A bullet fired by a security guard of a senior Maoist leader on a mob of Madhesis and the death of Ramesh Mahat (16) thereafter, in Siraha district, early 2007, triggered a powerful Madhes movement that is now facing difficult times. As protests continued and attracted public participation, blocking supply lines to Kathmandu and beyond, then Prime Minister G P Koirala signed a deal with two senior leaders of the Madhes region–Mahanth Thakur and Upendra Mahato — promising that Nepal would henceforth be a federal country. However, this deal was struck without consulting other political parties or the public and with little clarity on the model of federalism.
In the years that followed, Madhes leaders and parties raised slogans on the right to self determination. But such demands were pushed to the fringes as confusion reigned, with leaders divided on whether to be part of the Constitution they had rejected or to be a part of it at the cost of being ridiculed.
The movement, gradually lost its momentum and spirit when three prominent groups–Tarai Madhes Loktantrik Party, Forum Madhesi and the Forum Loktantrik – joined the government, after the first Constituent assembly elections held in April 2008.
Each of the suffered multiple splits with a visible erosion of support and clout among the Madhesi people, manifest during the elections to the second Constituent Assembly: these parties retained only around 40 per cent of the seats they had held earlier in November 2014 after the first one failed to write the Constitution.
Various groups and senior leaders came together in 2015 to form the United Democratic Madhes Front (UDMF) under the leadership of Mahanth Thakur, ostensibly to press for the broader rights of Madhes, including representation in three-tier representative bodies in proportion to their population and a liberal citizenship policy for those married to Nepalis and their offspring. The Front not only boycotted the Constitution promulgated in September 2015 but also succeeded in getting India to declare an unofficial blockade along the border, mainly the Raxaul-Bihar point in Bihar that saw the supply of more than 70 per cent of essential goods to Nepal.
After five months, the blockade was lifted but the anti-India sentiment continued to influence political parties; meanwhile, India has begun to treat Madhesi leaders, especially the group boycotting the Constitution, as liability for smooth Indo-Nepalese relations.
Is India trying to send out a message in favour of Nepal’s political stability at this point? The UDMF that has now been converted into a political party called the Rastrya Janata Party has been advised by Indian Ambassador Manjeev Puri to participate in the third phase of local bodies polls in the province due on September 18 after they boycotted six others. The six member presidium of the party is reluctant to follow the advice even as its central committee has suffered a three way split — the majority favour a boycott of the polls, some want to participate in the poll unconditionally while others want a Constitution amendment bill to address their demands moved in the House. The coalition government comprising the Nepali Congress and the Maoists do not have enough members to push through the bill.
That only enhances the chances of a split in the newly constituted RJP, with a loss of face and poorer chances of victory in over 120 local bodies where polls are held.
However, this may offer an appropriate occasion for major political parties to initiate a larger debate on federalism and regional and ethnic identities in politics, something they have avoided in the past, and to widen the ownership of the Constitution. For now, Madhesi leaders stand discredited for their radical postures without matching public support.