Nepali Times
An ethnic presidency


Ram Baran Yadav's presidency may have been the result of political gamesmanship but it does represent the emergence of a New Nepal.

Instead of Girija Koirala, Madhab Nepal or any other person from the traditional Bahun-Chetri leadership becoming New Nepal's first president, Yadav's election has achieved a number of goals.

It could potentially knock the wind out of Madhesi separatists, probably the most dangerous of Nepal's ethnic movements. The people of the Tarai, alienated for so long and identified as "Indians" by Nepali-speaking ultra nationalists, will now have a stake in a Nepal that is equally theirs.

Yadav's track record against opportunist politics (when faced with political sunset, rake up ethnic issues) and separatist political agendas (One Madhesh One Pradesh) also bodes well for the framing of a new constitution for Nepal's inclusive democracy.

President Yadav's background in the peasantry of the plains rather than in the upper castes makes him not only a Madhesi, but a son of the tillers of the soil. And in this sense, this event marks a clear break both from the past of the Shah kings and the upper caste hierarchies of the plains and the hills, a phenomenon that has indubitably scarred the political and social life of Nepal and North India.

Nevertheless, President Yadav's election is only the beginning and it calls for critical thinking and soul searching. First of all, the way the presidential election was handled by the parties reveals the inability of the NC and the UML to unlearn their power games.

To elect both the President and the Vice President from the same Maithili linguistic group demonstrates lack of strategic foresight in the leadership of the parties and is a waste of electoral opportunity for added inclusivity.

One of the two posts should have gone to the hill or the Tarai nationalities, Dalits or women, especially since we know
that the post of the prime minister is sure to go to the hill high caste. It would have made everyone feel included, and it would have made better history. Moreover, the fact that both posts went to the Maithili-speaking Madhesis does not necessarily demonstrate UML's or NC's unflinching commitment to redress Madhesi grievances. At best, it shows tokenism and remaindered commitment to the people of the plains.

After the candidacies of Madhab Nepal and Girija Koirala floundered in the face of Maoist opposition and they put up a Madhesi candidate, both parties scrambled to push Madhesis too. Ram Baran Yadav became president by chance, not by design.

Why didn't the NC and UML have a Plan B for a more inclusive election when Koirala or Nepal's candidacy became unacceptable to the Maoists? Such knee-jerk commitment to ethnic and regional issues is neither effective nor durable. However, this is still better than Panchayat-era or post-1990 symbolic politics in which ethnic groups got cabinet berths.

The need for genuine and balanced commitment to ethnic and regional democracy should emerge by the time the new constitution is forged. A New Nepal must reflect the people's genuine wishes rather than chance.

The party leadership needs to do some serious homework before it sits down to frame the constitution.

Pramod Mishra teaches literature and writing at Augustana College in Illinois, USA.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)