Madhes love in the time of election

Eight weeks have passed since an interim election council headed by the country’s chief justice took reins of government in Nepal. But there’s no announcement of dates of that election which would give the country another shot at framing a new constitution.

That hasn’t stopped political players from oiling their poll machineries to make fresh promises of a New Nepal to disillusioned voters. Registering of parties began last week and if all goes well the polls expected in June could be held in November.

One noticeable aspect that has emerged in this pre-poll season is the outpouring of love by some prominent leaders towards Madhes-the Terai region of the country bordering Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and its residents, called Madhesis or Madhesiyas.

Affection for this community, who have close socio-cultural ties with residents across the border due to similarities like language, customs and attire — Madhesis are also called ‘dhotis’ (a derogatory term used by the hill folk because of their dress) — has witnessed an upsurge.

The first one to publicly declare his love was Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, former prime minister and chairman of Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) — the largest party in the Constituent Assembly dissolved last May without framing the constitution.

Prachanda, who won the last polls from two seats in Kathmandu and Rolpa districts (none from Madhes), has been making statements about how he would contest election from Madhes this time around.

Not to be left behind another former prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) declared that he was a Madhesi and would contest from there. Incidentally, he had lost from two seats (Kathmandu and Rautahat) in the previous election.

Prachanda managed to woo Ram Chandra Jha, an influential Madhesi leader from CPN (UML), to his fold recently. The party is now actively working on a plan to boost its presence in the region and even considering fielding other senior leaders from there.

The sudden spurt of Madhes affection is not surprising. As per the 2011 census, this region accounts for more than 50% of the country’s total population of 26.5 million. This was an increase of 5% from the previous census conducted a decade ago.

Therefore it makes pure political sense for parties who don’t have strong bases in the region to try and win the affection of this sizeable vote bank, who feel they have been sidelined for ages by those belonging from the Himal and Pahar belts—the two mountainous regions.

However, the task of winning over Madhesi votes won’t be easy. Prachanda’s party had a coalition with United Democratic Madhesi Front, an umbrella group of five Madhes-based parties, in the last government. He wants this partnership to transform into electoral alliance.

But Madhesi parties, which formed the fourth biggest block in the dissolved CA after UCPN (M), Nepali Congress and CPN (UML), have other plans. They say there is no chance of an alliance with Maoists.

Rajendra Mahato, president of Sadbhawana Party, a Madhesi party which was part of the Maoist-led coalition government headed by Baburam Bhattarai, said recently that Prachanda’s Madhes love was one-sided and voters from the region won’t fall for such utterances.

Instead Madhesi parties are busy planning a merger or alliance among themselves to retain their stronghold in the region and keep bigger parties at bay. Chairman of Terai Madhes Democratic Party Mahanta Thakur says such a move is needed to prevent division of Madhesi votes.

Though they made a big impact during the 2008 election mainly as a result of an agitation against being treated as second-class citizens, Madhesi parties broke up into several factions after the polls largely due to personal ambitions taking precedence over the Madhes cause.

Now with elections round the corner, these parties are trying to cobble up some sort of unity. “Preliminary talks are underway at various levels among Madhesi parties. We are hopeful of an alliance before the election as our agenda is common,” said Thakur.

If that happens, Madhesi parties could again emerge as a significant block and play an important role in formation of the next government in case none of the three major parties manage to secure absolute majority on their own.

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