The loneliness of Madheshi politicosThe story of the struggles, successes and limitations of Madheshi politicians in Nepal.
Back in the mid-1970s, Janakpur was still a sleepy settlement that woke up periodically to welcome pilgrims for Hindu festivals. Devotees came from all around town every Poornima to take a holy dip in the sacred Ganga Sagar. Ramnavami attracted the faithful to celebrate the avatar of Lord Rama at Ram Mandir. The tradition of a bariyat (marriage party) arriving from Ayodhya to Mithila every Bibah Panchami had already begun.
Economic activities in the town were limited to the operation of Janakpur Cigarette Factory. A narrow-gauge railway line laid in the 1930s to transport timber to the Indian market was still functional. The antiquated train ferried passengers from nowhere—the Indian town of Jaynagar's sole claim to fame was that it had a railway link with Nepal—to nowhere in the foothills of the Chure Range with a long stop at Janakpur. These two parastatals either directly employed or indirectly created jobs for most residents of the township.
On the political front, the Giris were the most prominent pillars of the Panchayat system. Despite some Soviet influence and Naxal infiltration from across the Indian border, activities of the communists were limited to the campus of Ramswaroop Ramsagar College at the southern edge of town. There were two primary nodes of oppositional politics— Brahmapuri and Station Road. Militant cadres of the Nepali Congress rallied around the Koiralas in Brahmapuri while moderate supporters of the party tended to congregate at the residence of the towering Gandhian Mahendra Narayan Nidhi. This was the milieu in which Bimalendra Nidhi cut his teeth in politics and emerged as president of the Nepal Students Union—the most active wing of the party at that time—with the blessings of BP Koirala. It appeared for a while that he would emerge as the synergetic leader of the faction-ridden party at the national level in the future.
The promise of the 1980s has proven to be a mirage as the vice-president of the leading party in the ruling coalition has had to take shelter in the safe house of the proportional representational list to save his faltering political career. Therein lies the story of the struggles, successes and limitations of most Madheshi politicians in Nepal. Amresh Kumar Singh, perhaps the second most well-known Madheshi face in Nepali Congress politics after Nidhi, has been forced to contest as an independent candidate.
It's not that Nidhi didn't try hard enough. He was one of leading luminaries of the political outfit of the royal-military establishment under the leadership of Premier Sher Bahadur Deuba that was named the Nepali Congress (D) in the early-noughties. The breakaway faction first merged with the parent party and then completely appropriated it. The Nepali Congress of today is the Nepali Congress (D) of the past for all practical purposes—a political vehicle for the ambitions of Premier Deuba. Unable to find a role or retain any relevance in the oligarchy that had emerged in the wake of 16-point conspiracy, the veteran of the Nepali Congress (D) tried to explore the possibilities of challenging his own leader in the race for the presidency of the party. Nidhi travelled to New Delhi to gauge the flow of the Hindutva wave northwards. Ultimately, he seems to have decided to hide his convictions, lie low and bide his time.
The example of Nidhi is only illustrative. The lot of Madheshi politicos in the so-called mainstream parties of the left and right are much worse. Lal Babu Pandit may have succeeded in defeating Shekhar Koirala at the polls, but he can never aspire to be an organisational challenger to the supremo of the CPN-UML. He had to resign from all executive posts of the party under organisational pressure. Though the most visible Madheshi face of the Maoists and the erstwhile head of the Madhesh Rashtriya Morcha, the question of confronting Pushpa Kamal Dahal in the Maoist Centre is unlikely to cross the mind of Matrika Yadav.
The various strands of monarchists, Hindutva and other conservative parties have failed to come up with any Madheshi politico that can stand alongside Rajendra Lingden, Kamal Thapa or even a rank outsider such as Rabi Lamichhane. There are Pahadi leaders like Sharad Singh Bhandari or Ashok Rai in "Madheshbadi" parties just as there are Madheshi cadres in parties that nobody dare call "Pahadbadi"! Ethnonational hegemony is strengthened with control over the nomenclature.
These are the ground realities of Nepali politics that force aspiring Madheshi politicos to choose Pahadi partners during every election. Faced with a take it or leave it deal, the Loktantrik Samajbadi Party had no option but to accept the offer of the support of the ruling coalition in all of seven constituencies out of a total of 165 electoral units, and none of them falls in the hilly or mountainous region. Ironically, it's a lose-lose game for both the signatories of the unpalatable deal. The Loktantrik Samajbadi Party is unlikely to contribute much to the tally of the coalition partners—its committed voters will probably opt for the Janata Samajbadi Party candidate wherever possible. Supporters of the ruling parties are even less likely to vote for Loktantrik Samajbadi Party contestants. The support base of the Congress and the UML in Madhesh consists largely of habitual conformists.
According to the theory of system justification, a significant section of the population is often "motivated to defend the status quo because doing so serves fundamental psychological needs for certainty, security, and social acceptance". Voting for mainstream parties establishes one's "nationalist credentials" while regional parties have little to offer to its passive supporters.
After some hard bargaining with both the contesting teams—the ruling coalition of disparate parties and the oppositional alliance of jingoistic forces of the left and right—it seems Upendra Yadav has secured a better deal for his outfit from the ethnonational demagogue Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli. Three more considerations seem to have made the choice more compelling for Yadav—proportional votes, provincial politics and caste considerations. The option of friendly contests in constituencies outside the deal will make the Janata Samajbadi Party accumulate some votes to increase its proportional representation tally. Chieftain Sharma Oli seems to have accepted that his party has no chance of emerging as the dominant player in Madhesh and is ready to cede that space to the Janata Samajbadi Party. The clinching factor, however, seems to have been the calculation of caste arithmetic.
Like most voters in the Ganga plains, people don't cast their votes during elections, they vote their caste to assert kinship, identity, solidarity and pride. The UML support base in Madhesh consists mainly of Brahmins, Baniyas and Khas-Arya Pahadis. The Janata Samajbadi Party is primarily a party of Yadavs and Muslims that Mulayam Singh Yadav pioneered in Uttar Pradesh and Laloo Prasad Yadav popularised as MY (Muslim-Yadav) mantra in Bihar. (Incidentally, the Yadav patriarch of Uttar Pradesh, aged 82, passed away on October 10, 2022 after a long illness. May his soul rest in peace.)
The Janata Samajbadi Party has also succeeded in attracting a significant section of Pahadi Janajatis to its ranks. The complementarities of the support base of the UML and the Janata Samajbadi Party can prove to be a winning combination in an ideologically-free election. In any case, neither Sharma Oli nor Yadav is too well known for their ideological convictions. They win, Madhesh loses.