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Eye on elections

Eye on elections

It was a bitter pill to swallow for Upendra Yadav, the health minister and chairman of the Samajbadi Party Nepal. In his absence, his health portfolio was changed to law (he retains the title of deputy prime minister). Being removed from the lucrative health ministry, a traditional cash cow for ruling parties, was a severe blow no doubt. Yadav put an interesting twist to his portfolio change, arguing that, as the head of the law ministry, he was now in the perfect place to change the constitution. He is not. But nor is he in a position to leave the government.

He only has to look at Baburam Bhattarai, his party colleague. In Yadav’s reckoning, Bhattarai made a big mistake by abandoning his mother Maoist party and trying to forge his own political career out of nothing. In the 2017 elections, Bhattarai’s Naya Shakti party, running short of money and muscle, the two tried and tested means to electoral victory in Nepal, sputtered to a humiliating defeat. As there is little prospect of a new movement in Madhes, Yadav reckons there is not much to be gained by quitting the government now. He also fears that if his party quits, the RJPN, the other important Madhesi actor, could quickly replace it in the Oli cabinet.

This shows the extent of the depletion of the Madhesi cause that Yadav so vociferously championed in 2007, when he emerged as the single biggest leader of Tarai-Madhes. The massive electoral victory of the left alliance in 2017 forestalled any immediate possibility of constitution amendment. Now the Madhes is relatively calm. Even if it revolts tomorrow, the Samajbadi Party is by no means sure to benefit. Better stay in the government and wait for another year or two, and then quit—right on the eve of the next round of elections.

The RJPN, meanwhile, is hobbled by its own dilemmas. The six-member presidium is divided about the way forward: whether to ally with Yadav, join the Oli government, or to prepare for another movement in Madhes. In comparison, the Samajbadi Party appears like a model of unity. Upendra Yadav is far too astute a politician to give up the clear advantage over his arch-rivals for Madhesi votes. This kind of vote-bank politics will not appeal to many Madhesis. But that is beside the point in Yadav’s current existential battle for survival.