It was a week of dangerous political brinksmanship. Deals looked tantalisingly close, but both sides took turns to push the envelope. The Nepali people were treated as cannon fodder, and more lives were lost in the Tarai towns.
A compromise was worked out last Friday when second-rung leaders carved out flexible language on an autonomous Madhes province. But then the NC developed cold feet. The left parties, suspicious of meetings between the NC and Madhesi groups at the Indian Embassy, were not too keen.
The Madhesis ratcheted up pressure, with belligerent statements from MJF leader Jay Prakash Gupta. The prime minister attended the negotiations for only ten minutes. The government talks team was not even present in full strength. And Madhab Nepal discussed everything except the formal demands with Madhesi leaders. The momentum dissipated and agitation intensified.
On Sunday night, the text of the agreement was almost finalised when Upendra Yadav demanded a firm constitutional guarantee that would ensure implementation, and said if that needed a postponement in polls, so be it. He came out looking like a spoiler because other Madhesi groups would have been satisfied with an address to the nation by the prime minister.
For once, the government could pretend to be sincere. Upendra may have wanted to act more radical and increase pressure, or he could have been driven by some other power centre. But with some Indian tail-twisting, the MJF came around.
Tuesday's failure of talks would have been farcical if it wasn't true. There was an agreement to set up a committee to monitor implementation and extend the nomination cycle by three days. The Madhesi groups wanted Koirala to sign the deal in return for having given up the demand for an amendment. But he refused, saying Krishna Sitaula or Ram Chandra Poudel would sign, leaders who have no credibility in the Madhes. Saying he would need the approval of the cabinet and seven parties, the prime minister went off to sleep. The Madhesi leaders were furious and walked out. The next day, Sitaula came over to the Sadbhabana Party office to make up and hammer a compromise on new differences that had cropped up.
The government has been petty. But the real problem is with Madhesi groups which don't know how to get out of the mess so that they don't lose face in the plains. There is also insecurity about poll prospects, and the presence of forces on all sides that would be happy to derail the process.
In the south, the two-week Madhes protests have intensified. The movement may not be as broad-based as the one last year, but the appetite for a fight goes deep. The Kathmandu media underplayed it, but the day of nominations saw protests, firing, lathi charges, and killings. Each time Madhesi leaders went in for negotiations, there were phone calls from activists and sympathisers from the Tarai asking them not to give in.
Madhesi leaders will have to sound radical if they want to survive in chauvinistic identity politics. The three parties may not be representative of the people, but they do symbolise the mood and sentiment of the plains.
A deal looks imminent. But signing it will only be half the battle won. There are other challenges ahead. To start with, all Madhesi leaders will have to simultaneously work out their electoral alliance as well as sell the agreement on the Madhesi Street. They need to translate the momentum of the movement into campaigning, hammer out seat-sharing arrangements and figure out the proportional representation system, given these are three different parties in an alliance.
Militant groups feel that they are responsible for the success of the strikes but mainstream Madhesi leaders have hogged the limelight. Jwala Singh sources say that they will intensify the agitation from next week, irrespective of a deal in Kathmandu, to show who exerts real power. Jwala needs to be given incentives (withdrawal of cases, cash, post election assurances) as well as put under pressure in Bihar to keep him quiet.
The 10 April elections are important. What is even more important is that they be credible so the results and legitimacy are widely accepted. That is why Madhesi forces and people need to be brought on board in a sensitive manner with assurances and visible sincerity in Kathmandu. Doing it any other way will only lead to more bloodshed.