Disillusionment of Madhesi mainstreamersMadhesis have been hamstrung with conflicting emotions of conformism and confrontation.
Despite the plethora of digital media, its impact on the political economy of the country continues to be peripheral. There are several reasons behind its marginality. The ability of consumers of the internet to search, find, evaluate, utilise and share significant content is limited due to relatively low media literacy. The traditional media, on the other hand, enjoys certain respectability.
Unlike other media, radio allows a listener to plough, cook or shave even as it plays in the background. Flickering images on television arouse the interest of the audience, but are unable to sustain it for long. Knowledge in neo-literate societies is equated with the ability to read the printed text. That could be the main reason behind the popularity and influence of newspapers. In Nepal, print is still the king where it often sets, turns and eclipses the agenda of the political economy.
When newspapers hit the stands in Kathmandu after the Tihar hiatus, their headlines reflected the current obsessions of the political class. Controversies surrounding the chief justice of the Supreme Court still hog the headlines. There is yet another controversy that refuses to go away from the front page—the Millennium Challenge Corporation's Nepal Compact. Its supporters relied upon developmental logic while opponents raised the bogey of foreign interference.
In this cacophony of passing issues, the much-postponed general convention of the Nepali Congress party has been pushed into the background. For the first time in the history of the dominant party of the ruling coalition, a Madhesi politico has offered himself as a presidential candidate. The media has chosen to ignore his claim. The way influential media treats aspiring mainstreamers from the Madhesi community is merely a reflection of dominant social attitudes prevalent in elite circles of Kathmandu. After a while, repeated slight ends up increasing the frustrations of Madhesi politicos.
It takes generations to found the cultural conventions of a country. The victorious chieftain of Gorkha came up with the idea of "Asali Hindusthana" in the 1770s to consolidate his support base among the caste-conscious Hindus of the mid-mountains. Yet another Gorkhali warrior later codified the caste system to entrench his hold over the polity through the creation of social standards.
By the time of the self-declared moderniser in 1960, a political mainstream had already evolved around the core belief that Nepal was a culturally homogeneous nation-state of "Nepali Jaati". The concept of the dominant ethnicity being the sole nationality of the country has since been institutionalised with a portmanteau term Khas-Arya through the controversial constitution.
Revolutions often challenge conventional ideas. The Shah Restoration in 1951 did accept the concept of electoral legitimacy, but it left ethnonational beliefs of "one religion, one language and one country under the Crown" largely untouched. The political sanguinity cost the Nepali Congress and its leader BP Koirala dear. A royal-military coup throttled the nascent democracy in the winter of 1960, and the king as the supreme commander-in-chief became the political supremo of the country.
Fearful of a radical upsurge, the leadership of the Peoples' Movement in 1990 made peace with the monarchy and left the exclusionary principles of ethnonationalism untouched even as it embraced political pluralism. The Maoist promise of institutionalising ethnic pluralism under the imagination of a totalitarian order was doomed to fail.
The Madhes Uprisings of 2007 and 2008 succeeded in challenging the fundamental beliefs of the mainstream, but failed to institutionalise even its minimal gains. The collapse of the third Madhes Uprising in 2015 appears to have been preordained as the entrenched elite had regrouped and reorganised itself into a formidable force. The convergence of the cultural, social and political mainstream of the ethnonational state has acquired constitutional sanction of the republican order. Scholars of African-American consciousness have postulated that "invested patriotism" requires labour, loyalty and culture while "iconoclastic patriotism" advocates challenging existing beliefs.
Though not exactly analogous to the Du Boisian ideas of double consciousness, it seems that Madhesi mainstreamers have been hamstrung with conflicting emotions of conformism and confrontation. The rewards of changing one's beliefs, attitudes and perceptions to match those of the dominant majority are alluring. The consequences of challenging chauvinism are worrisome. Ambitious Madhesis often choose to change themselves rather than make futile attempts to transform the political mainstream.
In the 1970s, the Nepali Congress responded to the assimilative programmes of the monarchical regime with its own version of creating an accommodative identity. New members were encouraged to discard their caste identification and start using "Nepali" as their surname. Most Bahuns refused to heed the advice of their leaders. The chief minister of Gandaki province Krishna Chandra Nepali, originally a Pokharel, is perhaps one of the last vestiges of the largely forgotten nationalistic symbolism. The Nepali surname has come to signify a Dalit identity.
Even though BP Koirala had begun his literary career with his short stories in Hindi, he accepted the primacy of the Nepali language as an important component of nation-building. In the mid-1960s, it used to be fun to listen to Madhesi recruits of the proscribed party in the border towns of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh practice their Nepali upon visitors from back home who were often equally uncomfortable in what was then "national" and has since been rebranded as the "official" language.
Having risen from the ranks of the Nepal Students Union and served as the vice-president of the Nepali Congress and deputy prime minister of the country, it's logical for Bimalendra Nidhi to aspire for the chair of the organisation. After spending a lifetime in establishing his nationalist credentials, Nidhi suddenly finds that he is deliberately being kept out of political equations and media headlines. Bijay Kumar Gachhadar legitimised the 16-point conspiracy by offering himself as the sole representative of the Madhesis as well as Janajatis. He is being ignored when not being demonised for his marginal role in the Baluwatar land scam that involved many bigwigs of mainstream parties.
Madhesis in the Rastriya Prajatantra Party, CPN-UML or its Samajbadi offshoot and the Maoist parties don't matter much; they are unlikely to be considered for the top post in the foreseeable future. The choices for the Madhesi aspirants of democratic leadership are stark: Be a Ram Baran Yadav to be rewarded for conformism or confront the establishment, even though hesitatingly so, like Bimalendra Nidhi for equitable politics. The easier option is to form or get into one of the Madhes-based parties and hope for the re-emergence of coalition politics. Chhaith prayers to the setting sun for the success of the Nepali Congress' ward convention in much of Madhes.