Madhesh parties struggle to stay relevant in their heartlandAs regional parties drift from core Madhesh issues, big parties try to cash in on growing public frustration.
The political landscape in Madhesh is changing.
Traditionally a Nepali Congress bastion, some Madhesh-based parties rose to power in the region after the various Madhesh movements raised the agenda of the Madheshi people. Unfortunately, beset by disputes and splits and after miserably failing to carry forward the agenda, they are struggling for relevance in their own base.
The CPN-UML, on the other hand, seems intent on penetrating the region and gaining in strength. New forces like the CK Raut-led Janamat Party and the Resham Chaudhary-led Nagarik Unmukti Party are also emerging.
Madhesh has now become the centre of political discourse as all the major parties want to improve their poll prospects in the region in the November polls.
Observers say the upcoming polls will have a different outcome to what was seen during previous elections and the Madhesh-based parties could succumb to the domination of the large and long-established parties.
Chandra Kishore, a commentator who has been following Madhesh politics for decades, compared the current political situation in the Madhesh to the ghur (the fire that people sit around in the Tarai to keep warm in the cold season). According to him, the surface has no flames but the inner part radiates warmth and even a whiff of air is enough to stir it up.
“When we look at electoral politics, the Madhes-based parties or the parties that emerged from the Madhesh movement appear weaker. But many issues related to the Madhesh movement live like the dormant fire,” Chandra Kishore said. “As the Madhesh-based political parties have weakened, the fire is hidden.”
The parties that fought together against the Nepali Congress, Maoist Centre and UML five years back are now taking shelter in the camps of the big leaders of the three parties, said Chandra Kishore. “Now, they have accepted the leftovers—whatever is given by the big political players. This has led to great dissatisfaction among the Madheshi people.”
Jhalak Subedi, a political analyst, said if the issues of the Shekhar Koirala faction inside the Nepali Congress can be sorted out, the party will emerge the strongest for sure. According to him, in normal times, the Nepali Congress will always be the largest force in Madhesh.
Also, Subedi said, some new parties such as Nagarik Unmukti Party and Janamat Party are emerging in the region, trying to cash in on the dissatisfaction of Madheshi people towards old parties. “Madhesh-based parties have failed to address the issues of Madhesh. In the meantime, big political parties have dominated and will continue to do so,” Subedi told the Post.
Observers reckon the UML has been increasing its sway in the region, if recent developments are anything to go by.
Chandra Kishore added that UML is garnering strength in Madhesh with a clever strategy of welcoming just about any Madheshi leader into its fold. Madheshi leaders, on the other hand, are calculating the votes. “Some are defecting to the CPN-UML to get the protection of the larger party. Even though the Nepali Congress has a strong influence in the region, its leaders are fighting among themselves, thereby creating political space for others,” he told the Post.
Recently, many key Madhesi leaders from the Loktantrik Samajbadi Party and Janata Samajbadi Party have defected to the UML and the Congress. The UML has been especially aggressive in courting the leaders from these two political parties to maintain its stronghold in the region.
In the 2017 elections, the Congress emerged victorious in 40 local units in the province. Of the 136 local units in the province, the Upendra Yadav-led Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum won 26 chiefs, followed by the Rastriya Janata Party led by Mahanta Thakur, which stood third winning 25 chief executive posts of local units.
Similarly, the CPN (Maoist Centre) won 21 local units and the CPN-UML stood fifth with wins in 18 local units.
The Madhesh Provincial Assembly is 107-strong.
In the 2022 local elections, the Congress emerged as the largest party in the province. The UML also managed to make inroads in the region.
Out of the 136 local units, Nepali Congress won 46, UML won 30, Janata Samajbadi 25, Loktantrik Samajbadi 14, and the Maoist Centre locked in nine.
In the 2017 federal polls, the UML had a rather lacklustre outing in Madhesh, winning only two of the 32 constituencies in the province.
Uddhab Pyakurel, associate professor of political sociology at Kathmandu University, said Madheshi people crave change. According to him, the voters in the region are having a rethink after voting for the same set of leaders a couple of times. “The Madhesh-based parties have also failed to bring the marginalised people and the youth to power, just like the big political parties. These parties also have exclusionary ideas and only favour dominant groups, leading to public frustration,” Pyakurel told the Post.
Pyakurel said the icons of the Madhesh movements are being questioned on the differences between their promises and delivery. “The growing attraction in Madhesh for UML is also reflective of people’s wish for change,” he said. “The UML wants to capitalise on this public dissatisfaction.”
In the current House of Representatives, the Janata Samajbadi has 17 seats while Loktantrik Samajbadi Party controls 13 seats.
Similarly, the Janata Samajbadi has 39 lawmakers in the Madhesh Provincial Assembly while the Loktantrik Samajbadi has 16.
Also, if there is an alliance between the Loktantrik Samajbadi Party and the UML, they could mount a serious challenge to the ruling coalition in Madhesh, observers say.
“The alliance between the UML and the Loktantrik Samajbadi Party will help the UML to a degree,” added Subedi.
Kishore echoed Subedi. “The alliance between the UML and the Loktantrik Samajbadi Party will add to the competition of the ruling coalition candidates,” he said.
Subedi foresees some drastic changes in Madhesh politics. “The UML will increase seats in light of the recent defections of Madhesi leaders into the party. Loktantrik Samajbadi Party will meanwhile struggle for its very existence," he said. “The Janata Samajbadi Party will lose some power. The upcoming elections could offer more glimpses of further weakening of the identity-based parties in Madhesh, in what will be a major change in the region.”
Kishore says the Madheshi people’s agendas remain unchanged. “If Madheshi parties keep ignoring these agendas in their lust for power, they will keep losing public support,” he said.