Going into the second round of local election, the protesting Rastriya Janata Party Nepal has been trying to portray CPN-UML as an ‘anti-Madhesi’ party, and the main barrier to constitution amendment. But is the party really anti-Madhesi? What has contributed to this image of UML in Tarai-Madhes? And what is UML’s electoral strategy for the second and third rounds of local election? UML General Secretary Ishwar Pokhrel shared his views with Mahabir Paudyal.
The second phase election is only a week away. How is UML preparing for it?
We have a central monitoring and coordination committee to oversee election related affairs of which I am the coordinator. In case of metropolitan and sub-metropolitan cities, we decided candidates on the recommendation of provincial committees. For the rest, the provincial committees were given full autonomy to finalize candidates.
We did not impose our decisions because unless local needs and aspirations of local people were considered, we would not be able to choose the right local representatives. If we decided candidates based on interests of leaders at the center, we would be choosing the ones who not work according to the needs and expectations of local people.
The government deferred local election in Province 2 to September 18. How do you see the move?
First of all, the election should not have been held in multiple phases. We were steadfast in favor of local election since constitution promulgation because local election is a step to constitution implementation. We have to decentralize powers from the center to the grassroots, as envisioned in the constitution. In fact, local governance envisioned by this constitution will be decentralization of powers in true sense. This can be done only when we have functional local government bodies.
So the government of KP Oli brought a timeline for local election. His successor simply ignored it. Pushpa Kamal Dahal as prime minister declared election on May 14 only after immense public and media pressure. Elections could have been conducted across the country on May 14, in a single phase. But the government farcically put off election for Province 1, 2, 5 and 7, this time scheduling the second phase for June 14, which was again deferred to June 23, and then to June 28. Now it has deferred election in Province 2 to September 18. All this despite the fact that Election Commission had been saying all along it was fully prepared to hold election in one go.
This suggests both Dahal and Sher Bahadur Deuba were looking to avoid elections, as far as possible. But this irresponsible move has not worked. We are happy that elections are happening in Province, 1, 5 and 7 next week. But deferring election in Province 2 was a blunder. All stakeholders—from Upendra Yadav’s Federal Socialist Forum Nepal to Bijay Gachhadar’s party to Congress, RPP, UML and Maoist, as well as the Election Commission—were prepared for election next week. Even RJPN leaders have filed nominations in several places. So election could have been easily held in remaining places on June 28. Poll deferral in Province 2 has far-reaching consequences and a negative impact in collective psyche of people of Province 2. The government has given a message to the people of Province 2 that they are somehow unequal to people of other provinces.
Not only this, the government itself is acting like a criminal and is trying to corner us. It is openly violating election code of conduct. One of our cadres was killed in Bajura. The perpetrators have not been brought to book yet. Home Minister, Janardan Sharna, has been campaigning for election using government vehicles and resources in Banke, Bardiya and Kailali. During our Kanchanpur rally on Monday, the home minister reached there in a helicopter to intervene and disrupt our meeting.
Congress and Maoist Center have forged an alliance in a number of local units. Is UML mulling similar alliances?
The ruling coalition is making every attempt to corner one single party [UML] by forging alliances with every other party. This is the first practice of its kind in Nepal. They had also done so during the first phase. But the anti-UML electoral alliance fared terribly in first phase. It will fail in second phase as well. Even though it is alone, UML will fare better in the second phase than it did in the first phase. The anti-UML alliance will suffer humiliating defeats in many places.
On our part, we have also tried to forge understanding with certain parties. But this is completely different from anti-UML alliance, which the government itself is promoting. We have tried alliance with parties which are in favor of constitution implementation, national unity and national interest. Our alliance is based on issues and guided by the local needs. But the objective of Congress-Maoist alliance is to prevent UML from winning. There is no comparison between our and their alliances.
There is a perception in Madhes that UML is anti-Madhesi. What are you doing to take Madhesi people into confidence?
First, that’s a misperception. Whether we are anti-Madhesi or pro-Madhesi will be clear when the results of second phase come out. Let the results speak for themselves. As for anti-Madhes projection of UML, let me remind you that UML is a party with its origin and base in Tarai-Madhes. It was born, and evolved and expanded from Madhes. Those who claim to be messiahs of Madhes have become ministers multiple times. I ask them through your newspaper: What have they done to address the issues of Madhesis?
It was Manmohan Adhikari’s government that formed a high-level committee to resolve citizenship problems in Madhes. When Bamdev Gautam was home minister, he constituted a task force to distribute citizenships to those who had been deprived of it.
Construction of Postal Highway, the lifeline of Madhesi people, was in limbo for the past 20 years. In this period, Madhesi leaders became ministers for local development, transportation and infrastructure. But what did they do for Madhes? It was our government which allocated more than 4.5 billion for Postal Highway. It was our government which decided to create separate battalion in Nepal Army for Madhesi youth. It was UML government that allocated budget of Rs 500 million for the development of each district headquarters of 20 districts in Madhes. We allocated around six billion for irrigation projects in Tarai-Madhes. We started People’s Home (Janata Abas) program for the landless in Madhes. Those who claim to be messiahs of Madhes have not built a single public school or public hospital there. What did leaders like Mahantha Thakur, Rajendra Mahato and Hridayesh Tripathi do for Madhes?
In that case, why do you think many Madhesis see UML in negative light?
This anti-Madhes tag we have been labeled with is crude joke on our efforts for overall development of Madhes. This is a sponsored propaganda. And this has been made a dominant narrative because we also failed to properly communicate to people what we have done and are planning to do for Madhes. I admit to this shortcoming. But when we go to Madhes and inform people there about what we have done for Madhes, they are surprised.
Wouldn’t it though be right to say that a broad section of Madhesis reject the brand of anti-India nationalism that UML is promoting?
We are clear about one thing: the people of Madhes are nationalists and are actively involved in protection of our frontiers. They are the custodians of our frontiers and as such have been battling with problems of encroachment, flooding and inundation. Yes, we took some steps during our stint in government to change Nepal’s status from India-locked to a land-linked country. We signed trade and transport treaties with China. We sought access to Vishakhapatnam port. We sought access to the seaports through China too. India and China are our neighbors. Our position is that Nepal should not be too cozy with one neighbor while completely neglecting the other.
Efforts are being made to redefine Nepal as multi-national (bahurastriya) or two-nation state. We have serious objection to this characterization. Our position is that Nepal is multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-religious nation state. Where do you see anti-Madhes, anti-India or anti-China elements in this stand? We certainly don’t advocate for one-language, one-religion and one-culture. We have rejected this characterization in this constitution. How can you then say we are promoting rigid nationalism?
Why do they call you anti-Madhesi then?
This is because our opponents found no better issue to denigrate us with. A number of Madhesi leaders, who have served in Madhesi parties for more than 20 years, have defected to UML in recent months. This is happening in Lahan, Siraha, Birgunj, Janakpur and many other places. Anita Yadav, the central treasurer of Rastriya Janata Party Nepal, joined UML only three days ago. They have come to UML of their own will. There has been no give and take. If we were anti-Madhesi, why would such popular leaders join our party?
Thus our projection as anti-Madhesi party has no reliable basis. We failed to communicate our position to the people properly. Or they falsified our position. This helped our opponents to portray us as anti-Madhesi. In fact, we are the most pro-Madhesi party in Nepal. We will prove it during the election in Province 2 as we emerge victorious there as well.
How will election in Province 2 be possible when you are so adamant on constitution amendment? RJPN has clearly said that it won’t agree to election unless the constitution is first amended.
The question here is whether RJPN leaders believe in democratic process. All top leaders of this party have fought elections in the past and some have won several times. You cannot put a condition to take part in this democratic process. If they believe their reservations with this constitution are genuine, why do they hesitate to garner public mandate on those issues? We have never said constitution should not be amended. We have only said that amendment should be justified. Let me tell you how their amendment demands are not justifiable.
The constitution has recognized Nepali as a national language because it is spoken and understood by vast majority of Nepali people. The constitution allows two more languages spoken in a particular province to be used as language of official business. So Province 2, for example, can use Maithili as language of official business. But this does not seem to be their priority. Their priority seems to be creating space for Hindi to be declared national language, in the future if not now. Is this our need? Regarding citizenship, you tell me where in South Asia do you have more liberal citizenship provisions than in Nepal?
A foreign woman married to a native will have to wait for 12 years and also convert to Islam to be eligible for citizenship in the Maldives. In Bhutan she gets citizenship only after her children acquire citizenship. In India, you have to live there for seven years after marriage, and for five years each in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Here in Nepal you are entitled to citizenship right after marriage. I wonder what RJPN wants. No country allows naturalized citizens to become the country’s president and prime minister.
We know province demarcation is not something etched in stone. It can be altered. But province demarcation is also within the jurisdiction of concerned provinces. The provision to alter the boundary without consent from concerned provinces is against international practice. Constitution is a dynamic and amendable document. But amendment should be justified based on need, established practices and norms, and relevance.