The Maoist-Madhes dynamic is back in the news. Political circles are rife with speculation that the two MJF constituents could shift to the Maoist camp in the next round of voting. This has been reinforced by Pushpa Kamal Dahal's statement that 5 September will be decisive, his meetings with both Upendra Yadav and Bijay Gachchadar, and their subsequent efforts to convince other front constituents to play a more 'decisive role'
It is difficult to judge whether both the Madhesi parties – with all their members – will be willing to break the front and vote for the Maoists. But the speculation underlines once again the fact that the dynamic between these two forces is the big unpredictable variable in Nepali politics.
There appear to be three causes for the renewed restlessness in the Madhesi camp.
Upendra Yadav's heart is with the Maoists, and he only reluctantly agreed to stay neutral because of Indian pressure and fear of another split in the party. Yadav sees the other three Madhesi parties in the front as upstarts who are benefitting from his movement. His past Maoist background is coupled with the strong conviction that only a tactical alliance with them can win the Madhes any rights, since the Maoists have the least stake in the present structure and are willing to reform it.
Yadav told an interlocutor last year, "Look, just let me be with the Maoists till we have federalism. The NC and UML will never give us that. Once we have our own state, we will fight the Maoists." Add to this the temptation of becoming deputy prime minister and regaining his position as foreign minister.
Bijay Gachchadar, schooled in the GP Koirala brand of politics, has an instinctive understanding of where power resides in any context. Dahal has been trying to tap into that, by offering him DPM-ship and the home ministry. Gachchadar seems to realise he can extract the most while the bigger three parties are fighting. Despite his bluster about Maoist 'state capture', he is not worried for he knows that the Maoists can do little to challenge him in his home districts, which gives him enough space to manouevre in the capital.
Gachchadar also appears confident that while India may be upset temporarily if he moves, it has limited options and he can mend the relationship. But these are all last-minute decisions. He could well be cozying up to the Maoists to increase his bargaining position, and extract more from the other side.
The third variable is the disillusionment among the rank and file Madhesi party MPs. Many of them feel they are just being used as pawns in larger games and want to assert themselves. Add to this the desire among many from the Madhes to be seen as acting independent of India – they are sick of the taunts from other MPs and constituents that Delhi decides their fate.
There are widespread rumours about how top leaders were given some money to remain neutral, but this never trickled down to the MPs. Those who were not ministers in the last government see an opportunity now, and feel there will be more cabinet berths on offer since both the NC and UML could stay out of a government led by the Maoists. Many of them also dislike the established parliamentary parties; note the royalist background of some of the 11 MPs who crossed the floor in the third round. With the Maoists not really in a position to challenge these politicians on the ground back in the Tarai, their fear of the former rebels is diminished.
There is of course another school within these parties, and in the broader Madhesi front. They point out that the Madhes movement is essentially an anti-Maoist movement and allying with them could erode their base, which NC could capitalise on. Alternatively, others say that the Maoists could use the Madhesi parties to make inroads in the Tarai. Some leaders also argue that Dahal cannot be trusted one bit – he may become PM with their support, but the Madhesi parties will not be able to control him at all. And if the UML joins such an arrangement subsequently, their space will shrink further. But with the Indian enthusiasm to hold the Madhes back from supporting the Maoists flagging, these arguments are not supported by adequate hard power.
Irrespective of the result on Sunday, these seemingly mundane details are fascinating for they show how politics, at the end of the day, is not about broad principles. Instead, individual calculations, personal relations, money, and raw power are driving forces. Any alliance finally rests on the right combination of these factors. The Maoists and a section of the Madhes are trying to get that mix right.