Madhes Issues Put on Hold as Nepal's Janakpur Prepares for Local Elections

While many voters feel that the constitution must be amended eventually, they are excited to cast their ballots for local representatives for the first time since local governments were disbanded in 2002.

A man looks at election posters in front of Dhanus Sagar in Janakpur. Credit: Peter Gill

A man looks at election posters in front of Dhanus Sagar in Janakpur. Credit: Peter Gill

Janakpur, Nepal: Campaigns for local elections, due to be held on September 18 across Nepal’s Province 2, were in full swing in Janakpur on Friday, the state’s second largest city and its likely future capital under the country’s new federal system. Tuk-tuks strapped with gramophone-shaped speakers blasted election songs and flew party flags as they drove past Janakpur’s Ram and Jaanaki temples and the urban lakes for which the city is famous. Candidates’ posters were plastered in repetition along roadsides, even though this practice is forbidden. National-level leaders of most major parties – including the Nepali Congress Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba – visited the city in recent days and local candidates roamed the city’s narrow, muddy streets in four-wheel drive vehicles flying party flags.

The excitement around the election comes despite disappointment that a recent vote to amend the country’s controversial 2015 constitution failed in parliament. While many voters here feel that the constitution must be amended eventually, they are excited to cast their ballots for local representatives for the first time since local governments were disbanded in 2002. (Local elections were cancelled during the Maoist conflict; after the conflict ended in 2006, the country was preoccupied with constitution drafting and local elections were continually postponed.)

The Madhes issue

The elections in Province 2 will be the third and final round of local elections in Nepal this year. The rest of the country already elected local representatives in the first two rounds in May and June, which were boycotted in Province 2 amid demands that parliament amend the 2015 constitution to accommodate the demands of Madhesis.

“Madhesi” is an umbrella term for Nepalis from a variety of castes who share linguistic and cultural characteristics with Indians across the border in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Madhesis are spread across the Terai, or southern plains of Nepal, but are most heavily concentrated in the east, especially in Province 2, where over three-quarters of the population are native speakers of Madhesi languages like Maithili, Bhojpuri, Bajjika and Urdu. Along with Dalits and indigenous groups, Madhesis have faced historical marginalisation in Nepal and remain underrepresented in state institutions like the civil service and the army. Madhesi protesters have been met with excessive force by the police, such as during the 2015-16 protests and simultaneous Indian blockade, when dozens were killed.

Madhesi leaders have called for the government to amend the 2015 constitution, which they see as reneging on promises made by the government after popular movements for Madhesi rights in 2007 and 2008. Among other things, the amendment would create two provinces that would cover the entire Terai, ease the process for children of Nepali mothers and foreign fathers to become citizens (current restrictions disproportionately affect Madhesis), and create parliamentary electoral constituencies based on population size rather than geography (currently, guidelines favouring “population and geography” stand to benefit the more sparsely-populated hills and mountain regions).

Also read: The Inconvenient Truth About CPN-UML’s Success in Nepal

The amendment had been supported most vociferously by the Rastriya Janata Party Nepal (RJPN), a new amalgamation of Madhesi parties, which led the boycott of the first two rounds of local elections. The amendment is also supported by two other Madhesi parties, the Federal Socialist Forum Nepal (FSFN) and Nepal Loktantrik Forum, as well as the mainstream governing parties Nepali Congress and United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), although these parties opposed the election boycott. After the second round of local elections finished, the RJPN agreed to participate in the third round if parliament put the amendment to vote, no matter the outcome. This turnaround was due in part to pressure from India, which had previously supported Madhesi activists but increasingly feared alienating mainstream parties seeking closer ties with China.

On August 21, the amendment received a majority of votes in parliament but failed to receive the required two-thirds majority due to resistance from the main opposition party, the Communist Party of Nepal – United Marxist Leninist (UML), and other smaller parties. As a result, the RJPN is participating in elections without having yet passed the amendment. The UML, which won the most seats nationwide in the first two rounds of local elections, considers the current situation a victory for its position.

The case of Janakpur

While Province 2 is not monolithic – demography and political leanings are different in Janakpur from nearby Bardibas, where the population of hill groups is higher – Janakpur is an important cultural and political hub for Province 2, and therefore an important example case.

Although reliable polling is not available, most Janakpur residents expect the mayoral race to be a close call between Nepali Congress and RJPN. Other Madhesi parties are also campaigning hard. Smaller groups of UML supporters can be seen holding public rallies, but unlike the other major parties, its national-level leadership has not made visits to the city.

RJPN leader Rajendra Mahato speaks with supporters in Janakpur on Wednesday. Credit: Peter Gill

RJPN leader Rajendra Mahato speaks with supporters in Janakpur on Wednesday. Credit: Peter Gill

In their slogans and songs, the Madhesi parties here have each sought to portray themselves as the standard bearers of the Madhes movement, even using images of the Madhes movement “martyrs” for their campaigns.

Support for the constitutional amendment is widespread. In addition to Madhesi party supporters, many supporters of mainstream parties and independent candidates who are not campaigning on an explicitly Madhesi agenda also support the amendment.

Sitting at a tea shop, Upendra Lal Karna, 64, a retired schoolteacher who says he will vote for the Congress, says that the amendment is “extremely necessary.” The Congress party has historical roots in the eastern Terai and strong support among the older generation. Karna says he has been a Congress supporter since the pre-1990 panchayat era, when all political parties were underground.

“The constitution should be written taking into account everyone’s opinion,” he says.

In the lobby of an upscale hotel near the city centre, two well-known social activists, Amar Chandra “Bhaiji” Anil and his friend Ram Asis Yadav, discuss the elections over tea. The two men helped organise a major volunteer-led clean-up campaign of one of Janakpur’s biggest lakes, Ganga Sagar, over the past few years. Both feel that the amendment is necessary, but say that the issue should be considered separately from local elections, which are about local development.

“I don’t think the amendment will have an effect on the elections, because the amendment has no role in local government,” says Yadav.

Also read: In the Heart of Nepal’s Madhes Movement

Indeed, most politicians’ campaign promises concern local issues. Mayoral candidates have discussed improving infrastructure, ensuring that Janakpur becomes the provincial capital and creating a “smart” and “green” city.

Murali Manohar Mishra, an independent candidate for ward president, says local elections are about ensuring local development. Mishra left a well-salaried position as an accountant in Qatar several years ago to fight corruption at home. The Asian Development Bank is funding a project to rebuild the city’s crumbling roads, but contractors were taking payment without completing the work. Along with other civil society leaders, Mishra spurred the courts to take action against the contractors, and he hopes to continue the fight as an elected representative.

“People have a right to develop their community,” he says.

Patronage politics

In addition to these issues, patronage networks play an important role the election. In Nepal, having a personal, caste-based or other connection to officials in government can be important in accessing government services.

Caste networks are especially important in the Terai, and parties often field candidates from the majority community for each constituency. In Janakpur, most of the major parties have fielded mayoral candidates from the Sah caste, which forms the largest group of voters here.

Political patronage becomes all the more important in times of crisis.  Although Janakpur itself was not seriously affected, floods in August killed 160 people and damaged or destroyed 2,35,000 homes across the Terai, and many villages in Province 2 were inundated. For many people in these areas, electing a candidate with whom one has a personal connection has become all the more important. The government has announced a programme to rebuild destroyed houses and a 1.25 billion Nepali rupees agricultural recovery plan; political access will be important for flood victims to benefit from these programmes.

Provincial and central elections

Following the current local elections, provincial and national-level elections are slated for November and December 2017. (According to the constitution, these elections must take place by early 2018.) The RJPN has not yet committed to participate in these elections, though having conceded to local elections, many expect that it will take part in the next round of polls.

Meanwhile, some small groups, primarily composed of youth, remain opposed to the elections, including a loose forum known as the Terai Madhes National Council. On September 19, while much of the rest of the country honours the two year-anniversary of the promulgation of the new constitution, these activists plan to mark Constitution Day with a nation-wide “blackout” protest.

Peter Gill is an American journalist based in Nepal. He tweets at @pitaarji.