Can UML turn Lahan into Tikapur of east?

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Lahan of Siraha district along the East West Highway is the origin of Madhes Movement. The then Madhesi People's Rights Forum had started protests stating that the interim constitution did not include federalism at the start of 2007. Forum Chairman Upendra Yadav had sowed seeds of the movement torching the interim constitution at Maitighar, Kathmandu on January, 2007 just two days after the interim constitution was issued.

Madhes was then shut down protesting the constitution. Lahan was also shut down since January 17. The shutdown was peaceful for two days but the police tried to escort vehicles with Maoist leaders going toward Janakpur at around 4:30 pm on January 19. The protesters tried to stop that. Bullets were fired and Ramesh Mahato, who was preparing for impending SLC exams, was killed.

The movement spread like wildfire across the Madhes from the next day and many were killed. The government had to capitulate and the major parties agreed to include federalism in the interim constitution.  

"Lahan has a leading role in strongly establishing the agenda of federalism and Madhes," Siraha district member of the Federal Socialist Forum Ram Chalitar Mahato stated.

There have been many movements in Madhes after that and Lahan has been at the forefront in all of them.

The Madhes and the whole country is curios which party will win the local election in Lahan almost 11 years after the martyrdom of Ramesh Mahato.

Tikapur of Province No 7 had similarly drawn attention of the nation during the second phase of local election. Eight persons including seven Nepal Police personnel were lynched in 2015 over reservations about provincial demarcation in 2015.

The Tharu community in Kailali and Kanchanpur districts were demanding that the two districts be included in Province 5, and hill districts not included in that province.  

CPN-UML, that seemed ungenerous about touching the demarcation of Province 5 had surprised many by winning Tikapur which has a big proportion of Tharu voters.

UML, similarly, seems strong in Lahan in the third phase of local polls. Can UML turn Lahan into the Tikapur of east by bagging Lahan?

There are almost 50,000 voters in Lahan municipality that has 24 wards. After talking with around five dozens of voters in different wards of Lahan, Setopati has found that Munni Sah of UML is the man to beat in the mayoral race. Candidates from the Federal Socialist Forum and Nepali Congress (NC) are his main competitors while candidates of Rastriya Janata Party Nepal  and RPP also have a good presence here.

Around 40 percent of voters we talked with said they will vote for UML candidate. Fakir Mohammad Siddiqui of Lahan-5, the ward of Munni Sah, claimed that UML's Sah will  be elected mayor this time, and revealed that many Muslims in his ward will vote for him.  

Dhurmi Devi Saafi of Lahan-3 has also made up her mind to vote for UML this time. "I have UML in my heart. I have been voting for sun from the beginning and will vote for UML even this time," she stated.

There are two reasons to explain the strong position of UML candidate. The first is his personal influence. He was elected Lahan mayor in 1997 on UML ticket. Many voters still remember his good works as a mayor then.

Laxmi Paswan Sah of Lahan-17 said he would vote for Sah who will develop Lahan. "It was Munni Sah who constructed the bridge over that Khutti river," Paswan pointed. "Lahan will be developed if Munni Sah wins. I will, therefore, vote for him."

That Sah came second to NC's Padma Narayan Chaudhary, who secured 12,183 votes, even after running on Maoist ticket in Siraha-1, which includes the current Lahan municipality, in the second Constituent Assembly (CA) in 2013 is testament to his personal influence here. He had secured 8,277 votes not due to the hold of CPN (Maoist Center) here but due to his personal influence.  

The second reason is UML's strong organization in Lahan. The party's cadres saved its organization here even as UML's organization was rocked at many places in Madhes after promulgation of the constitution in September, 2015. Rajendra Mahato of UML had come third in Siraha-1 in the last CA election with 7,493 votes which was basically the party's organizational vote.  

Campaigning of UML was aggressive even in the inner settlements of Lahan where we reached. UML does not have presence in other municipalities of Province 2 dominated by Madhesis but the party seems lively here. UML's flags can be seen even at homes in the inner parts of Lahan.

The first-time voters are also attracted toward UML mainly due to the party's candidate.

This does not mean Munni Sah will be unchallenged in the municipality that is expanding toward becoming a sub- metropolis. Many voters accused that he is not a stable candidate as he has changed party allegiance repeatedly. There are chances of many voters who voted for him earlier not voting for him this time.

His main competition seems to be with candidates of Federal Socialist Forum and NC. Federal Socialist Forum seems to be the next aggressive campaigner in Lahan after UML.

Around 14 percent of the voters we talked with, including a few who had earlier voted for UML, said they will vote for Federal Socialist Forum. Sriram Yadav of Ghale Tole in Lahan-13 said he had voted for sun in the second CA election but will vote for torch this time. "KP Oli said falling of a few mangoes from a tree does not make any difference when Madhesis were killed during the Madhes Movement. I am deeply hurt by that remark," he confided.

Federal Socialist Forum is the strongest among Madhes-based parties in Lahan. The party, that has the goodwill of having initiated the Madhes Movement, seems set to get a few sympathy votes even for the movement after promulgation of the constitution. Other Madhes-based parties including RJP and Democratic Forum do not seem to have that sympathy.

Om Prakash Mahato of Lahan, who had voted for NC the last time, said he will vote for Federal Socialist Forum this time. "The only party that fights for Madhes and the people here is Federal Socialist Forum," he said. "We are Madhesis and, therefore, will vote for a Madhes-based party."

NC, that had won Siraha-1 in the last CA election, also cannot be underestimated. NC has traditional votes here and the party does not have to work hard to get those votes.

The party's mayoral candidate Achhamit Lal and deputy mayoral candidate Punam Chaudhary both are Tharus, on the other hand. There are around 9,000 Tharu voters in Lahan. The party's fortunes here will depend on how much of the Tharu votes it gets. Padma Narayan Chaudhary of NC had won the last CA election mainly due to the votes of Tharus.

Laxman Chaudhary of Lahan-4, a first-time voter, said he will vote for NC as his whole family are NC supporters. "NC is the only party that will keep all the communities in harmony, and develop the country. I will, therefore, vote for NC," he said.

It will, however, not be easy for NC to sweep Tharu votes. Lagan Lal Chaudhary, who was elected mayor during the Panchayat regime, is contesting the election on RPP ticket this time. The Tharu votes can be divided due to his personal influence.

Rajlal Prasad Sah of Lahan-6 said he will vote for Lagan Lal Chaudhary due to his pro-development image.

Ethnic votes are considered decisive in elections in Lahan. Chaudharys have around 9,000 votes, Mahatos 8,000, Yadavs 7,000, Muslims 5,000 and the people of hill origin 3,000 in Lahan. The candidate that can sweep such communal votes generally win elections.  

Around 16 percent of voters that we talked with did not want to reveal which party they will vote for. These voters, who are undecided or unwilling to reveal their allegiance, may well prove decisive.

UML, that came first in the first two phases of local polls, is defensive in many places of Province 2 dominated by Madhesis. But there is a very high chance of the party winning in Lahan where the majority of voters are Madhesis.

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