A curious case of ‘Olification’ of Mahantha Thakur and Rajendra Mahato

Mahabir Paudyal

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Thakur and Mahato, opponents of K P Oli since 2015, became his ardent defenders. How did this become possible?

Mahantha Thakur and Rajendra Mahato are big names in Nepali politics, bigger names in Tarai-Madhesh.  Both have been ardent, even extremist at times, advocates of rights of the Madheshi people. Mahato has been in national politics since he was in Sadhbhawana Party and has been in several governments. Thakur has a sober personality. Long time cadre and active leader of Nepali Congress, also considered a trusted man of late Girija Prasad Koirala, Thakur ended his association with Nepali Congress in 2007 and formed the Tarai-Madhesh Loktantrik Party to champion the Madhesh cause.

Thakur has a distinct reputation among his contemporary leaders in Madhesh in that while his colleagues have become ministers multiple times (or becoming minister is all they seemed to care)—think of Upendra Yadav, Rajendra Mahato and Sarat Singh Bhandari—Thakur has not claimed high office since 2007, in fact he is said to have declined the ministerial offers several times. No wonder those who know him closely do not hesitate to give him the epithet of ‘saint leader of Madhesh,’ a man of integrity.

Revisiting 2015

The rest of the country became more familiar with these two names during the constitution making process of 2015 and the subsequent violent protests in Nepal’s Tarai plains.

The bone of contention was two:  Citizenship and provincial demarcation. On both, Thakur and Mahato stood firm, vehement and uncompromising. They wanted a separate provision in the constitution to provide citizenship, in parity of citizenship by descent, to the brides married to Madheshi grooms from across the border in India.  There should be a separate baibahik angikrit (naturalization by marriage) system for the brides married to Madheshi men from across the border in the south, they argued. And there should be a separate province in Madhesh, incorporating puraa Madhesh (all of the plains) from the east to the west, they demanded.

Mahantha Thakur and Rajendra Mahato were at the frontline of this fight with what they derogatively called the Pahade satta, the hill regime.

Thakur and Mahato have been able to secure the potential release of 120 cadres from jail but it could have a long and lasting repercussion in our justice system, including in transitional justice process.

In the process, these leaders used all strategies to bring Madhesi people onto the streets. Protests went violent, over 50 Madhesi people were killed, including nearly a dozen of police personnel.

K P Sharma Oli denounced violence in Madhesh, stood firm in favor of constitution promulgation and defied the suggestion and warning from New Delhi for its deferral. Constitution was unveiled on September 20, 2015. Protests escalated in Madhesh. Blockade followed, which leaders like Mahato and Thakur always defended as their own doing. These two leaders and Oli remained on bitter terms for months, even years on end.

From foes to friends

The former foes today look like diehard fans of each other, they are ready to defend each other, even at the cost of losing public image and political morality.

On the day Oli was to be declared the PM again on May 13, Mahato and Thakur were said to have taken their MPs to a resort in Bhaktapur, so that they would not be influenced by Upendra Yadav and Baburam Bhattarai, and thus could be prevented from building alliance against Oli. Amrita Devi Agrahari, the House of Representatives member from Mahato-Yadav faction of Janata Samajbadi Party Nepal (JSPN), however, denied. “Actually, we were supposed to have a meeting at our Babarmahal based office, but there was a lot of crowd and our president said ‘let’s go somewhere out to a peaceful place.’ And we went to Bhaktapur. Mahesh Basnet happened to be there out of a chance,” she said. “You have to write the truth.”

JSPN leaders with CPN UML leader Mahesh Basnet Photo: Social media

While nearly all other parties stood against Prime Minister Oli in no confidence vote on May 10, Mahato and Thakur not only praised him, they called all the leaders of JSPN to stay neutral.

They did not stop there.  They threatened Baburam Bhattarai and Upendra Yadav against building coalition against Oli. While his own colleagues from Madhav Nepal faction were standing affront, Thakur and Mahato stood committed.

They refused to make a coalition with Congress.  Reportedly, Mahatha Thakur even refused the post of Prime Minister. All for the sake of K P Oli. In other words, K P Oli is the prime minister today largely because of Mahato and Thakur.

This Olification (this is columnist CK Lal’s coinage, used here not for derogatory purpose) of Rajendra Mahato and Mahantha Thakur has raised many speculations and questions.

The bonhomie may have started sometimes in March, when JSPN leaders reached Baluwatar and had a meeting with PM

Thakur and Mahato have been able to secure the potential release of 120 cadres from jail and apparently they have also been assured of the release of Resham Chaudhary. It may be a short-term advantage for Thakur and Mahato but it could have a long and lasting repercussions in our justice system, including in transitional justice process.

First, if those who killed police in Tikapur have to be given amnesty, those who killed the innocent civilians during Madhesh protests also have to be released. Then those responsible for Gaur massacre also have to be pardoned, then those who killed and committed atrocities during the Maoist war will also have to be summarily pardoned. The release of cadres, without fair probe and trial, could set a dangerous precedent and open a floodgate of impunity.

New Delhi factor? 

Why did Mahato and Thakur stand so vehemently for Oli? Observers and analysts approached for this analysis presented diverse perspectives.

“It’s not that complicated and ambiguous, if you follow through the recent  mosaic of political course since the mysterious visit of Samant Goel to Nepal and his inexplicable three hour long meeting with Prime Minister Oli,” Geja Sharma Wagle, international relations and geopolitical affairs expert, told me in a telephone interview.

Photo Source: Global News, India

“What understanding they had reached in the much-controversial meeting is not known to us yet because neither Oli nor New Delhi has made public the content of the meeting.  It will probably be known later on but from that point on New Delhi seems to have reached a conclusion that Oli should be allowed to remain the PM taking into consideration the Indian interests despite Oli publishing a new map,” he said.

According to Wagle, the much-hyped meeting between Oli and Goyal marks the turning point of Nepali politics. “It seems Oli has had some kind of secret understanding with New Delhi through Goel to retain power compromising national interests of Nepal. That might seriously jeopardize the infant federal democratic republic and constitutional trajectory of Nepal,” he added.

New Delhi was discussed as one possible factor behind Mahato and Thakur’s support for Oli and Oli’s own political move as well but it was not so pronounced this time. 

But what’s the connection of that event with the change of heart of Mahato and Thakur? “The unnatural u-turn of Mahato and Thakur who are considered the stooges of New Delhi to rescue the Oli government is one of the strong and visible indicators of Oli-New Delhi barter that will be unfolding in the days to come,” he said without mincing words.

“New Delhi knows Oli very well because they have been taking his political pulse for a long time.  They must have decided that he can go any extent to retain power even by compromising national interest of Nepal.”  He questioned the nationalist credential of Oli and commitment of Mahato and Thakur to Madheshi cause. “They sold out their agenda for power,” he asserted.

New Delhi was discussed as one possible factor behind Mahato and Thakur’s support for Oli and Oli’s own political move as well but it was not so pronounced this time.  New Delhi advised “Thakur to stay neutral, since Mr Oli still has New Delhi’s support,” wrote an Indian newspaper. In Nepal, some of the online portals published the news of Thakur and Mahato having a meeting in the Indian embassy. But observers don’t agree India could have gone that far.

“I see people pointing to New Delhi. But what’s the evidence?” asked Amresh Kumar Singh, a prominent Nepali Congress leader. “There was a time when the Indian ambassador in Kathmandu would be visiting the offices or houses of the top leaders and you could blame India,” he argued. “Now Indian ambassador is nowhere in the scene.  How can you blame India?”

CK Lal, columnist and analyst, sees it in a different light. “Externally, India may have given a signal that Oli’s relevance and utility have not come to an end,” he said, with a caveat. “Even if the decisions were forced from external factors or signals came from the external factors, the vehemency of support comes from an internal factor, there must be a core internal factor,” he said. “Thus both internal and external factors could be equally responsible,” he said. According to Lal, Thakur’s disenchantment with Sher Bahadur Deuba of Nepali Congress could have pushed him to choose Oli over Deuba.

Mystery of Mahantha

Both Amresh Singh and CK Lal expressed surprise over Mahantha Thakur’s decision to shoulder Oli. “I myself find it really astonishing,” said Singh.  “I know him personally and regard him. He is the cleanest figure without greed for wealth and power,” he said.

Can it have been because Oli committed to solve ‘Madhesh problems’? “Even if Mahantha Thakur becomes the prime minister of the country, he won’t be able to solve Madhesh problems,” said Singh.

This is intriguing to me too, said CK Lal. “Oli should have been removed. The move of Mahatantha Thakur does not help the cause of Madhesh, nor does it help his personal political career,” Lal argued.

Leaders belonging to Mahato-Thakur faction of JSPN defend.

Amrita Devi Agrahari, the House of Representatives member from Mahato-Thakur faction of JSPN, gave an ambivalent response. “All Prime Ministers of Nepal—from Prachanda to Sushil Koirala to Jhalanath Khanal—have only given ashsawan (assurances) to address our demands. Oli also belongs to that category,” she said. “But he appeared different in some respect. He called us to join the government. We said we want you to address our issues first.”

“We said many innocent cadres of ours are in jail. If you can address this demand, including that of the release of Resham Chaudhary, we will support you,” she said. Agrahari said that Oli admitted this is a political issue and agreed to treat their concern as such.

Is that all? “No,” said Agrahari. “We have demanded the release of Resham Chaudhary. We have demanded constitution amendment on citizenship. He has said he will start the process.”

It requires two thirds majority of the federal parliament to amend any provision, even a word, of the constitution. Oli cannot do anything about it.  Mahantha Thakur and Rajendra Mahato know this better than other leaders.