RAJBIRAJ-Elections are not possible in the eastern tarai under present conditions. They all agree: from a Biratnagar confidante of the PM to local police officials, from Congress and UML politicians in Janakpur to journalists in Lahan.
The three madhesi groups (led by Upendra Yadav, Rajendra Mahato and Mahant Thakur) are preparing for agitation. Armed groups have sounded out a warning (see p 4) and all it will take is the killing of a few candidates, localised riots and blasts to derail polls. There is no administration, people are terrified, and alienation from the state is intense.
But madhesis want polls. An elderly man in Rupani near Rajbiraj put it bluntly: "Only elections can get us our rights and give us security." The problem is that people just don't trust the seven parties in Kathmandu and are sure they will put off polls again, using the madhes as an excuse.
All madhesi groups face a credibility crisis. Tarai people are sick of their infighting, inconsistency and tendency to strike deals with Kathmandu for personal benefit. The leaders are aware of this and realize their future lies in appearing distant from, and opposed to, the seven parties. They are trying to unite: the Mahato-Yadav front is talking to Mahant Thakur to set up a broader alliance.
None of the madhesi groups have a strong organisation.
This is why they have escalated the rhetoric. They hope frustration with Kathmandu can be channelised into street action, and help restore credibility. And they have begun coordinating with armed groups.
At the first mass meeting of the Yadav-Mahato front in Biratnagar, a host of speakers defined the agenda in different ways: full proportional representation, dissolution of the interim house, a caretaker government, a fresh census, implementation of promises, a commitment to autonomy. But leaders know they will need to come up with minimum reasonable demands.
Things have still not reached the tipping point. Girija Prasad Koirala and Pushpa Kamal Dahal need to decide whether they really want elections. There is reason to believe they are slightly more serious this time, but skepticism persists. The Maoists know they will lose out if there are more delays. Koirala has told aides the NC will be in real crisis if polls fail. Determination and visible commitment in Kathmandu is the first step to sending out a message of sincerity to madhesis, and putting pressure on madhesi groups.
Leaving out eastern tarai districts during elections is not an option because it will lead to even greater alienation. Instead, Kathmandu must begin back-channel communication with mainstream and armed groups, and decide on a possible deal. Madhesi groups will go in for a movement for their survival. But this can be limited, with clear goals, if they know before hand that the government will agree on certain issues.
Symbolic steps are necessary. Koirala should visit Lahan on 19 January, the first anniversay of Ramesh Mahato's death. This would be a show of respect, he should apologise for the state's response, commit himself to inclusion and appeal for talks.
Substantively, there will have to be a fourth amendement of the interim constitution with a change in the electoral system. Madhesi leaders complain that if they put up more than 20 percent candidates in the proportional system, they will need to give representation to other communities.
"If we get 100 seats, based only on madhesi votes, we can only send 33 madhesis. This should be applicable to national parties, not regional groups. We should be allowed to put up 33 percent candidates, our population ratio, while being allowed to skip the obligation to be proportional," explains Mahato.
India has a central role. It wants elections, but the madhes is the biggest obstacle. New Delhi could pressure Kathmandu and madhesi leaders to compromise. If that happens, madhesi parties and civil society can use their leverage on armed groups to either come on board, or at least, not actively obstruct polls. In the process, money will exchange hands, there will have to be promises on post election prospects, and certain number of seats will need to be assured.
Unless the government is pro-active in the next fortnight, expect an increase in violence, an agitation, and no situation for elections in the madhes.