This week, while the political parties in Kathmandu were having their tea parties, I dropped in at a local tea shop in Biratnagar with the morning paper under my arm. It was packed with rickshaw pullers and day labourers. The Dasain festival for them is less of a celebration, more of an opportunity to make extra money.
On one corner, two graying men were engrossed in their own conversation in Maithili. "Chhath ke pahile ta kuchho na hoyi. Aa, chhath ke baad, neta sab sangh ke upar gadbada rahi, te thulo babbal hete," one of them was saying rubbing tobacco in his palm.
The rulers of New Nepal in Kathmandu are perennially undecided about the future, but in a tea shop 400km away in the eastern Tarai, ordinary citizens are pretty sure about what is going to happen. The mood of the Madhes, which makes up half the country's population, is of increasing impatience with the disarray and apathy in the capital.
In Dhanusha to the east, which was the hotbed of the Madhes uprising in 2007, noted Maithili writer Rajendra Bimal told me: "The leaders should know that dishonest inclusion will prove fatal for the nation."
On the surface, the border towns of Biratnagar, Rajbiraj, Siraha, and Janakpur, which saw some of the most violent protests in 2007-2008, seem uninterested in the conspiracies being hatched in the far away capital. But people here are not just aware, but getting jittery about the headlines that talk of 'postponing' identity and federalism: two issues
that galvanised the Madhes movement.
"If they declare a constitution without finalising the federalism issue, there will be protests. If they choose to go for election without making a concrete decision on federalism, there will be protests," says 28-year-old Birendra Sah, a student from Janakpur. "If any party thinks they can sideline the issue by luring few Madhesi netas, they should come here and talk to us."
Nepali politics is not just full of irony, it is also full of idiosyncratic personalities who defy conventional wisdom of class, caste or any ideological political premise. So there is little surprise if a prominent leader of a party proposes Pushpa Kamal Dahal as probable PM candidate at the same time as another leader of the same party is worried about a Maoist design for state capture.
For those who thought the hue and cry over government change was about dealing with the supposed Maoist threat, this should be a rude awakening. The opposition discomfort is not about the Maoist government, but about the cosying relationship between Bhattarai government and New Delhi.
However, for most of the country's 26 million people, it never mattered who rules in Singha Darbar as long as they have a government that delivers services. And here in the Tarai's urban centres it is still also an emotional struggle for dignity and respect for identity.
Who governs this country is not as important as how it is governed. But that message has never got through to the rulers in Kathmandu. Federalism may be an abstract concept in the capital, but here in the plains it is a demand that contains an aspiration for self-rule that cannot be dismissed over a cup of tea.
The preliminary results of the 2011 census show that there has been a huge movement of population from the mountains to the plains. In some districts, up to one-third of the people have migrated out, mostly to the Tarai. This transmigration trend is not just reshaping the demography of the country, but it will have a lasting impact on democracy as well. The future of Madhesi politics will depend on how leaders address the aspirations of the Madhesi people with that of recent migrants from the north.
In the eastern plains, it is festival time and soon people will be busy harvesting the ripening rice. But the seeds of yet another movement in the Tarai is also being sown.
"Did the President call?"
The reason there is no deal is that no one really wants a deal. This elastic transition benefits everyone