The oligarchy celebrates local pollsThe fundamental appeal of municipal polls lies in their ideological vacuity.
Once feared as a fierce guerrilla leader, Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal has failed to realise that the offer of carrot works better than the threat of sticks in luring the electorate into voting for one's candidate. Thundering from Bharatpur, Dahal had warned that the country would plunge into a disaster if Nepali Congress supporters didn't vote for his daughter.
Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has similarly been cautioning that the heavens would fall if the candidates of his alliance partners failed to get elected. Former premier Madhav Kumar Nepal has stated that voters have no option other than to ensure the victory of the ruling alliance.
Parliamentarian Arzu Rana Deuba used a combination of intimidation and inducement transparently. She threatened to stop grants if the ruling party's candidates were defeated and promised to reward a few of those who stayed loyal with an opportunity to work in Malaysia. The Election Commission is reportedly probing her promises.
CPN-UML Chairperson Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli has maintained a punishing schedule and made outlandish claims while canvassing for votes for his party candidates. In the curious case of enticing a winnable candidate, Sharma Oli welcomed Vijaya Sarawagi—the outgoing mayor of Birgunj and a deserter from the Janata Samajbadi Party—into his fold with open arms.
Local elections are undoubtedly an essential exercise in democracy at the grassroots. However, the outcome of the municipal polls is unlikely to have much effect on the economic crisis looming on the horizon. It will have almost no impact on foreign policy dilemmas as Cold War II intensifies in the neighbourhood. Come to think of it, even outstanding claims for constitutional amendment are unlikely to be strengthened with the result of the polls.
Eminent constitutionalist and Dalit icon Bhimrao Ambedkar vehemently disagreed with Mahatma Gandhi on the issue of empowering village councils. In Ambedkar's assessment, hierarchal structures and stifling traditions at the local level were designed to throttle all aspirations of Dalit emancipation. Some researchers of the World Bank have also confirmed that "central governments tend to be far more egalitarian and secular in outlook than villages" almost everywhere.
Ambitious leaders love local elections precisely for their utility in keeping the downtrodden divided and tied to the ground. Estimated to be about 5 percent of the national population, Muslims can be an electoral force during federal elections, and are perhaps the decisive factor in the provincial elections of Madhes province. Dalits constitute nearly 14 percent of the electorate, and no political party can afford to ignore their strength. However, both these groups are often at the margins of municipal polls.
Mahatma Gandhi envisioned Gram Swaraj as sovereign components of a civilisational entity that went against the very idea of India as a nation-state, which was based upon the Nehruvian ideals of "socialism (economic policy), non-alignment (foreign policy) and secularism (social policy)" that was being imagined by prominent politicos of the time. Conceptual contradictions between these two competing ideas continue to challenge thinkers that wrestle with the question of deepening democratic processes.
In the Cold War contestations of the 1950s, some ambitious leaders of newly independent countries discovered that democratic exercise was good for their international image as long as it brought elected loyalists to the fore and kept ambitious challengers at bay. In Indonesia, its first president Soekarno introduced "guided democracy" with the blessings of its army. General Ayub Khan in Pakistan instituted the system of "basic democracy" to exercise complete control over elected representatives.
The fundamental appeal of municipal polls lies in their ideological vacuity. Since every candidate in the electoral fray is committed to developing the local unit and the welfare of its residents, a clash of personalities replaces ideological competition. Deeply entrenched prejudices of the society then become important.
Religious proclivities, clannish tendencies and family ties are openly brandished. It has been said about rural elections in India that most of the electorate do not cast their votes; they vote for their caste instead. Communalism elsewhere can go by religious alignments, clannish loyalty, linguistic allegiance or ethnonational jingoism, but it seldom has any place for ideological solidarity. Such a regressive outlook of local politicos keeps them away from the neck of their central leaders.
Tall tales of locally empowered governance notwithstanding, there is pretty little to show for the first term of most municipalities. The wanton use of earthmoving equipment for "dozer development" scarred the countryside in the mountains. Several urban settlements were defaced with garish concrete "monuments" in the middle of the road. Ugly "view towers" sprang up on hilltops.
Rivers were emptied of their hard but flexible bed in Madhes as sand and gravel were mined at a much faster rate than they could be naturally replenished. Part of the loot was then used to construct highways with horrid "welcome gates".
Optimism is good, but newly elected local government units are unlikely to be different from the last one. The defect is in the design rather than their performance: Most municipalities are too big for the practice of direct democracy, where voters get to participate in the decision-making process. However, all such electorally constituted bodies are too small to be run strictly according to rule-based governance principles that have no place for personal connections.
Perhaps these are precisely the reasons political parties in government and the opposition are committed to ensuring the victory of their loyalists. Locally elected representatives can be administrative assets without ever being a political challenge to their leadership at the federal level.
In essence, newly-elected mayors are also expected to be the chief sweeper, the leading drain-cleaner, the premier street-paver, a handyman for routine needs and a fine fixer for all seasons. That is a job description designed to produce a line-up of political failures.
The principle of universal adult franchise was adopted for the municipal polls of Kathmandu in the early 1950s. However, the political atmosphere of the time was hardly conducive to the exercise of grassroots democracy when the political elite of Kathmandu were engaged in contestations for supremacy.
King Tribhuvan considered himself the "Father of the Nation". Crown Prince Mahendra interpreted the overthrow of the Rana regime as the Shah Restoration, complete with the reinstatement of the pre-1846 power, prestige and privileges of the Shah kings. BP Koirala fancied himself as the pioneer of democracy, which was fervently contested by the "living martyr" Tanka Prasad Acharya and his half-brother Matrika Prasad Koirala.
Once comfortably ensconced on the serpent throne through a royal-military coup, King Mahendra took a leaf from Soekarno's "guided democracy" book, added a few pages from Ayub Khan's "basic democracy", put the cover of traditional village councils of the Hindu heartland and the book of Panchayat was ready.
Irrespective of how well apologists of the controversial constitution defend the local government model in the statute, the fact remains that it has been designed to undermine provincial autonomy, which strengthens the centralisation process by default. It is "indigenous democracy" redux "suited to the genius of the Nepali people" with a republican prefix. On that familiar note, happy polls!