While Madhesi people have faced bullets benefits have accrued mostly to a handful of Madhesi leaders
Madhesi unity has always been a desirable goal but the unity never materializes for reasons no one knows. Nor has there been any research to bring to light the forces that have caused disunity. The compelling reason for unity or, more desirably, for the one Madhesi party representing all of Madhes, is the territorial separation of Madhes from rest of Nepal, which is collectively designated as Pahad or the mountain territory. Territorial distinction has imparted the regions their separate identities with respect to ethnicities, cultures and development potential.
For Madhesi people to have just one party would be a natural choice to help them pursue common goals and shared destiny. In practice, however, Madhes remains an intensely divided territory packed with some two dozen parties representing various castes, clans and factions. The wide range of divisions has progressively diminished Madhesi clout in national politics by making it difficult for Madhesi candidates to win elections. During the last CA election in 2013, for example, half of Madhesi voters plumped for non-regional parties and the other half was split among the many Madhesi candidates.
It now looks as if at least some Madhesi parties have come to appreciate the benefits of unity. Reportedly, six Madhes-based parties have come together to form one single entity but without the ‘Madhes’ labeling. It isn’t obvious why they dropped Madhes from the new party name but the intention may be that this will help them be seen as a national party.
Looking back at the electoral performance of 2013, these six parties won just six of the 240 direct election seats, with under half a million votes cast for them, which is just 10 percent of total Madhesi votes. These numbers do not suggest that coming together of these six parties will unite Madhesi voters or attract a large number of followers and make it a national party.
The other point is that two of the largest vote-getting Madhesi parties—those represented by Bijay Gachhedar and Upendra Yadav—have stayed out of the unity drive and one further point of weakness is that no effort has been made to connect with CK Raut group that would have given much strength to the unity drive. It is not written in stone that Raut will not enter mainstream politics if there is a reasonable expectation that a united Madhesi party would fight for Madhesi rights.
Looking outside the realm of Madhesi parties, a large chunk of Madhesi voters—at least half—had voted for the national parties, largely non-Madhesi ones that are ambivalent— even hostile—to Madhesi interests. Madhesi people’s pick of national party candidates nonetheless tells much about the perception of Madhesi parties and their leaders. Day-to-day contacts with Pahade leaders and cadres make Madhesi public trust them more than Madhesi leaders they encounter. Also, official channels are almost entirely controlled by Pahade personnel.
The other point to consider about the viability and vitality of the new Madhesi group is their half-hearted attempt at unity. They have agreed to create a new party—Rastriya Janata Party Nepal—that noticeably leaves out ‘Madhes’ from the new party’s name. By doing so, they may get some mileage as a national rather than a regional group but they shouldn’t expect non-Madhesi public to vote for them. The logic is simple: if all of these six parties together attracted no more than 10 percent of Madhesi votes, why would any Pahade voters trust them? The other point is that as until now there has been no case of a Madhesi candidate winning election from Pahade region, whereas Pahade candidates secure a great number of seats in the Madhesi region.
Finally, the fickleness of unity drive is evident from the reluctance of respective party leaders to give-up their own leadership in favor of just one leader, preferably one chosen from outside the group. The truth is that these leaders are prepared to give up little or nothing—they will take turns heading the new party every six month—which is a ridiculous, even deceptive, way of claiming unity.
If there is a real drive for unity and making it work, they must choose an outsider to head the united party and the current leaders need to opt out. Nothing of this sort is likely to happen and, on the inside, each party will likely pursue its own separate agenda and keep control of its cadres so as to assert its independent existence. Unity then remains fickle and fragile and could fall apart at the slightest hurdle.
The unity attempt of the six Madhesi parties is commendable. But a lot more is needed than just agreeing to a rotating leadership. The missing point is the declaration of a common purpose for Madhesi people in order to help them enter the national mainstream, lifting them from their current state of marginalization and exclusion.
In large part, these Unitarian leaders need to recognize that Madhesis have been deprived of their citizenship rights; for all intent and purpose, they exist as sub-citizens or non-citizens of the country. Any political group claiming to represent Madhesi people needs to focus on securing equal rights for Madhesis and little of anything else. No other political commitment by Madhesi leaders would make them more legitimate in the eyes of the Madhesi people.
Unfortunately, the Madhesi parties have not been serious about Madhesi rights. Instead, they are stuck with esoteric visions of federalism, autonomy, separation, independence and other high-sounding labels. However, in the context of the geopolitical constraints of Madhes, none of these grand visions seems relevant, much less beneficial to the Madhesi people. In most parts, if any of these objectives is realized, its major beneficiary will likely be a narrow group of people who are close to the leadership. The moral failings of Madhes movement has been that while the public has taken risks and faced bullets, benefits have accrued mostly or entirely to leaders.
If, instead, the rights issue is brought upfront and adopted as the main objective of battle for Madhesi rights, Madhesi public will understand why they need to side with Madhesi leaders and Madhesi parties. No other message will be necessary to mobilize Madhesi masses.
The author teaches economics at Northern Virginia Community College in the US