Who represents the Madhes?Parties that speak and work with people rather than for them can eventually win their hearts and minds
Which party represents the Madhes has become a contested issue. The political claim over the Madhes has become crucial in republican Nepal. This is because the assumption seems to be that those who are representatives and implementers of the Madhesi mandate will govern Nepal. That’s why there are so many claims and counterclaims over the Madhes. Neither the Nepali Congress nor the CPN-UML buy the Madhesi parties’ claims of being the authentic representatives of the Madhes. They reason that a number of members of parliament of their parties were elected from the Madhes in the last election. The Madhesi parties, now gathered under the banner of the Rashtriya Janata Party and Upendra Yadav’s Socialist Forum Nepal, have been agitating for Madhesi representation in the state structure and, therefore, claim to represent the Madhes as authentic entities. This is indeed a conundrum of representation, and it is not simple to unravel.
The prominent question is: Can’t parties with left, centre and right political ideologies represent an ethnic, cultural-geographical region? In culturally, racially and ethnically homogenous societies, this question doesn’t arise so much because economic status marks their social division. But in a society marked by cultural, linguistic and ethnic differences, can societies be represented by parties with economic and political ideologies of the left, centre and right,without taking cultural markers into account? This is where the claims and counterclaims between Nepal’s parties become intriguing.
I am just finishing an undergraduate course on postcolonial literature, which focuses on the problem of representation. Marx’s famous quote from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte states, “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented”. This quote is theoretically relevant in the current situation in Nepal. Marx believed that the party avant-garde leads the peasantry because the peasants cannot represent themselves; they must be represented. While all the political parties of the left, centre and right have more or less believed in this principle, the communist parties have made much more use of this idea.
In the history of communist parties, and even in the feminist movement, people of colour—such as African American writer Richard Wright and Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldua—have found white communism and white feminism problematic because of the limited understanding that white people have of the complex identity of people of colour.
In a similar vein, one can say that Bahun communism/socialism in Nepal, Bhadralok communism in Bengal and Upper-caste communism in Kerala failed to transform their respective societies despite good intentions, highfalutin slogans and some good work. The communist party ruled Bengal for 30 years but it didn’t make a dent in Bengal’s social and caste structure. The critics can even charge them as parties of the identity elite who have been in the business of neutralising and managing the identity of the marginalised.
Ethnicity not enough
But the question is: Can those who claim to possess authentic group identity always represent their groups’ interest? Or does the social and economic power structure dilute and distort their ability to represent their group? For example, in the Tarai-Madhes, the ethnic zamindars of the past, whether Rajbanshi-Tharu or Madhesi, very often became the oppressors of their own people. This was at a time when the hill population hadn’t migrated wholesale to the plains and the feudal government of Kathmandu was far too distant to exercise any jurisdiction.
Historical examination shows that there was no sense of alienation in terms of language, culture or dress, yet the zamindars themselves did little to ameliorate the conditions of their fellow ethnics. Had they wanted, these zamindars with extensive landholdings and wealth could have done much for their fellow ethnics. While the same charges can’t be levelled against the Madhesi and Janajati parties, the way they conducted themselves during the first Constituent Assembly clearly showed that ethnicity alone may not be enough to qualify a leader or a party to represent the interests of fellow ethnics.
So who actually represents the Madhes? I am of the opinion that neither the non-Madhesi dominant parties nor the Madhesi parties are true representatives. Though both possess the potential to represent the Madhes, whether they actually will depends on their work to structurally empower a majority of the Madhesis and Janajatis. In this sense, the Madhesi parties claim to empower Madhesis structurally and ideologically through identity assertion, whereas the UML and the NC focus on bringing development and raising the living standards of Madhesis.
However, the Madhesi parties’ aim to provide claims to identity is not sufficient to establish a party’s reliability, nor is the rhetoric of economic development as highlighted by the parties dominated by hill-caste leaders. The party that structurally empowers a particular ethnic group through identity enablement and integration into the state is the party that really represents the people. Gone are the days when a party could claim that its leaders, like a zamindar or Nehru-Gandhi or BP-GP or KP-PK, would bring development to the people. These days those parties that speak and work with the people rather than speak and work for the people can eventually win the people’s hearts and minds as equal citizens.
You cannot teach African literature by just teaching the European Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. You have to teach not only the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s commentary on Heart of Darkness, but Achebe’s own 1958 novel Things Fall Apart as a response to the European representation of Africa. Cultural, racial and ethnic authenticity may not be everything, but cultural, racial and ethnic experience constitutes one’s identity—and identity experience matters in politics, in marginalisation and the empowerment of people.