The prime minister and his NC colleagues are primarily responsible for the present mess the country is in. And it's not just the shortages, Baluwatar never saw the writing on the wall in the Tarai.
It ignored the resentment that was building up and under-estimated the Madhesi groups. Instead of reaching out, national leaders made provocative statements. A relatively manageable issue was allowed to escalate into a seemingly intractable problem.
This week has been a roller-coaster with attitudes towards talks changing every few hours. There were informal negotiations one day, then Koirala made his unnecessarily intransigent statement in Biratnagar and that hardened attitudes. A day after Monday's belligerent press conference where Madhesi groups put up additional preconditions, there were preliminary talks. Radical public rhetoric and hectic back-channel communication co-exist, but uneasily, because of the escalation of protests on the ground and the fierce state response in places.
The deadlock stems from a complete trust deficit. Madhesi groups see any overture by the state as a trap. Government negotiators think that demands of protesting groups are excessive, and engineered from elsewhere.
The government is also incapable of grasping the angst of Madhesis. The people on the streets are angry because of real and perceived discrimination. This requires apologies for past actions and respectful gestures. Instead, the state response includes killings and even attacks on protestors inside hospitals. Politicians are also unwilling to go the extra mile to accommodate moderate Madhesi groups, give them a face-saver, and allow them to look like winners.
In a Kantipur article this week, researcher Tula Narayan Sah showed how the demands of Madhesi groups can be flexibly interpreted. Kathmandu understands self-determination as the right of Madhes to secede, but Madhesi groups claim it is the right of people to determine their own cultural, economic and political affairs and is a part of UN treaties which Nepal has signed. There are ways to bridge this divide: setting up a state restructuring commission, guarantees on autonomy, slight changes in the electoral system, some concrete steps regarding inclusion, and behind the scenes electoral assurances.
To be sure, Madhesi groups also have their multiple insecurities. They are privately quite happy with state brutality, which gives their movement more momentum. But it also complicates things by enhancing expectations on the ground.
Madhesi groups are terrified of striking a deal in Kathmandu perceived as dishonorable in the Tarai. This is possible, given the radical sentiment on the ground and the fact that demands hover around intangible and abstract notions of justice and dignity. People of different political hues, including anti-democratic elements, are on the streets. The Madhesi groups do not have the mechanism to pull things back the day they want, and the presence of armed groups complicates things further.
Their other fear is that of facing elections. None of these groups have a strong organisation. Their nascent alliance has weak coordination. They also fear a split. Upendra Yadav is more resistant to the idea of negotiations than the other two Madhesi leaders. At best, this may stem from his bitter experience of striking a deal in the past. But insiders say the resistance is as much to do with the influence of royalists and the Hindu right on the MJF.
Madhesi groups need to be careful not to overplay their card. Their tactics have generated a lot of resentment in Kathmandu, and could fuel further anti-Madhesi sentiment. They have a strong bargaining position with Koirala on the back-foot, and should use it to win concessions. As long as they remain united and select candidates smartly, they can hope to capitalise on a pro-Madhesi wave in polls. The government is responsible for the current situation, but moderate Madhesi groups must not allow radicals within to derail the national process.
There is Indian pressure on all sides. At press time, talks were going on in Lainchaur to work out the contours of both a public agreement and a behind-the-scenes electoral deal. But whether an agreement happens or not in the next few days will depend on several variables: the nature of Indian manipulation, concessions by the government, and confidence level of Madhesi groups.