Nepali Times
Plain Speaking
Underestimating Upendra


For a long time last year, particularly after the Gaur massacre, Upendra Yadav lived more like a man on the run than a politician who had shot to fame because of a street movement.

From the outskirts of Birganj to a housing estate in Patna, from the lanes of Teku to a sympathiser's house in Gaushala, Yadav was constantly on the move. All he carried was a small bag with clothes, a pile of books and two mobile phones. Reluctant to meet outsiders, give interviews or appear at public events, he was scared for his life and his political future looked bleak.

An MJF campaign to demand the Home Minster's resignation was a failure. J P Gupta had walked away, and when the MJF registered as a party with a broad platform, many activists quit; the organisation was in tatters. The Americans delayed granting him a visa until the night before his departure. In India, where the political establishment disliked the company he kept, he needed Pradeep Giri's help to mend fences.

At home, the Maoists were gunning for him, and armed groups warned him off talking to the government. There were rumours in the Tarai that he had done a secret deal with the Koiralas and sold out. When he signed the 22-point agreement, the party split. From paan shops in the Tarai to the capital's cocktail circuit, Upendra Yadav's political obituary was already being written.

In retrospect, it just shows how often we get it wrong. Yadav has shown incredible survival skills and a sharp political sense, aided by a fair amount of luck. While maintaining multiple political ties, he is also his own man.

Madhesis criticised him for demanding more seats and blocking a Madhesi alliance before the elections. Yet he had clearly judged the MJF's strength accurately and, from a party perspective, was right in going it alone. He used the royalists when he needed to fight the parties and Maoists, but maintained a distance and stuck to his republican commitment in the CA.

His decision to appoint Parmanand Jha drew flak because of Jha's past. But an upper-caste candidate helped allay impressions back in the plains that the MJF was a Yadav party. Despite veering towards the NC during the presidential polls, he did the right thing by backing a Maoist-led government. He has pampered Bijay Gachhedar at the cost of being tainted because besides being a prominent Tharu face, Gachhedar brings experience of power and money politics.

And now Upendra Yadav is coming into his own as a national leader. It is to the credit of Nepali democracy that a man who has thrived on opposing the Nepali state is now the face of that state globally. The extremists may call it co-option without any systemic breakthrough, but this is how gradual change happens.

Even though Yadav may lack the diplomatic tact of a traditional foreign minister, he is trying to wrestle foreign policy back from the PMO to the ministry. In recent years Shital Nibas has been little more than a sinecure. Diplomats have had unparalleled access to Baluwatar, and the PMO issued directives directly to Nepal's ambassadors abroad without going through the ministry.

Apart from basic measures of protocol and ensuring better training for diplomats, Yadav would contribute enormously if he were to come up with a foreign policy vision. What are our goals? How do we engage with a more confident India which is finding a place on the world stage? What do we want from China? How can we use donors but keep them in check?

Just as it was na?ve earlier to write him off, it would now be foolish to claim Yadav's political future is secure. He has to manage both the internal contradictions within his party as well as the social diversity of the Tarai. Madhesi politics till now has been all about opposing Kathmandu. Will he succeed in being part of the establishment while retaining his base back home? How will he channel the federalism debate and radical impulses in the Tarai?

We do know that he is ruthlessly ambitious. The prospect of the inscrutable Upendra Yadav becoming the first chief minister of Madhes, or maybe even the first Madhesi prime minister of Nepal, can no longer be ruled out.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)