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Political briefing: The unraveling of Madhesi unity

Biswas Baral

Biswas Baral

Political briefing: The unraveling of Madhesi unity

The Mahanta Thakur faction breaking away and joining the Oli government may be pure electoral calculation

As desirable as they were, the two recent mergers between political parties were both artificial constructs and duly broke down in time. The Nepal Communist Party had been formed after the merger between the CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Center). As was suspected then, and as time would bear it out, at the heart of the merger was a power-sharing agreement between KP Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal. The deal was to split the government’s five-year term and for each to run the country for two and half years. Again, as feared, the merger carried out without an ideological meeting of minds unraveled, dashing the ho­pe of a stable and prosperous Nepal. 

Another desirable unity happened between the Rastriya Janata Party Nepal (RJPN) and the Samajbadi Party, Nepal, further consolidating national politics. The two main Madhesi outfits completed a midnight merger to prevent PM Oli from ‘stealing’ some Samajbadi MPs to strengthen his hold on the government. The merger had supposedly forestalled the attempt of anti-Madhesi forces to dilute core Madhesi agendas and again proven that the country’s main identity-based forces could work together. That would have been wonderful. In reality, the two sets of leaders were bitterly divided over portfolio allocation right from the start. Oli successfully dangled the carrot of plump ministries before some of them, and they hungrily devoured the bait.   

In return for its support, PM Oli has vowed to fulfill some demands of the breakaway Janata Samajbadi Party Nepal (JSPN) faction, for instance, by releasing its jailed lawmaker Resham Chaudhary. The citizenship law was also amended to make it easier for children of Nepali mothers and foreign fathers to get citizenship, a longstanding Madhesi demand. Yet these gestures fall short of the substantive constitutional amendments mainstream Madhesi parties have sought over the years. 

Again, the Mahanta Thakur faction breaking away and joining the Oli government may be pure electoral calculation. Thakur & co believe aligning with Oli and getting to use state resources to back their electoral campaigns will result in favorable poll outcomes. Likewise, the faction under Upendra Yadav and Baburam Bhattarai will be confident of their ability to mount a potent challenge to the Oli-Thakur alliance in Tarai-Madhes. Their pitch? Why, Thakur sold out to an ‘anti-Madhesi’ Oli at India’s behest! 

A likely outcome of these alliances between national and regional parties will be national issues figuring prominently in future elections in Madhes and beyond, at all three levels. It could also reduce the influence of the more extreme kinds of identity politics. On the downside, without clear ideological demarcation between the choices on offer, elections could again lead to divided mandates and unstable governments. 

With at least another six months to go for the national elections, there is ample time for further political developments. But if the current alignments hold, working under India’s close watch, neither Oli nor Thakur will be able to call all the shots. Nepali political actors have been notorious for seeking India’s support to get to and stay in the government. But an unabashed south-tilt can also be a huge liability in the long run.