The thought of spending the night at Dhalkebar was not too exciting. On Nepal’s east-west highway, 24 kilometres from the Tarai town of Janakpur, Dhalkebar wore a deserted look at 7.30 in the evening. Three men, eating dinner while sitting on a charpoi placed in the middle of the road, said that the last bus from Birgunj to Janakpur had already passed. Just then, ten or so motorbikes, waving Nepali Congress flags, sped past. They were the people of Anand Dhungana, who is standing from Dhanusha 7 constituency. “Chalu, nik chhe, chunaavi abhiyan shuru ta bhele ab,” remarked one of the men in Maithili. “But it is good – at least election campaigning has started now.”
As the night progressed, almost a dozen people assembled, hoping for some transport into Janakpur. It was their good fortune that, around ten, an open jeep finally turned up at the highway, and offered everybody a ride. The whole lot crammed into the vehicle – limbs across each other, half sitting in someone else’s lap, many still standing. But all were relieved that Janakpur was now only an hour away.
To make up for the discomfort, there was a lot of jovial conversation. The jeep was carrying quite a mix of people – a Madhesi official from a government department in Lamjung in the central hills; the Janakpur owner of an education institute; a teacher from a school in Nagrana village, near the border; a land owner from Mahotiari District; a photocopy mechanic from Patna, on his way back home; a group of students returning home from Birgunj in the central Tarai. There was the usual cribbing about the state of the roads. “Imagine, Janakpur will be the capital of Madhes,” pondered one of the students, using the identity-based term for much of the eastern Tarai plains. “No transport at night, and such horrible roads – what will the rest of the state be like?” As the jeep jerked around, the passengers continually fell over one another. “Things will be better after the elections,” responded the sarkari karamchari, from his lofty status as a government servant. “If it happens, that is,” chimed in someone else. “These leaders have made elections a joke, haven’t they – postponing it so many times.”
Even though everyone muttered as if in agreement, there seemed to be general consensus that the polls – having been pushed off twice already, and now slated for 10 April – would indeed happen this time around. The conversation then seamlessly moved on to the political dynamics in Dhanusha District, and who would win where. The private-college owner set off on a monologue: “In number one, it will be a contest between Ram Chandra Jha of the UML and the Congress’s Smriti Narayan Chaudhary. Two is unpredictable. Three, Bimalendra Nidhi will sweep it. In five, everyone is praying that the pahade [hillfolk] agent Ram Baran Yadav is defeated. Six, I don’t know. In seven, it will be a contest between Dhungana and UML’s Shatrughan Mahato.” The reference to Yadav had to do with the senior Congress leader having stood resolutely by the national (pahade) leadership of the Nepali Congress during the past year of Madhes agitations.
A furious debate started, with some refuting the educationist’s assessment. “But it is impossible to say who will win,” snapped the schoolteacher. “There have been no elections for nine years. Everything has changed.” But there was general consensus that the most interesting contest would be taking place in the constituency that had not yet been discussed – chaar number, the fourth constituency, which included the Janakpur municipality. “All the big candidates are here. That will be fun,” remarked someone, as the jeep dropped off everyone near Janaki Mandir, the temple dedicated to the celestial couple Ram and Sita.
Brikesh Chandra Lal’s house is a short walk from Shiv Chowk. “Past Hotel Manaki, a left turn, you can ask anyone – it is a house of red Chinese bricks,” instructs Lal on the phone. It is early morning, and a group of middle-aged men are sitting in Lal’s garden. His wife, a pahade from Kathmandu, is busy bringing plates of poori-tarkari for the guests. In pure Maithili, she urges everyone to eat more. Lal is telling a young assistant – a ‘party worker’, he explains later – to go across the border to Sitamarhi, in Bihar. “I want a mike which I can hold and walk around, a mobile mike. And one big speaker,” he says. “Don’t pay more than 2000 rupees for both. And if there is a problem at the Birtamod customs, just tell them my name.”
His senior party colleague, Vijay Singh, is planning details of the campaign with the other men. Lal is the candidate of the newly formed Tarai Madhes Loktantrik Party (TMLP), from Dhanusha 4. A former Congressman, Lal says that he is disillusioned with Congress’s anti-Madhesi stance – he feels that the Congress leadership dragged its feet on accepting Madhesi demands, even though the party’s core vote base have been Madhesis in the eastern Tarai. His anger had already been visible six months ago, when he told this reporter that he was thinking of quitting the party. Locals, however, point out that Lal’s decision has as much to do with personal reasons. “He and the Congress’s senior leader, Bimalendra Nidhi, are in competition with each other,” says a Janakpur journalist. “Lal could not have got too far in the party so long as Nidhi is seen as influential and a rising star in the national line-up.”
Lal enters his bedroom on the ground floor. The room is plastered with photographs – of a young Lal and his wife; of the family, complete with two children; and a certificate from a city council in the US, in the state of Kentucky, honouring him during an official trip there as mayor of Janakpur. His phone rings, and he is told that a local radio station wants to interview him on why people should vote for him. On air, Lal launches into a long speech about the TMLP’s commitment to Madhesi rights. “This is our only chance,” he says into the phone. “Madhesis must vote for candidates who will go and institutionalise their rights in the constitution.”
Lal is confident about his own prospects, but he does not say the same for the Madhesi parties as a whole. “No one had thought that elections would really happen in April,” he says. “We were busy with the Madhesi agitation. We could neither focus on organisation-building nor decide on seat-sharing arrangements.” Lal also complains about a severe resource crunch faced by smaller parties, such as his. “Dekhu na, ekdam pai ne che,” he says. “We just do not have the money.” And then there is the fear of the Madhesi armed groups, who have not only announced a poll boycott but have warned candidates that they will be in the line of fire. “The government must talk to the Madhesi militants respectfully, just as they treated the Maoists,” Lal urges. “Armed groups, for now, should support people like us, candidates of Madhesi parties.”
As far as his confidence regarding an electoral victory is concerned, that seems only for public consumption. As a politician, Lal is too astute not to understand that there is intense competition in his constituency – and that he himself is not particularly popular. Local residents feel that he did not do enough during his time as mayor, and they continue to whisper about the money he is said to have made during his term in office. The Nepali Congress has put up veteran leader Lila Koirala to run against him. Meanwhile, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), the UML, has named one of its senior-most members from the Tarai, Raghubir Mahaseth, as its candidate. Finally, Sanjay Sah, popularly known as Sanjay Takla, is the candidate of the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum, a cross-party umbrella formed a little more than a year ago. Takla is a contractor, has the image of a goon, and may be able to gain the support of some of the armed groups.
All of these candidates were recently together at a public hearing organised by a national television channel, in the precincts of the Janaki temple. Also at the venue was an angry and impatient audience, waiting to have a go at the politicians. Journalist Braj Yadav accused all of the leaders of “dhaandhli” (corrupt means) during past polls. His words sparked huge applause. A questioner aggressively asked the candidates to prove their commitment to the Madhes region. Another said that Janakpur needed leaders who could provide basic infrastructure to the town, and who could bridge the divide between pahades and Madhesis. Sitting in a corner, Nepali Congress district president Ram Saroja Yadav murmured, “The citizens are too aware now. It is not going to be easy to convince them. Our job suddenly looks tougher.”
Back in Kathmandu, a diplomat from the southern neighbour is happy with the electoral momentum he sees picking up across the country. Sipping coffee in a restaurant, he says, “Now the two main concerns are pre-electoral violence and post-election rejection of results by those who fare badly.” In particular, the royalists have no incentive to see the election take place, given the republican plank embraced by all the main political parties. The worry is that as they get increasingly desperate, they will attempt to escalate the violence – perhaps even engineer high-profile incidents, in order to create chaos. For their part, even if the armed groups in the Tarai cannot disrupt polls on their own, they could create enough fear to ensure a low turnout. Ultimately, the interests of these factions lie in discrediting the process enough to raise questions about the legitimacy of the assembly. Intimidation and violence by the Maoists have also increased, worrying other parties and observers about the true intention and commitment of the former rebels.
Meanwhile, the unpredictability of the results has added to the uncertainty about an already fragile peace process. Kathmandu’s political, diplomatic and media circles are abuzz with a host of questions. What happens if large-scale violence accompanies the poll process and there is low turnout, leading to questions over legitimacy? Will it be possible to abolish the country’s monarchy if the Nepali Congress, conservative Madhesi groups and royalists cumulatively win half of the seats? How will the international community react if the UML and the Maoists get together to form a leftwing alliance? What happens if Madhesi parties, in the absence of any unity, fail to do well – will it strengthen the hands of the radicals? And what could the palace be planning in an attempt to play up differences among groups and engineer instability? There is hope that the umpteen electoral observers currently about – from the European Union, Carter Centre, the UN, and multiple national organisations – will do their job well, and act as a deterrent against large-scale poll-related violence.
East of Janakpur is the district headquarters of Saptari, Rajbiraj. At the Rajbiraj Guesthouse, near the Tribhuvan Chowk (now renamed the Gajendra Narayan Chowk, after a Tarai leader who pioneered Madhesi rights in national politics), Mishra ji is despondent. He is the manager of the lodge, and has a large portrait of King Birendra and his family hanging on the wall of his office. He is worried about the royalist Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP). “Kamal Thapa’s party did not even get enough candidates to fight here in Saptari. Do you think the king’s parties will get even five or six seats?” he asks anxiously. Asked which way he will vote, Mishra ji is quick to respond: “I think there should be a king. We have seen what the parties have done in the past two years. I will give one vote to the RPP and one to a Madhesi party.”
Some distance away, at Neta Chowk, a group of young students are chatting over cups of tea. Their views are very different from those of Mishra ji. The convivial atmosphere notwithstanding, start a conversation suggesting that a ceremonial monarchy is not a bad idea for Nepal, and one of them reacts aggressively: “What do you know sir? This king and his son are evil. We want to see a republic.”
Travelling from Rajbiraj back to Lahan, in neighbouring Siraha District, two middle-aged men are sitting in the bus discussing sanghiyata, federalism. Both agree there has to be a Madhes sarkar. “That way we won’t have to go to Kathmandu for every small thing,” says one confidently. But then they get into a heated argument about the shape of the potential federal unit. After one argues that there should be a unified Madhes, the other responds, “No, but the Tharus do not like that. And we also have our differences – a Mithila, Bhojpur, Awadh and Tharu pradesh is better.” But that is a trick to divide our strengths, comes the counterpoint. As in many a café and living room, this particular debate remains unresolved.
Over the past year and a half, eastern Tarai has been on the boil. Deep alienation, frequent agitations, an insensitive state, a fragmented Madhesi leadership and criminalised militancy have meant that Madhesis have suffered. No one sees the elections of 10 April as the magic wand to solve all of these issues. The armed groups are still out of the process, after all, and there will be incredible challenges to overcome even after poll day. But across the plains, there is hope that 28 Chaitra, 10 April on the Nepali calendar, will pave the way for a legitimate platform to discuss all of their demands.