Melancholy of the Madheshi intelligentsiaExcept Madhesh, all other provinces are patterned after the old regional administrative system.
Janakpur wears a battered and beaten look. Two general elections in a row—first for the formation of local governments and then for the selection of provincial and federal parliamentarians—appear to have sapped the energy of the city. A resurgence of anti-federalism forces in local politics has deflated the exuberance of Madheshi self-rule aspirants.
Since all parties in the electoral fray seemed to be equally unpalatable, people voted for the candidates they disliked the least; and are now stuck with winners that are not particularly committed to protect and advance their political interests. Most newly-elected representatives of the people are beholden to their political patrons and financial backers in Kathmandu.
The leadership of the sub-metropolitan city has gone to the former chairperson of the city committee of the Nepali Congress who resigned his post to contest as an independent candidate against the coalition partner of his parent party. It is perhaps natural for him to behave like a lone wolf, and have little respect for the members of the team tasked with the governance of the city.
The elections to the federal Parliament have gone in favour of the power couple Raghuvir Mahaseth and Juli Kumari Mahato of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). Their party vehemently opposed the Madhesh Uprisings, but they will have to represent constituents that were at the forefront of the struggles for dignity and self-rule of Madhesh.
The local politicos of the Loktantrik Samajbadi Party and the Janata Samajbadi Party seem to be in a despondent mood. They blame their leaders such as Mahanth Thakur and Upendra Yadav, but are unwilling to share the responsibility for the electoral debacle. In addition to the poor image of the leaders, infighting between cadres was also responsible for the lacklustre performance of Madhesh-dependent parties.
The local units of almost all parties that have little influence outside Madhesh continue to be the fiefs of faction leaders that are sometimes unable and often unwilling to think about collective interests. They spend more time criticising each other than critiquing their competitors from other parties.
The Janamat Party is the new player in the game of one-upmanship in Madhesh. It belongs to the entrepreneurial tradition of politics where an ambitious individual builds a party rather than an interest group forming a steering committee and selecting its leader for a stipulated period. Somewhat like the political platforms of Rabi Lamichhane and Resham Chaudhary, CK Raut has erected a structure to rationalise his ideological capitulation for possible co-optation into the permanent establishment.
Whatever shape the ruling coalition takes in the province, it's almost sure that the political parties that agitated for the institutionalisation of federalism, furtherance of inclusion and promotion of proportionate representation during the three Madhesh Uprisings will have a secondary role in its governance.
Dreams of provincial autonomy died with the promulgation of the contested constitution that sabotaged the idea of federalism with the creation of local bodies beholden to the federal government. A fear of the facade of provincial governance falling off the centralised structure has begun to grip the Madheshi intelligentsia that once thought about creating an assertive and confident identity of Madhesh.
The winter haze in Janakpur is deceptive—while the fog is for real in the city of ponds, smoke and other atmospheric pollutants that turn it into smog often come with the westerly winds from far away in the north Indian plains. Save for a few brick kilns, there is no significant industrial activity—polluting or otherwise—in the vicinity of the provincial capital.
Agriculture is no longer the mainstay of the local economy. Subsistence farmers still till the land, grow cereal crops, tend to the buffalos and fish in the ponds. But the yield from farming has to pay for expensive inputs, and the surplus is hardly sufficient to cover the cost of everyday life. Whosoever can do so wants to escape from Madhesh at the very first opportunity.
Only a few Madheshis manage to find gainful employment within the country. Every young man who can sell a piece of land or borrow from the neighbourhood moneylender at usurious rates applies for a passport as soon as he comes of stipulated age. Thereafter, the heart-wrenching stories of modern day slavery in the inhospitable countries of West Asia and Malaysia begin to unfold. However, it's their remittances that fuel the engine of the local economy.
Almost all businesses draw their profits from remittance beneficiaries. From sacks of rice to baskets of onions, from packets of noodles to the boxes of Chinese smart phones and from the pouches of shampoo to the bottles of whisky, everything begins to sell more once remittances begin to flow.
Traders have displaced feudal lords of yore from their pre-eminent position in Madheshi society. Many of them have gone into more lucrative businesses such as running for-profit schools and operating private hospitals. Motorcycle sales have multiplied as a white collar class has emerged that makes its living by helping traders amass more profits.
In addition to traders, moneylenders and the businesses of education and health, operators of the “dozer development” industry are the second most influential players in rural and urban municipalities. Local governments award construction contracts for inadequately conceived and ill-designed infrastructure projects. The windfall profits then go towards funding officials and political parties.
The nexus between traders, contractors, moneylenders and their political patrons at the local level have strengthened in the absence of civic activism. Media outlets prefer to deal with weighty issues of national politics and international affairs rather than stick their neck out by exposing ambitious operators. The emergent capitalists realise that the power to make them richer and protect them from possible prosecution lies in the hands of the federal authorities.
The promise of federalism is based on self-rule for the provinces and shared rule at the federal level. Local governments are expected to be self-governing entities. It is required that every level of government be autonomous and not be subordinate to anybody other than the constitution.
The problem with the controversial constitution is that it has given more authority to the local units—veritably turning them into local states with legislative, executive and judicial powers—than they can handle while it has emasculated the provinces that could have made self-rule of the people possible. The condition has been further aggravated by the refusal of the federal government to hand over even constitutionally mandated powers to the provinces.
Except Madhesh, all other provinces of Nepal are patterned after the regional administrative system of the past. Sudurpaschim has retained the name of the development region while Bagmati, Gandaki, Karnali and Lumbini have reused the long-discarded identifications of zones. The legislature of Province 1 is yet to discard the name imposed upon it by the federal authorities.
The principle of subsidiarity guarantees a degree of independence that corresponds with the competence to exercise the authority of self-governance responsibly. Compared to all other provinces, Madhesh is relatively homogeneous in its composition. Its capital is quite accessible from every corner of the province throughout the year.
The Madheshi intelligentsia had dreamt of turning Janakpur into an educational and cultural hub of regional regeneration. A constitutional emasculation and political debacle has pushed that vision into the background once again.