Vice President Paramananda Jha's Hindi saga has two dimensions. It is the story of deeply cynical politics, where each actor inflames passions to fetch political dividends. And it reveals the fragility of the political process, the assertion of the subaltern, and exposes some myths:
First Myth: That this judiciary is independent. It is susceptible to political pressure, tales of corrupt judges are legendary, it prefers to sit on cases (Katawal's age being a prime example) rather than ruffle feathers in the establishment. The fact that it has been proactive this time around, and imposed an arbitrary seven-day deadline, shows the deeply ingrained prejudice that exists in Nepali state institutions against Madhesis.
The decision is provocative and unnecessary, at a time when the CA was working on the future language policy. The only silver lining is that this episode has brought to light contentious issues that parties must discuss urgently to avoid future controversies.
Second Myth: That the Madhesi parties, or India, have engineered this crisis. The VP vacillated at the beginning, the Madhesi leaders did not want to rock the boat, and India wanted to prevent a crisis affecting government stability.
What has pushed the Madhesi side into taking a hard-line stance is pressure from below. The message from the Tarai (through calls to FM stations, street protests, media articles, and teashop conversations) was emphatic: Do not take the oath in Nepali. A Madhesi from Biratnagar, in a comment that reveals the depth of resentment, said: "Kathmandu has again told us that you are not Nepalis."
Third Myth: That the Madhes movement is over with adequate political representation in the CA, and the fragmentation on caste lines means they cannot mount a united offensive. Even now, it takes one careless, or deliberately prejudiced step, from the state to antagonise a large section of the population.
It also reveals the polarisation that engulfs this country. Can you find a Madhesi (except the one Kathmandu loves, Ram Baran Yadav) who wants the VP to take the oath in Nepali? How many pahadis (except some Maoists, who see a chance to destabilise the ruling arrangement) are willing to accept the legitimacy of the Hindi oath?
Fourth Myth: That this is a question of rule of law. In a country with rampant impunity, where rules are bent at will, where each party has gone against the SC at some point or the other, the law is remembered when it comes to the Madhes. Madhesis will accept the duties that come with citizenship only when they are allowed the corresponding benefits of citizenship, like preserving cultural rights. It cannot be a one-sided affair.
This is not a legal, but a political issue. Those arguing that the VP should take the oath in Nepali to respect the SC are ignoring the consequences. The Madhes has anyway been feeling it is under attack: the lack of movement on inclusion bill, the sponsored splits in the parties that represent them, the anti-federal noises in the capital, the insistence on north-south vertical provinces being some examples. Insisting he should take his oath in Nepali will add to the alienation and volatility.
Beneath these multi-layered arguments however is deeply cynical politics. The VP senses a chance to emerge as a martyr, and is making provocative statements. Upendra Yadav wants to recover his credibility in the Tarai by putting on a radical garb. The other Madhesi parties do not want Upendra to steal the thunder, and have jumped on to the bandwagon.
The government wants to paint the Maoists as the villains by claiming they have not allowed the house to function and an amendment to go through. The Maoists smell blood and realise that Madhesi parties will have to quit government if the VP resigns, allowing them to re-engineer the power alignment. The UML chief demands that the VP take his oath in Nepali, to appease his pahadi constituents and create trouble for his own PM. The fact that India wants the government to survive means it will use its leverage with all sides to push for a compromise. But the embassy is in a tough spot: it can neither ride roughshod on Madhesi demands nor can it allow the Madhesi forces to escalate their protests to unmanageable levels.
There is a possibility of an amendment or ordinance. Even if it is not with retrospective effect, it could allow the VP to retake his oath in Hindi or create future guarantees. Otherwise, what we are staring at is a full-blown crisis that will destabilise this government, trigger an agitation in Tarai, strengthen extremists on both sides, and complicate the fragile nation-building process underway.