BIRGANJ-There is a week to go before the whole spectrum of madhesi groups launch their agitations in the tarai. Both Mahanta Thakur and the Yadav-Mahato fronts have separately given the government an ultimatum of 19 January to address demands or face protests.
We don't know whether the movement will pick up intensity. The two forces have not yet forged a working unity, and instead misunderstandings seem to be increasing. They haven't been able to evolve a coherent, popular agenda and are swinging between extremes, from warning of a decisive movement to sounding accommodative.
People are disillusioned, and it is hard to gauge the general mood. Unlike last year's movement which was a spontaneous expression of historical angst, madhesis will think twice before joining in. No major protest has taken place over the past year. What madhesi activists in mainstream parties do in the next week will be important.
But there is no mistaking the anger against the state, and the people are radicalised. The government, true to form, has still not realised the gravity of the crisis. In all likelihood there will be a period of further instability and strife, especially if the armed groups decide to back the protests in full strength.
Once that happens, events can take on their own momentum. No one, not a single outfit or even a group of organisations, can claim to have control over madhesi politics anymore. And that makes the current state of play unpredictable, murky, and in the words of a senior madhesi politician, "mysterious".
Neither does any one quite know which way the madhes will vote during polls. This is a major reason for both the political uncertainty and why no force has any incentive in creating an environment conducive for elections.
Madhesi groups have taken their cue from the Maoists. If you pick up the gun, you can have 83 MPs in the house. This is one of the simplistic but powerful lessons that is repeated endlessly by madhesi militants in private conversations.
The NC is now more scared of the tarai than it has ever been. Most madhesis regard the NC as having betrayed them. Kangresi activists are demoralised and have stopped even trying to defend the government's track record. Many are merely using the party as a cover while being active in other groups, including armed ones. Ram Baran Yadav is a term of abuse.
When NC leader Smriti Narayan Chaudhary criticised Mahant Thakur's move to quit the party, party activists hooted him and asked him to leave the stage.
There haven't been elections for eight years, and traditional voting patterns have changed. The new generation doesn't care much for the Congress in what used to be its vote bank. The only thing the party had going for it was a strong organisation, and now Thakur's party has the potential to damage that.
Not that madhesi groups are any more confident. None of them have strong organisation yet. All leaders, especially Yadav, Mahato, and the coterie around Thakur, face a severe credibility problem. They have limited finances. Madhesi leaders know they will win only a few seats, and privately admit that they have no additional interest in pushing for polls.
Here is a situation where poll results will essentially boil down to caste and candidate. No organised party structure in the madhes is actively selling the idea of elections or creating a mood for it. The ground is open for agitation, and for armed groups keen on disrupting polls.
While any public agreement between the different sides will have to revolve around a principled commitment to autonomy and a change in the electoral system, the real behind-the-scenes deal will be based on securing the electoral positions of all the major sides. That is why it is difficult to foresee who will create momentum for polls in the tarai, and why.