|LOUDER THAN WORDS: NC member Irshad Ansari gets ready to burn an effigy of Puspa Kamal Dahal at a madhesi rights rally in Rajbiraj on Sunday|
The seven-party alliance and the Maoists had a good chance this week to address the madhesi grievances fuelling the tarai unrest. And they blew it.
On Wednesday, instead of acknowledging genuine grievances and saying sorry to the families of those killed, and despite emotional references to his own mortality, Prime Minister Koirala delivered a lecture: your protests are delaying the constituent assembly election. Let's talk, but stop the violence.
Madhesis compared it to the 'concession' speech given by Gyanendra last April when he went only half-way in meeting the demands of pro-democracy forces. The parties kept up the pressure until the king capitulated. Something similar could happen now, and the tarai violence could intensify.
The Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF), a hitherto moderate pan-madhesi group, has become increasingly radical during the course of the protests. It not only kept shifting the goalposts, making it impossible for the government to meet its demands, but also attacked police posts and media organisations. Hours after Koirala's speech, MJF activists kidnapped policemen in Biratnagar and killed one officer.
The NSP-A may pull out of the government just to maintain legitimacy in madhesi eyes. One of its ministers resigned this week, others could follow.
The Maoists' own Madhesi Rastriya Mukti Morcha has warned the government of nasty consequences if madhesi demands are not met. Its leader Matrika Yadav is clearly under pressure from constituents to go against the Maoist high command.
The two ex-Maoist factions of the JTMM were the original radicals, but find themselves competing with the MJF, Matrika's group, and even the NSP-A. The seven parties and the Maoists had a chance to check this radicalism before it was too late. But except for the NSP-A, they failed to grasp the gravity of the situation. No one understood that the tarai clamour is as much about identity as fair representation and justice.
Out of this muddle emerged Koirala's lame-duck speech. He announced the government was committed to federal rule based on population and geography through the constituent assembly. Electoral constituencies would be redrawn without a reduction in the number of constituencies in each district. This will presumably give the tarai a few more constituencies, but not reduce the number in the hills, taking the total number of CA members to more than 425.
Moderate madhesis may still accept Koirala's concessions, seeing it as an incremental step in the right direction. But they will likely be drowned out or cowed down by radicals. Not one madhesi group or individual has welcomed the prime minister's speech.
Tarai pahadis are now feeling threatened by the gathering storm. People want to get out but the roads are blocked.