As the Nepal’s election result unfolds, the sudden setback to ‘progressive forces for Change’ is surprising. The Madhes movement of 2007, which invoked federalism, gave rise to political parties from Madhes, drew into the national discourse and garnered support to institutionalise the nation as the ‘Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal’. While Madhesi parties (region-based) performed well in the Constituent Assembly (CA) I election, they have not been able to make the same impact in the CA II election, especially since in CA I, they were perceived as ‘king-makers’ in national government formation or alliances. What has changed in Madhesi politics? What will be the direction of Madhesi politics in the future of Nepal?
Burden of Proof vs. Benefit of Doubt
Since 2008, Madhesi parties have been in the national government with key cabinet positions. However, they have not able to perform as per the expectation of the Madhes people. The political parties were unable to deliver their agenda, and the failure of CA I is considered a major setback for Madhesi parties, leading to overall disenchantment.
Moreover, while contesting for the CA II election, Madhesi parties have divided into many groups to represents the Madhesis. This also contributed to their unpopularity. Interestingly, after 2008, Madhesi parties’ splits were expedited to join successive formations of the national government.
In such a scenario, the election campaign for CA II raised serious concerns about the ability of Madhesi parties to represent the Madhesis. In addition, the national parties have put forward Madhesi candidates in the heartland to appeal to the Madhesi electorate by reaffirming that federalism is now their agenda too.
National parties have therefore placed the burden of Proof on Madhesi parties, that is, since they failed to deliver the agenda of the Madhesis the first time around, what is the likelihood that they will succeed the second time? This gives national parties the opportunity to ask the Madhesis to allow them to represent their concerns if they are voted in.
Election of ‘Constituent Assembly’ vs. ‘Parliament’
There was widespread understanding among the people that apart from ‘federalism’ and ‘forms of Government’, CA I resolved issues of constitution-making. Technicalities of federalism are no more an issue as identity is ensured along with economic capability as understood across political parties. The CA II election has more to do with development politics, and hence, CA II is also seen as a normal parliamentary election in which basic amenities of the people matter. In this context, CA I could not deliver and therefore the overall uneasiness with Madhesi parties was strong as they were a part of national government holding key cabinet positions.
Divided Madhesi Parties vs. Division of Votes
The division of Madhesi parties from four parties during the CA I election to nearly thrity (including old and newly registered parties) has severely damaged the credibility of Madhesi politics. This led to a division of votes among the Madhesis. National parties too fielded Madhesi candidates to galvanise Madhesi votes so as to make use of the way Madhesis vote, which is on the basis of their identity/region/caste or language.
Direction of Madhesi Politics
Although Madhesi parties have suffered a serious setback, the emergence of Madhesi politics has raised some major political concerns that have already introduced them into the national discourse. There is a fair chance that they will be able to pull in Madhesi sentiments towards inclusive/representative democracy, distribution of resources, doing away with a monolithic hill-centric nationalism to inclusive citizenship, devolution of power from caste of high hills elites (CHHE) under a centralised system to a decentralised form of governance under identity-based federalism, rights of self-determination etc. Hence, even if Madhesi parties do not make it to the formation of government/ cabinet bargaining, Madhesi politics would find a way ahead until the CA II does not address the demands of Madhesis, who feel they have suffered emotional discrimination in Nepal.
Challenges for the Constitution-Making Process
At this point, it is extremely difficult to analyse the people’s verdict of the CA II election. Madhesi parties are alleging that the overall process of the CA II election was rigged and are demanding proper investigation to establish the truth. However, this could also be a tactic to buy some time to decide their future course of action. Nonetheless, the political presence of Madhesi parties is inevitable, as is their alliance with progressive federal forces like Janjati’s group and UCPN-Maoist. At the same time, it is the responsibility of the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML to reconcile with other political players.
Historically, Nepal has made numerous mistakes in framing the idea of a nation. At this critical juncture, Nepal cannot afford any failure in making an acceptable constitution. The nation as a whole should also learn from past experience that the culture of winners imposing on losers in the name of ‘people’s mandate’ has detrimental effects on achieving national consensus. This is even more so if the constitution-making process is at stake.