of pahade (hill) background, including Koirala, there was also an inability to countenance the importance of courtesy and decorum, as one of the means of addressing identity-led agitations. There was also the history of excessive flexibility over the past year with Maoist demands, which stood in stark contrast to the thumbs-down given to the other emergent actors.
The near-total absence of law and order, not to mention government administration, over the last year-and-half allowed the situation in the plains to become anarchic. The government’s ability to respond to the evolving Madhesi demands was also obstructed by the fact that the CPN (Maoist) had its own axe to grind with the planis leadership. The Maoists considered their original agenda of Madhesi rights and militancy as having been hijacked by the plains movement, and was angst-ridden by the murder of nearly two dozen of its cadre in the infamous ‘Gaur incident’ in the Tarai in March 2007.
The weaknesses of the ageing Koirala’s command, the presence of Maoists in government to queer the pitch of negotiations, the lack of government administration – all of these ultimately contributed to the deadlock in negotiations. But it seems to have been the reluctance of the new and unprepared political organisations of the plains to join the electoral process that has created conditions that could abort the elections of 10 April.
The irony of it all is that the very Maoists who are now so loudly proclaiming their fealty to the April elections were the ones who forced the cancellation of the earlier scheduled exercise of 22 November 2007. At that time, the agitating communities of ethnic-indigenous origin, as well as the main agitating Madhesi group, were in favour of elections. With the November elections suspended, the intervening period allowed the situation to escalate in different directions. There is a worrying parallel here as well. Just as the Maoists were hoping to consolidate their strength by forcing the last electoral postponement, the Madhesis are hoping to do so in the current context. But the Madhesi political formations of today look set to weaken in the event of an election delay, as disparate communities of the plains begin their own assertions, challenging the present leadership. After all, the 500 x 20 mile strip known as the Tarai also mirrors the larger Nepal, with groups variegated by class, caste, language, faith and geographical origin discovering that they are being led by a non-representative leadership. Overall, it would seem important for the Madhesi leadership to go for elections in April, while the unity of Tarai communities is still tangible.
Where things go from here is hard to predict. As Himal goes to press, the government and the Madhesi groups seem to have reached an agreement on all demands but the one regarding the declaration of the entire Madhes/Tarai as one province, a demand that is seen by the national and international players as usurping the prerogative of the Constituent Assembly. Meanwhile, the Indian government has staked its reputation on the holding of elections in April, and has openly involved itself as an interlocutor.
Another, third, suspension of elections would destroy the credibility of the Koirala government. As such, there would be a need to develop a new political configuration to run the country – including players beyond the present seven parties including the CPN (Maoist) – and plan once again for the Constituent Assembly polls. But it is certain that, in the intervening period, newer demands will arise from communities that have not agitated till now; Nepal, after all, is a country of scores of minorities, where each one feels marginalised and unfairly treated by history. In the meantime, the royalists – who, till now, did not have an ability to disrupt the polls, which would in all likelihood once and for all suspend the monarchy – will become increasingly active. And the royalists of Nepal are sure to take assistance from the Hindutva forces from across the border; indeed, the word is that this is already happening.
In Nepal, the challenges of the immediate past may soon seem insignificant compared to the problems of the future, if the 10 Apil elections are sacrificed.