Changing Discourse Of Madhes Politics
Ritu Raj Subedi
There was a time when Nepali politics revolved around Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala. The NC ruled the country most of the time following the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990. GP Koirala was its most powerful leader so he became the Prime Minister several times. In the twilight of Koirala’s political career, the then CPN-Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda came to fill the political vacuum created by the ruthless Maoist insurgency that laid bare the crisis in parliamentary politics. But Prachanda stole the political limelight only for a brief period. The saga of Maoist ‘successful’ insurgency became a fading paean in no time. The ultra-radical party disintegrated into several groups with their ethno-centric identity politics that was blown at the behest of foreign power centres falling by the wayside during the second Constituent Assembly in 2013.
However, with the promulgation of new constitution in 2015, the politics pivots on CPN-UML chair KP Sharma Oli owing to various reasons. He played a crucial role in promulgating the national charter by defying the instruction of the southern neighbour to postpone it for the time being. Oli, as prime minister, boldly stood up to the economic embargo imposed on Nepal in the wake of the devastating earthquake. He refused to visit India until the blockade was lifted. India gave in following widespread criticisms of inhuman blockade. Oli visited India with dignity. This earned him a greater amount of nationalistic credentials. He shored up his profile after signing landmark trade and transit treaty with the northern neighbour in a significant move to lessen Nepal’s dependency on India. When his government collapsed after his ally Prachanda withdrew his support to him, his popularity reached a peak. This was a unique phenomenon given that in Nepal as a PM leaves his office, he suffers from the lowest public rating but this did not apply to him. The UML’s ‘patriotic’ stance paid off in the first and second phase of the local polls.
But, this gain was not without serious political risk. Oli was accused of being as anti-Madhesi for foiling the constitution amendment Bill. The ruling NC, CPN-Maoist Centre and agitating Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal were together to push the UML to the wall. In order to downsize the resurgent UML, ruling NC and MC forged electoral alliances in the first and second phase of local polls but the alliances were not so effective to stop it.
The UML argued that the amendment Bill contained elements that hurt the interest of the nation as well as of the Madhesi people themselves. It claimed that the amendment sought to promote naturalized citizens, suppress the local languages such as Maithali, Bhojpuri and Awadhi and impose Hindi language, curtail the rights of provincial assemblies to demarcate the boundary of provinces and deprive the rights of head and deputy heads of local units to pick the members of National Assembly and the President, among others.
Believe it or not, Oli’s stand has changed the political discourse of Madhes. It impels the Madhesi forces to shed their narrow ethnic regionalism and embrace broader appellations to define their parties and ideology. So they changed the name of parties, removing the term ‘Madhes’ and used the words like ‘national,’ ‘people’ and ‘Nepal.’ Though in name, they have been forced to take off the ethno-centric garb in fovour of larger national identity. More importantly, they have made development as the main agenda of Madhes in the run up to the local poll in Province No 2. The identity politics has lesser role in their election manifestos. While canvassing the voters, they promised for development works to benefit the locals.
In fact, the Madhesi people are least concerned with the abstract ethnic identity. At the moment, they reel from the problem of poverty, joblessness, and floods and inundation. They want better roads, and an easy access to quality education and health services. The Madhes-based parties attempted to play on the ethnic/caste sensitivity of Terai residents, putting the development issues on the backburner. In order to fight back and erase the negative label of ‘anti-Madhesi’ force, the UML is cashing in on its own ambitious budgetary schemes meant for the Terai region. The Oli-led government had allocated Rs 500 million each to develop the district headquarters. This was the biggest allocation for the development of Terai in its history. His government also set aside budget to implement residence programme for the poor and needy families and build the postal highway that had been pending for decades. The party has presented a 59-point development programme it introduced while leading the governments in different periods.
On the last day of poll campaign, NC president and Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba accused the UML of being anti-Madhesi for it played a role to fail the amendment Bill in the parliament. However, it is worth mentioning here that altogether 20 NC lawmakers were absent during the voting on the Bill. To counter this political charge, the UML alleged the NC of forcing the Terai into penury by selling off important industries such as the Janakpur Cigarette Factory, the Birgunj Sugar Mill and the Agriculture Equipment Corporation, among others. Because of the close-down of these factories, agriculture development took a tumble, compelling hundreds of thousands of Madhesi youths to search their future in the deserts of the Gulf and other countries, argued the opposition party.
The political polemics surrounding the development issues are good for the electoral democracy. This dilutes the pernicious impacts of divisive ethno-centric politics. The restive part of Terai has now breathed fresh political air as it casts ballots amidst various speculations. The election will be a cliffhanger until the final results of the votes are declared. But, what is more important is people’s enthusiastic participation and the parties’ healthy competition in the election. After all, a free, fair and peaceful election is a lifeline of the democratic system.