Existential crisis

Published On: August 20, 2017 07:23 AM NPT By: Sukhdev Shah

With an electoral rout of small Madhesi parties in Province 2, the struggle for separate Madhes province or Madhesi-only province would be meaningless.

Over the past few decades, Madhesi leaders have been engrossed with ‘Making Madhesh Great’ by waving their flagship campaign of ‘One Madhesh, One Pradesh’, oblivious to the fact that much of Madhes they consider their territory has been slipping away from their influence. This in turn has eroded their clout in national politics.

The point is that territorial map of Madhes now is much different than what has historically been the case and which the Madhesi leaders imagine to be their home base. Of the 20 districts along the Indian border, three on the far-eastern Nepal—Jhapa, Morang, and Sunsari—are now soaked in Pahade culture and look much like hill regions, even though a large majority there continues to be ethnic Madhesis. 

Population in the eastern region is aligned with national politics and they show greater affinity for national parties than for any of the Madhesi parties. Madhesi leaders fail to realize the slow erosion of their power-base and loss of their hold on local politics in this region. This has been reflected in the results of local elections that have been almost entirely in favor of national parties while Madhesi parties have suffered crushing defeats.

Madhesi leaders such as Upendra Yadav and Bijay Gachhadar have roots in eastern region and count on local support but, with a change in voter preference in favor of national parties, they would find it difficult to win their own seats, much less affect a sweeping victory they imagine. The region is home to highly influential national party leaders—KP Sitaula of Congress and KP Oli of UML—and carries the allure of Koirala dynasty. It is then more likely that Madhesi parties would lose heavily in this region, with fourth place finish on the cards behind Congress, UML and Maoists.

East to west 

The outlook in far-western and mid-Madhes regions comprising nine districts doesn’t look different either. In the local elections there, Madhesi parties fared badly, winning no major victories in municipal and sub-municipal elections that were dominated by Congress and UML, with the Maoists also performing well in some places. Madhesi parties didn’t put up candidates in many places and had no major wins in places they did contest.
 Now Madhesi parties’ hope of survival and continued relevance hinge on their success in the eight Madhesi districts in eastern and mid-Madhes regions that make up Province 2. These eight districts from Saptari in the east to Parsa in the west make up what we can call real Madhes. 

Pahade population is low in Province 2 compared to other provinces, which also means that this region has traditionally been on the sidelines of mainstream changes in national politics, society and economy. Social resistance to modernizing influences makes the region most backward except for fringe territories touching East-West Highway. Social and economic changes along this highway have much to do with new migration from hill districts which, however, hadn’t affected much of the interiors in the south.                                                       
Given these features of Province 2, Madhesi parties now have a chance to earn a measure of credibility and legitimacy by winning most, if not all, of 127 constituencies at stake in the local election slated for September 18. However, Madhesi parties would likely do no better here than they have done elsewhere in Madhes. 
Should Madhesi parties lose heavily—in local election next month and also, predictably, in provincial and parliamentary elections—Madhesi politics will lose its raison d’être. If its leaders still choose to do politics, they would operate as fringe groups outside of national mainstream and be identified as rebels without a cause.    

Fissiparous tendencies 

There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about Madhesi parties’ electoral chances. They will likely be facing a rout in all eight districts of the province including in hardcore Madhes districts of Saptari, Siraha and Dhanusha. Madhesis remain as divided as ever as almost nothing seems to unite them except their caste biases. Extreme political divisions observed in this province and also elsewhere in Madhes are a barrier to efforts at unifying people behind one leader who can truly represent Madhes and shape the region’s politics. 

Madhesi divisions have given rise to a multiplicity of parties, each trying to undercut another while neglecting their common ethnic identity and problems they collectively face as a group. In some ways, their caste awareness makes it almost impossible to agree on common goals and devise a distinctive political ideology that may overcome caste barriers. Madhesi people’s choices in elections have come to largely reflect caste considerations except when it comes to choosing from the national parties—Congress, UML, Maoists—in which case caste preferences do not seem as strong.

Political divisions in Madhes then have resulted in a yawning gap between the electorate-size and the number of wins in election for Madhesi parties. In the Constituent Assembly election of 2013, for example, Madhesi parties won just 11 percent of popular votes nationwide and no more than 20 percent in Madhes, where Madhesi voters make up almost half of nation’s electorate. Madhesi parties won just five percent of the directly-contested seats. There is no reason to believe they will fare better in upcoming elections. More likely, they will perform much worse.

Despite the recent consolidation of six Madhesi parties, much of Madhes remains outside. With large Madhesi parties opting out of this coalition, local votes going to it will be further divided. Add to this fray national parties—Congress, UML, Maoists and, to some extent, RPP—and the hope for the new Madhesi coalition appears abysmal. Unlike Madhesi parties that tend to cut each other’s votes, national parties have strong traditional support groups. This reduce the chances of voters changing parties, a problem that severely affects support for Madhesi parties. 

Lost cause

Looking beyond caste- and party-related allegiances, Madhesi parties get bad scores on working for Madhesi interests as well. The perception across Madhes is that Madhesi leaders have focused primarily on their own enrichment and have done little to address Madhesi needs. The most visible case is the sorry state of public infrastructure in the region despite Madhesi leaders getting to repeatedly head powerful ministries. Their service for government made no difference to the region in terms of improvements of local facilities and opening opportunities for Madhesis in government services.

It then looks like a mammoth task for leaders of small Madhesi outfits to win elections. Again, more likely, they will suffer a rout in Province 2, as they have in other provinces. There will then be no need to keep up the struggle for a separate Madhes province or for Madhesi-only province as a way of protecting Madhesi interests. With Madhesi politics out of the way, Madhesi people would then look at greater integration and deeper assimilation as a path to gaining national status and accessing opportunities they never got while supporting ethnic parties.  

The author teaches economics at NOVA Community College in Virginia


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