At the BBC interaction program in Biratnagar three weeks ago, the Prime Minister showed a side of himself that tells us a lot about why Nepal's problems continue to increase. A man complains about the plight of the landless and Girijababu launches into an elaborate speech about how like 9/11 in US, Nepal also has problems and this is only natural.
A woman complains about frequent rapes in her village and the prime minister, in a sentence assures her law and order will be improved before elections. Girija Prasad Koirala's responses revealed his utter lack of empathy and sensitivity to people's concerns.
But it was his comments on the tarai which were most striking. Close to a year after a powerful assertion of madhesi identity, the PM simply refused to recognise or accept that the madhes exists. It is true that there is heterogeneity within Tarai and groups which reside there claim a distinct identity for themselves. And 'madhes' is now a distinctly political term preferred by madhesi activists for mobilization. Yet, it is an insult to the movement and a politically unwise move for the PM to say in an accusatory tone: "I am a resident of the tarai, too, although you have separated us by calling yourself madhesis."
This attitude not only refuses to recognize that 33 percent of the country's population constitutes a separate group but also the fact that they have genuine grievances related to identity and representation.
Couple this with the PM's other statement that the problem can be solved in one minute if India and Nepal cooperate, and is it any wonder that the madhes is still burning?
Despite seeing the writing on the wall, Kathmandu hasn't changed one bit. Yes, there are major distortions in the movement, there is no leadership, and the issue is used as a neat political cover to settle personal scores or engage in crime. Yet, at its core, the anger in madhes still runs deep because people who run this country, like Koirala, retain the same old pahadi chauvinism. No promises implemented, no increase in madhesi representation, no symbolic concessions, no effort to reach out to an alienated population, no provision of security to a disturbed area, and now, the outright refusal to admit that there is anything that can be legitimately called madhes and madhesis.
The Kathmandu establishment is complacent about the tarai because Koirala's recipe is buying off and splitting an already divided madhesi leadership, and blaming the border for all the crime. By passing the buck to India, he was obviously trying to escape his own responsibility. The solution lies in addressing systemic issues at home, and being sensitive to the angst of madhesis.
But it is also true that India needs to come clean. South Block and Lainchaur are losing the plot nationally with the peace process in crisis, though not necessarily because of their actions. And they neither appear to have done enough homework on the tarai nor realised that the conflict is becoming intractable.
The resentment against India is building up across the madhesi political spectrum, with leaders claiming that New Delhi has not done enough to exert pressure on the government to give concessions. At the other end, the fact that militant leaders live in Bihar has prompted suspicions in Kathmandu about whether New Delhi is playing a double game. India is definitely not happy with the unrest in the madhes. But it would do well to publicly tell us what it thinks about the situation in the tarai, and privately try to engineer a just compromise, given that it has enormous leverage with all actors.
Meanwhile, on the ground, things are churning. Rajendra Mahato's announcement of a semi-militant force and public admission of engagement with armed groups is significant. Everyone is talking to each other.
Mahato with Goit and Jwala, Biswas with Maoists, Mahato and Biswas, Jwala with Upendra, Prahlad Giri aka Pawan with Jwala. There is case-to-case collaboration between district level units. And all groups, mainstream or armed, are in an agitation mood. Popular frustration is easily channelised into street action. The demands range from immediate inclusion of madhesis in proportionate numbers in government services, a full PR electoral system, and a commitment to declaring madhes as a single separate federal unit. Combine the insensitivity at the top and anger at the bottom and all it requires is a spark for the situation in the tarai to spiral out of control.
"Wasn't the war supposed to be over?"