Rabindra Mishra: Political parties are just creating fertile ground for usThe journalist-turned-politician talks about his party’s ideology and how he plans to make Sajha the leading party in the country.
You can say a lot of things about Rabindra Mishra but you can’t say that he’s not optimistic. Doom-and-gloom is reserved for the traditional political parties, but when it comes to his own Sajha Party, Mishra is all sunshine and smiles. He has an unwavering belief that becoming the number one party in the country is Sajha Party’s fait accompli.
For a party that is just two years old, that is a tall order. But Mishra, once editor-in-chief of the BBC Nepali Service before turning politician, is not one to let something as trivial as age dampen his plans. His party is currently fielding candidates for by-elections in Dang, Kaski, Bhaktapur and Dharan and his social media is replete with images of party members canvassing. But many among the public are sceptical. Do most people outside of the major cities even know of the Sajha Party?
“Those in the villages, who are uneducated and don’t read the papers or listen to the radio, they don’t know about us,” admits Mishra. “But those who are educated, read the papers and are on social media, they know about us and they think that we are the only hope remaining.”
That’s a tall claim but then Mishra adds a caveat—“If they are not already strongly associated with a particular party.”
And therein lies the rub.
Nepalis tend to vote along party lines, so much so that family members stop speaking to each other when one picks a different party to vote for. But these parties are almost always the same—the Congress, the Grand Old Party of Nepal, or the newly minted Nepal Communist Party, born out of an alliance of the UML and the Maoists.
And despite voting for the same parties in every election, the refrain of every Nepali in a bhatti concerns how politicians are corrupt and the country is going nowhere.
“Nepali society is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, a rajnitik mayajaal,” says Mishra. “When you are in this mayajaal, you are like a blinkered horse. You think everything you see is the absolute truth and you can’t betray it.”
We are sitting at the Himalayan Java in Bhainsepati, close to where Mishra lives. He’s just back from campaigning and it is clear that he is in an electoral sort of mood. Or perhaps this is how he always is.
“Those who are young, they won’t vote for the parties that are corrupt and have basically forced an entire generation to leave this country,” concludes Mishra, with an emphatic tap of his finger on the glass table.
As we wait for our food to arrive, I ask him if that wasn’t what he had said the last time around, in the 2017 federal elections, where Sajha Party failed to win any seats.
“We had just been born,” says Mishra. “But despite that, we became the fifth largest party in the country and the third-largest in Province 3 and Province 4. And personally, I almost won the election while running against a heavyweight Nepali Congress politician.”
Mishra ran against Prakash Man Singh in Kathmandu-1. He got 10,118 votes to Singh’s winning 10,936. Mishra is right in that that was quite an achievement for a party that had formed just months before the election.
Sajha had already merged with the Bibeksheel Nepali Party at that time. Bibeksheel and Sajha are seen by many as cut from the same cloth—parties with a largely urban base that promise an alternative, parties that are seemingly post-ideological. It was only natural that the two parties would unite, as they did in July 2017, to form Bibeksheel-Sajha. But less than two years after their merger, in January earlier this year, the party split.
“The party didn’t split,” Mishra clarifies. “They left.”
Why, I ask, when the two parties appeared so similar?
“It wasn’t anything ideological,” says Mishra. “We had a fundamental difference in approach. But the way they left the party was a huge betrayal of Nepalis who wanted to see us together.”
Mishra appears flustered. Clearly, he is not happy with the way the party split.
I ask Mishra about another alternative force—the aptly named Naya Shakti led by former prime minister and Maoist second-in-command Baburam Bhattarai. Naya Shakti is now the Samajbadi party, after merging with the Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum in May.
“Baburam ji is old wine in a new bottle,” says Mishra with a smile. “There is nothing new or alternative about him. We are the only real alternative for the people.”
One has to admire that confidence, but I am more interested in where Mishra and his party stand when it comes to Nepal’s fluid political space. It is no secret that our parties are no longer progressive leftists, regardless of whether they clothe themselves as communists or socialists. Nepal is truly in a post-political space, where ideology means little and it is really neoliberalism that has taken hold. What is Mishra’s ideology, or does he eschew ideology itself?
“We call it welfare democracy,” he says. “We have four fundamental values—system, transparency, integrity and meritocracy.”
Mishra passes me a party pamphlet that he says will make things clearer but he expounds on his own.
“Without transforming Nepal into a welfare state, there can be no peace and stability,” he says. “Everyone should have equal rights to health care and education but does a person born in Mugu and a person born in Kathmandu have the same access to either? This is already creating classes and this will always lead to instability.”
Mishra points to the Nordic countries, where basic services like health, education, public transport, low-cost housing and social benefits are the primary responsibility of the state. “Even China and Singapore have elements of a welfare state but they don’t have democracy,” he says. “We don’t want that. We need democracy.”
So is his welfare democracy basically the Nordic model of social democracy, I ask. He agrees. But the Nordic model has worked because the countries are largely homogeneous and rich, so they can afford large-scale welfare programmes. Mishra disagrees.
“If you study the history of welfare states, welfare measures were taken when the countries weren’t that rich,” he says. “The UK’s National Health Service, which is one of the best health services in the world, was started immediately after World War II, when the economy wasn’t in good shape.”
Mishra isn’t aiming for the level of social welfare that is currently prevalent in the Nordic countries. He wants to start small, by improving the standard of public education and reducing the number of private schools and private hospitals.
How can Nepal afford this, though? It’s not like the country has a glut of cash to support the kind of measures that Mishra is proposing.
“Currently, one Member of Parliament gets Rs60 million a year for constituency development,” he says. “But MPs are policymakers, not contractors. If we stop that immediately, we will save Rs50 billion in five years. With that money, we can build 250 Budhanilkantha Schools across the country. We could open seven Teaching Hospital-style facilities in all seven provinces for Rs7 billion. We’ll have to increase the health budget by cutting the budget in other areas using austerity measures.”
Mishra wants to stop the rampant building of roads, rethink the need for the paramilitary Armed Police Force, and cut down the size of the nearly 100,000-strong Nepal Army. These are all good, albeit populist, measures. I cannot disagree but I wonder if they are possible. Even if Mishra’s party does win the next elections and come to power, can novice lawmakers pursue this level of reforms without the prerequisite political clout and bureaucratic support?
Mishra speaks in platitudes. Still, I give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, I have rarely met politicians who speak in concrete terms. Politicians make promises and bureaucrats come up with plans.
But to achieve anything, Sajha Party needs to win elections and so far, the only representation they have is a few members on the provincial assemblies. With federal elections three years away, I ask Mishra about his party’s near-future goals.
“We are going to go on a nationwide journey where we will tell the people about our beliefs and what we want to do,” he says. “And in the next elections, we will go with the aim of becoming the number one party and rule this country to transform it.”
Again, lofty goals. Can this be achieved in three years?
“It should be possible,” Mishra says. “People have slowly started to understand what we believe in and what we are trying to achieve. Our credibility is increasing. These political parties are not going to change in any way, no matter the pressure from the public. So they are creating fertile ground for us.”
As we wrap up our brunch and our conversation, Mishra makes a pitch, asking me to join the party, and him, in transforming Nepal. But my goals for the moment are more humble. I tell him I’ll think about it and take my leave.
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Himalayan Java, Bhaisepati
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