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Second Phase of Local Elections Finds Nepal Severely Divided

Some Madhesis continue to demand a constitutional amendment before participating in the polls, but in much of the rest of the country, there appears to be little solidarity with their cause.

A CPN-UML protest in Nepal. Credit: Puja Sen

Kathmandu: Once again, Nepal’s Terai region is simmering with protests. The recently formed Rastriya Janata Party Nepal (RJPN), a coalition of six Madhesi parties, has been leading protests in the southern plains of the country since the national government announced that the second phase of local elections will be conducted on June 28.

The first phase of elections took place successfully in three of the newly delineated provinces on May 14 – marking the first time in 20 years that the country has held local elections. The decision to split the elections into two phases was significant. It was based on the understanding that before the later phase, the current coalition government would honour the constitutional amendments that the Madhesis have been demanding. Now the government has announced a third phase in which elections will be held for the plains-only Province 2, seemingly as a concession to RJPN.

The constitution itself has been deeply contested. Promulgated shortly after an earthquake devastated Nepal in 2015, the constitution was met with immediate protests in Terai. About 60 people, most of them civilians, lost their lives in the police crackdown that followed. The Kathmandu media at the time did little to accurately reflect the situation in the plains, choosing instead to put greater focus on the India-assisted economic blockade and its effects in the capital. This cavalier attitude was noted in the Human Rights Watch report titled ‘Like We Are Not Nepali‘, which documented the months of agitation that took place in the plains, noting that these events received scant coverage in the rest of the country.

Key to understanding the Kathmandu-Terai conflict is the question of federalism. How should a new democratic republic devolve power? How should it carve new states? Madhesi and other indigenous actors feel that the 2015 constitution reneged on promises made before, that is after the Comprehensive Peace Accord and a Madhes andolan fought to include the word ‘federal’ in the interim constitution. These were promises of federalism based on ethnicity, proportional representation and more egalitarian citizenship laws. To hold local elections without fulfilling these promises is now being seen as a move to entrench a constitution that is not acceptable to many.

Indeed, people in the Terai speak of the 2015 agitation with a mix of pride and bitterness. Pride for forging a civil rights movement, and bitterness because all of it – the lives lost, the hardships suffered ­– might have been for nothing. And yet these questions of nationality and belonging that evoke such heightened feelings in the Terai are being received very differently in other parts of the country. Some of this difference is a reflection of Nepal’s great diversity – of geographic terrain, unequal access to resources and the graded quality of citizenship across the country. What kind of democratic aspirations do the people of Nepal have? Why are they at loggerheads? And what is at stake here?

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In the first weeks of April, the town of Musikot Khalanga in the mountainous Rukum district of mid-western Nepal was buzzing with a different kind of energy. Preparations for the local elections were on in full swing. Nearly 800 young men and women from neighbouring villages were being trained by the local police in the empty open-air courtyards of village schools. These trainees were to assist in the upcoming electoral activities. The excitement in the streets and homes was palpable.

The energy in Rukum is a testament to how well this region is integrated within the electoral system. This notwithstanding its geographical distance from the capital – 280 kilometers that take at least two days to cover. It may not be obvious today, but it was in the remote regions of Rukum that the Maoist insurgency began. The insurgency spurred a ten-year war that eventually overthrew the monarchy. Even as scars of the war are fresh in living memory, most people in Rukum feel its promises will be realised with the local elections.

Local police conducting training in Rukum district. Credit: Puja Sen

When I met Bimal Kumar Jha, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) (CPN-UML) president of the district committee of Rukum, at the Asian hotel in Musikot, he discussed the challenges facing parties such as his own and Nepali Congress. He argued that the crucial difficulty in this region was “how to create a reasonable opposition to the Maoists,” which is seen as their natural constituency.

When asked about the constitutional crises in the southern region of the country, he seemed sure the juggernaut of local elections would make Madhesi leaders fall in line: “This constitution is not for particular parties or for particular people but for everyone. And if they refuse to join the process, somebody else will fill the vacuum.” Evidently in Rukum, the anxieties of the Madhesi people seem even more remote than in Kathmandu. There appears to be no ambivalence regarding the constitution, and thus perhaps for that reason, little solidarity with the south.

A further six hours from Musikot, at the Jhumlawang village headquarters, the terrain gets rougher and harder to negotiate. The villages of this area have only one health post and a couple of schools. But although development is slow paced and requires painstaking coordination from Kathmandu, the people do not experience any pressure to prove they are really Nepali. They are focused on and energised by the prospect of seizing administrative control of local affairs. One hour away at Sima village, the story is much the same.

On April 15, the Maoist Centre party members gathered at 11 am to discuss campaign strategies and to file their nominations. But the meeting didn’t start until 3 pm as one of the candidates they wished to nominate, Dilman Roka from Kyangsi village, was running three hours late. This is not unusual given the distance people have to travel by foot and the volume of daily responsibilities in these mountains. As the party members waited, there was a vigorous discussion about campaigning efforts, punctuated by anxious remarks about how time was running out. This was in mid-April, at a time when the government was yet to split the elections in two phases. As of today, Province 5 is yet to go to vote.

Even as the questions that define politics in Rukum appear removed from those in Terai, there are noteworthy connections. On November 30, the recently installed Nepali Congress-Maoist Centre cabinet had proposed an amendment that, had it gone through, would have seen the hilly regions of Province 5 be parceled out and amassed to the adjacent Province 4, thus creating another purely plains state out of Province 5.

Both the opposition CPN-UML and various Madhesi groups rejected this outright. The CPN-UML, in particular, led agitated protests in Kathmandu all through December, making it a plank to push their brand of hyper nationalism. During these protests, the CPN-UML aggressively upheld the ‘sanctity’ of the 2015 constitution, attempting to naturalise the document and accord it a consensus it had not – and has not – yet achieved. At one point, agitators prostrated themselves before the current map of Nepal with its seven provinces intact. At a protest in the heart of Kathmandu, I met Vijay Paudel, polit bureau member of the CPN-UML. Paudel told me, “We want himal, pahad and terai to be present in every state. Our bottom line is that they should not be separated. This is being suggested by New Delhi to keep us divided.” The CPN-UML won an overwhelming number of seats in the recent local elections in Kathmandu, including the mayorship, indicating perhaps that this populist brand of nationalism has found success.

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Meanwhile, in the Terai towns of Birgunj, Rajbiraj and Janakpur, tire burning, lathi marches and sporadic violence began to escalate once it became clear that the Centre was not likely to amend the constitution before the second phase. In order to prevent obstruction, many RJPN leaders have now been arrested.

When I was in Birgunj earlier this month, people told me they had no objection to local elections per se. They were eager to participate, but the issue of the constitutional amendment remained paramount. Brijeswor Prasad Choudhury, a social worker and retail shop owner, said, “Sometimes we don’t feel like we are Nepali. Is there something wrong in being Madhesi?”

Parties across the board in Madhesh find themselves in a peculiar position where they have to simultaneously jockey for political power, while continuing to dissent parts of the present constitution. The latest face of this contradiction appears to be Upendra Yadav, president of the Federal Socialist Forum Nepal (FSFN). In a surprising volte-face, Yadav, considered to be the architect of the 2007 Madhesh movement, decided to both contest polls in the first phase and affirm his party’s participation in the second. This move broke FSFN’s alliance with other protesting Madhesi parties. It also broke another Madhesi coalition – Sanghiya Gathbandhan that was at the forefront of the 2015 agitations – leaving the RJPN coalition as the only political coalition that is demanding constitutional amendment before elections.

Surendra Kurmi, vice president of the RJPN in Parsa district, tells me why his party continues to ask for amendments first and elections later. “People remain dissatisfied with the constitution. On that front, nothing has changed since 2015 when the young and old, Muslims and Tharus, all came out in lakhs to protest. Now the only difference is Madhesh people are fatigued”. Omprakash Sarraf, also a member of the RJPN, concurs with Kurmi. Even on a pragmatic level, he says, it makes little sense to go into local elections when it appears that the game is rigged: “With our participation at this stage, not only will the issue be considered over, but we would not even get votes.”

Nepalese Madhesi protestors in Birgunj. Credit: Puja Sen

With the acquiescence of leaders such as Yadav, those who continue to resist local elections without the amendments have been accused of holding the democratic process hostage. Bhagyanath Gupta, a firebrand Madhesi activist, has little patience for this argument: “And what kind of democracy is this right now? What kind of constitution is there in the world where the central government decides the date of the election, and not the election commission? That two men decide to make themselves prime minister for nine months each? This is upside down logic. If there is a danger to democracy, it is not coming from people who are asking for greater inclusion.”

Indeed, the high politics of Kathmandu’s Singha Durbar is the force field against which the Madhesi demands are straining. In July 2016, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ of the Maoist party (CPN- Maoist Centre) and Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress struck an agreement that ousted CPN-UML’s K.P. Oli from the premiership. In this ‘gentleman’s agreement’, Prachanda became prime minister for nine months with the support of the Nepali Congress. Honouring his end of the bargain, Prachanda relinquished control of the office to Deuba on June 7 after overseeing the first phase of the elections. Deuba is now the presiding prime minister, the third time in his political career, responsible for overseeing the next phase of election.

A section of the local leadership in Terai that wants to be part of national and local political processes finds itself dealing with an existential crisis. The Madhesi cause is certainly facing fragmentation as national pressure mounts on the RJPN to facilitate, and not obstruct, the elections. Monica Singh, a prominent member of the Baburam Bhattarai-led Naya Shakti Party, will not boycott the elections but does say, “Even if you cant see it on the street these days in the form of protests, every person is in agitation. If we go into elections without constitution amendment, we will certainly be deprived of development. How can we answer the families of martyrs who died in 2015. Our participation will be a compulsion, and will be done without excitement, as if under a shadow.”

There are others still in Madhes who believe that elections, whatever their circumstances, is the way for marginalised groups in Madhes to realise their powers. Karima Begum of the Sanghiya Samajwadi Forum is a former state minister for agriculture. She says: “No one works for the poor. We have had to fight very hard to be taken seriously. We have so far had to fight empty handed. We do not have power in the form of governance and administration. We need power in whatever form.”

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Nowhere in the world would a process as formative and foundational in the life of a nation-state as the adoption of a constitution be easy. However, Nepal, with its diverse polity, deep inequalities and successive political configurations – from a partyless panchayat system to a constitutional monarchy to the republic that it is now – is a particularly tough setting for consensus building. And yet, progressive and transformative social and political change has for decades been brought forth by strong people’s movements here.

Nepal has to decide what its hard won democracy will mean for its citizens. Will its democratic experience be enacted simply as a set of formal rules, driven by dry proceduralism? Or will it continue to evolve a dynamic and inclusive system, allowing the constitution to become a living document whose guiding spirit is social justice? How this is answered may determine what kind of social fabric the country will be able to foster for its people, from Himal to Terai.

Puja Sen is a Kathmandu-based journalist.