|NO GO: Children wait while their parents cast their votes in Biratnagar-3. Elsewhere in the country, eligible adults were also prevented from entering the booths because of party disputes, booth captures and violence, which resulted in at least one dead.|
BIRGANJ-Voters across the Madhes have sent a strong message to Kathmandu and to Tarai militants by turning out in overwhelming numbers to vote in Thursday's elections.
They have braved threats of violence and strikes to queue up for hours to cast their ballots. This was the Madhes giving Kathmandu a final opportunity to reform institutions, devolve power, and change its mindset.
The enthusiastic queues in the sweltering heat across the plains were a message to Kathmandu opinion-makers who branded Madhesis as royalists, separatists, Hindu fanatics, or criminals seeking to disrupt the larger peace process.
Madhesis also sent a defiant message to the Goits and Jwalas by defying diktats they have issued from Bihar hotels. The heavy polling in the eastern Tarai is also a rebuttal to paranoid internationals who kept insisting that elections were impossible due to the \'security situation\' in the Tarai.
In Parsa-1 ward 10 booth 'Kha' in Gahwa basti, a mixed crowd of Newars, Pahadi Bahuns, and Madhesis of all castes waited patiently to vote. Asked if they were scared, a local responded: "We are used to the bombs. This is our chance to be heard."
By 10 in the morning, 900 out of 2,400 registered voters had cast their ballots in the Nursing Campus, with high participation of women. Reports from Rajbiraj, Lahan, Janakpur and Gaur suggested similar turnouts.
As expected, there has been sporadic violence. At press time, NC's Lila Koirala was shot at in Janakpur. Reports of booth capturing, firing and injuries came in from the sensitive constituency of Sarlahi 6. There were police-Maoist clashes in Rautahat-3.
But nothing can alter the fact that Madhesis have shown their faith in the democratic process. And their participation has awarded legitimacy to an election which many would hope to discredit.
The campaign trail has been as revealing as polling day. Over the past weeks, politics moved out of Kathmandu. And politicians were under pressure from an alert electorate.
In Sunsari's Bokraha village, Sujata Koirala was tense on Sunday. Speaking a mix of Hindi and Nepali, surely kicking herself for not knowing Maithili, Koirala was rushing from one village to another asking for votes. Rubbishing allegations of a deal with Upendra Yadav, she said, "He said he would withdraw if I gave him a karod. But there cannot be a deal with a criminal and terrorist."
Abusing Yadav was not going to appease angry locals, bitter about how little the Koirala family did for development in its pocket borough. "Look at the roads, look at my torn clothes, look at our houses. And this is the PM's constituency," said one.
The Sujata camp struggled to counter the blame. "This is not an election for development. It is to make the law. Didi is a future PM of the country," said Akmal Hussain, a Koirala supporter and scion of an influential Muslim family.
As the contest got closer, the campaign got more bitter and acrimonious. Middle-aged MJF activists, predominantly Yadav men, aggressively asked journalists why they did not expose Sujata's personal life. "We don't know if she is married or divorced. She is using her Bangladeshi son-in-law to win Muslim votes. And she gets drunk and dances to win votes," said one.
Politicians struggled and became desperate because they could not, as in the past, easily rely on a few local notables to deliver them chunks of votes. Left politics and ethnic consciousness had complicated things. But the netas resorted to tactics they knew best. "Any candidate who spends less than 10 lakhs in the last week is sure to lose," a national leader told Nepali Times while setting out to distribute cash in districts.
But politics will now return to Kathmandu. And there lie the key challenges: will all parties accept the results? How much of a fuss will the losers rake up before inevitably accepting a compromise and being accommodated? What happens if key Madhesi leaders get defeated? Will the Madhesi politicians once again get sucked into the capital's power politics, allowing a political vacuum to develop in the Tarai? Will everyone get complacent and forget about the armed groups, or use the moment to reach out to militants?
The Madhes will throw up a fragmented result and interpreting 'the mandate of the people' will be a difficult task. What is certain however is that Madhesis have defied threats to vote for peace and a system that promises them respect and representation. Kathmandu must now live up to these expectations.