The Politics of Province 2
The fervour of the local elections three years ago had taken sway over the eight districts of Province 2. Sangihya Samajbadi Party and Rastriya Janata Party had eclipsed the dominant Nepali Congress and Communist forces, during the polls.
Out of the 136 local constituencies in the province, the two Tarai-based parties had claimed 51 of them, Rastriya Janata Party had turned victorious in 14 while the Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum had swept 24 municipalities.
The upward trend of supporting the Madhesh-based parties continued into the election for the House of Representatives as well as the provincial assembly elections. Of the 32 constituencies contested, the parties had won more than half, claiming 19 seats. Similarly, they won 55 of the 107 seats in the provincial election.
But three years after the elections, the people of Province 2 feel let down and have started to lose faith in the home-grown parties, as they have failed to perform and deliver.
The parties representing the Tarai have always blamed the centre for not taking their issues seriously, and for a sluggish development of the region.
The Madhesh-based parties had rejected the constitution because their demands had not been met. India had thrown its weight behind the bloc, imposing a border blockade on Nepal that lasted for six months.
Tarai has seen sporadic protests calling for the rights of the Madheshi communities. During the different political movements that took place after the peace process, 124 people lost their lives.
Nepali Congress General Convention representative, Bajrang Nepali says that compared to the older established parties, the Tarai-based parties have been more successful within a short period, with the foundation laid by a series of movements.
But it is only during the times of demonstrations and elections that the people matter to the politicians, locals complain.
“When the polls arrive, politicians come with the promise of land and shelter,” says Shreeram Sada of Dhangadhi Municipality, Siraha. “It’s been three years since the elections took place, they haven’t fulfilled their promises. The wells are drying up, water is scarce.”
Mahadev Saha, who has a PhD in Political History of Nepal and is currently the Head of Softech College based in Lahan, says that the people had participated in the Madhesh movements with certain aspirations, but that they’re frustrated over how things have turned out.
“There were some legitimate interests of the Madhesh that have not been provided in the Constitution. The desires of Madhesis have not been addressed in any way,” he says.
Saha adds that Tarai-based parties had an opportunity to prove themselves, but they squandered it, and the corruption and red tape at the Singha Darbar have trickled down to the provincial governments.
The leaders of the Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP)— formed after major Madhesh alliances, Samajbadi Party and Rastriya Janata Party merged—concede that they have not been able to meet the people’s aspirations.
JSP’s Central Committee Member Manish Suman admits that even though his party was elected to power, the problems of the people have remained intact.
“In the past, when Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, Girija Prasad Koirala, Lokendra Bahadur Chand, Surya Bahadur Thapa or KP Oli was Prime Minister, there was no impact in the rural areas. The context is the same even today when we are in the government,” says Suman. “There’s no point berating the others. The onus was upon us to live up to the commitments made to the people.”
About one year from now, the local level elections are due and in just 12 months, the provincial and federal parliament elections are to be held.
It is too early to predict which party will dominate in the upcoming polls in Province 2. But cadres and intellectual groups are steeped in political conversations.
While JSP is seen as a unified bloc representing the Tarai by Kathmandu, wandering through the streets of Province 2, one is likely to observe a different picture. Even though the two parties did merge, locally, they continue to operate as two different parties, much like the Nepal Communist Party, which has now disintegrated.
Suman agrees that even though an official merger has happened, the party is yet to become one ‘spiritually’. Executive member of JSP, Shailesh Chaudhary echoes similar thoughts. The unified party continues to experience polarisation over the details of forming a federal government.
In the past elections, the Tarai-based parties raising Madhesh-centric issues were a draw for young voters. But unable to perform, the parities now suffer from an erosion of public trust.
According to political analyst, Mahadev Saha, despite leading the provincial government, the parties have failed to deliver the people’s mandate. He alleges their politics have been confined to supporting allies and gaining personal benefits.
Journalist Chandra Kishore, from Birganj says that Madhesh-based parties have been unable to maintain their rapport with the public and that the centre had cashed on it. “The leaders of JSP themselves have become redundant. They have ideological conflict, which is unattractive to the public.”
Former Treasurer of Federation of Nepali Journalists, Sheetal Sah agrees. “The political parties within JSP did not win the election because they were pro-active, it was just that the political atmosphere was in their favour. And now that they haven’t delivered on their commitment, they have become unpopular.”
It is still too early to analyse how the rift within the UML will potentially impact the Madhesh-centric parties. Critics of PM Oli have pointed out in the past that he had lost his hold over Tarai because of his prejudices during the Madhesh movement.
“Oli is making an effort to revive his image in Madhesh,” says Gangalal Yadav of Siraha. The Oli-led UML faction is wooing local leaders and thinkers from other parties into their fold, who have the potential to lure the voters.
Other than that, the construction of postal roads, connecting the highways to the district headquarters, and the Kosi-Marine Diversion Irrigation Project are some of Oli’s attempts to influence development in the Tarai.
Before 2007, Province 2 was a Nepali Congress (NC) stronghold. With the rise of the Tarai-centric parties, the NC fortress was stormed and influential leaders from Madhesh, like Mahantha Thakur, JP Gupta, Sharat Singh Bhandari quit Congress to join the regional parties, which chipped away at the Nepali Congress ‘vote bank’.
With the lure of the Madhesh-based parties waning, is NC likely to revive its influence once more? The perspectives remain divided.
JSP Executive Member Shailesh Chaudhary views the internal tussle within NC as the fundamental problem even though it could be an alternative to JSP. He says, “People do not have anger towards [Nepali] Congress. The internal conflict and groupism are what is concerning.”
However, NC leaders themselves do not appear confident. NC leader of Jaleshwor Mahottari, Bajrang Nepali says that despite voters turning towards NC, the party has no mechanism to attract the new generation, the group that forms the biggest chunk of voters.
“People are positive towards [Nepali] Congress, but have they been able to attract the new generation? [Nepali] Congress has to find a way out to resolve this,” says Nepali.
Journalist Chandra Kishore says self-sabotage is nothing new within the party, “Congress is a threat to itself,” he says, adding that Prime Minister Oli will attempt every possible way to win over the Madhesh vote bank.
“The government has already started to deploy the state mechanisms to Madhesh, its impact might be reflected in the election,” he adds.
Nepali Congress may, however, benefit from the fissures within the Communists. “If the Communist had not broken up, they would have been a tough competition for Nepali Congress. The fraction within the Communists has made them vulnerable, and [Nepali] Congress will benefit from it,” says Sah.
And there are others hoping to reap benefit from the situation. CK Raut had won nationwide popularity, and a strong backing in the Tarai before signing a deal with the Oli government in March 2020 to honour Nepal’s sovereignty. He has been busy building his political influence in the region since, it will be interesting to see how his presence will tip the voting scales.
But political analysts say Raut might not be able to garner much attention given the relatively new presence of his party. “Raut was capturing the attention of the youth who were losing interest in the Madhesh-based parties,” Sah says. “ But after he signed the pact with the government against his secessionist movement, he might have lost much of his fan-following in Madhesh.”