After a gap of nearly two decades, Nepal is scheduled to hold local body elections in mid-May, followed by provincial and central elections. As per the nation’s constitution, promulgated in September 2015, all the elections should be held by January 2018.

However, with the Madhesi issue far from being resolved, a big question mark hangs over the feasibility of elections in the hill country.

The background

The Nepal government is yet to reach a consensus on the demands of the Madhesis, forming nearly one-fifth of the population, for amending the state boundaries. The Madhesis are from Terai, or the plains. In 2015, Nepal mapped out seven provinces, of which one was on plains and demarcated based on ethnicity, and one was hill based. But the rest were stretched from hill to plains, apparently to ensure the domination of hill communities.

The decision was contrary to agreements between the Madhesi parties and Kathmandu — and mediated by India — in 2007 and 2008, for carving out separate states in the plains.

This, coupled with other allegedly discriminatory clauses in the constitution, angered the Madhesis. The reported high handedness of police and anti-Madhesi, anti-India stance of then Nepalese Prime Minister KP Oli heightened the tension.

The Madhesis blocked trade for four months till early February 2016. However, the agitation failed to budge Kathmandu due to internal divisions in the Madhesi Morcha, an alliance of seven Madhesi political parties.

Kathmandu survived the impact with minor bruises. Black marketing of essentials, including fuel, thrived (reportedly with the participation of Madhesi parties).

Though Oli was eased out and his former coalition partner Prachanda of CPN (Maoist-Centre) became the Prime Minister in August 2016, Oli became more popular in the hills.

Prachanda introduced an amendment bill to resolve the pending issues. The proposals included creating a second plain based state, widening the list of official languages to include those of ethnic communities, greater representation of the plains in Parliament, and allowing local bodies to operate under provincial control.

The Madhesis welcomed all the proposals except the re-demarcation. Prachanda requested the Madhesi parties to drop the re-demarcation agenda for the time being and support the local body polls.

But, the Madhesi Morcha is not wiling. Earlier this week, it withdrew support from the government, further dividing the protesting groups.

Vijay Karna, Associate Professor at Tribhivan University and a Madhesi, said dilution of the re-demarcation agenda is politically not acceptable. Once the election is held, de-demarcation will take a back seat, is his opinion.

Young Madhesi activists such as Pankaj Das, however, feel the Morcha made a mistake in withdrawing from the government. As a divided force, the Madhesi parties do not have enough numbers to bring down the government. Moreover, their insistence on their agenda might pave way for Oli to return to power, according to Das.

According to Uddhab Pyakurel, Assistant Professor at Kathmandu University, while addressing pending issues is important, local body elections are critical for job creation and access to resources.

As things stand now, the Mahesis will once again take the agitation route.

What next?

However, the success of such agitations is questionable for two reasons. First, they are divided, and second, unlike in 2015, India is unlikely to take any overt stance in their favour.

Which way Nepal will take will be clear in a few weeks. During the period, Prachanda will visit China and important functionaries from the ruling Nepali Congress-Maoist coalitions will be visiting India.

There are also rumours about possible changes in the coalition which might take the game away from Madhesi parties. Such a scenario may divert popular sympathy in Terai towards radical forces.

According to local reports, over the last few months, CK Raut’s call for an independent Madhesh received greater public participation than the rallies of Madhesi parties. Raut is now under arrest.