Impressions from the election pastThe big takeaway is that nothing mattered in the end except the promise of change.
The size of the ballot paper was what stood out immediately. Then, having to hold it gingerly to ensure the blue ink from the thumb impression that still stands in lieu of a signature in 21st-century Nepal did not smudge, and invalidate it. With one of the opposable thumbs rendered thus useless, it was a challenge to scan through the maze of illustrations to spot the symbols of one’s favoured candidates. Perhaps I had forgotten what the ballot looked like in the previous election, but this year’s certainly seemed more confusing. I had to summon a polling official to teach me how to vote. And, from what I know now, I either misunderstood him or he made a hash of his explanation. So much for my assumption of being an aware voter.
“Aaya Ram Gaya Ram” (Hindi, literally, for “here he comes and there he goes”) is a saying one hears during childhood. For some reason, I had assumed it came from some Bollywood movie and also thought it meant just that. Much later was I to learn of its origins in real life. In the late 1960s, an Indian state legislator called Gaya Lal managed the feat of changing parties thrice in two weeks, one time in a matter of hours. It was at a press conference that the spokesperson of one of the parties which Lal had left to re-join declared that “Gaya Ram was now Aya Ram”, enriching Hindi lexicon for posterity.
In the run-up to the elections, one could not but help of think of Gaya Lal and his pursuit of naked opportunism. For it was one followed with gusto by our own politicians as they jostled to find a party, any party, that would provide them with that highly coveted election ticket. It should come as no surprise but even close observers of Nepali politics would have been amazed by the dexterity with which politicians of all hues seemingly managed to feel at home in parties of all other hues. All of that was happening against a backdrop of communist parties each disparaging all the others with that vilest of condemnations, that of being “not a true communist”. Lost was the irony of the very same parties embracing the Aaya Rams Gaya Rams who would surely be hard-pressed to even tell apart the bearded duo, Marx and Engels.
The most heart-warming story so far has to be the one from Jumla. Fed up with being viewed by politicians only as a vote bank come election time, activists from the majority Dalit ward of Kanakasundari Rural Municipality decided to field themselves as independents and won four of the five seats. Said Dhan Bahadur Kami, the incoming ward chair (and long-time member of the UML), “We will soon call a local meeting with the villagers. We are poor and we are Dalits; but now I am confident that we will work our way towards prosperity and equality…Our people have suffered enough. We aim to put an end to the sufferings.”
In due course of time we will learn how far he succeeds but that is exactly the kind of empowerment one would wish among people all around the country. The immediate danger, of course, is Kami and his team being co-opted by the UML and enticed into the party fold to boost their numbers among local governments, a tactic that Oli’s party is well versed at. Regardless of what happens, the example they have set is one that can hopefully be replicated in other sectors and in the elections to come as well. Vote-bank politics certainly but with a tangible difference.
On the UML and its reaction to—depending on how one wants to view it—either its drubbing or a fairly good show given what it was faced with, the sagacious approach would have been to issue pro forma statements like respecting the will of the people, etc, etc. Instead, with true Oli-ist belligerence, it declared that the polls had been rigged.
Days later, it changed its tune while allowing Parliament to resume normal functions after nearly a year of continuous obstruction. The justification was that since the local election had demonstrated popular rejection of the breakaway Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Socialist), they stood vindicated in their original stance that the former UML Members of Parliament who had defected to form the new party be booted out. Do not quite follow the logic here. Charges of irregularities and acceptance of electoral verdict should not be compatible with each other. But, thus spake the politicians.
Staying with the UML, the biggest story, of course, is the unfortunate choice of Keshav Sthapit as its standard bearer in Kathmandu. Having been accused as a possible predator during the #MeToo movement, it is difficult to fathom what the party was thinking. Exuding a level of unwarranted confidence, his candidacy slowly but surely unravelled with his unexpected and uncalled for outburst at a campaign event.
When asked about the MeToo charges, Sthapit responded by prancing around the stage choking with furious emotion. The questioner, Bhawana Raut, was the face of the future of Nepal and represented a new generation of both women and men while Sthapit looked like a holdover from the 1990s that he was. He accused Raut of impertinence, using a sexist slur reserved for women considered to have a loose lip, while also managing to objectify her with a comment on her looks. A rather unnecessary oversight, but old habits die hard.
The UML knew the outgoing mayor was a total washout and was betting on the maverick Sthapit gathering Newar votes in droves—as in the past. They did not count on engineer-cum-rapper Balen Shah and the message of change he was able to deliver so effectively. If, as is likely, he and Sthapit’s running mate, Sunita Dangol, get elected, Kathmandu will earn the distinction of probably the first capital with a rapping mayor and deputy mayor, and hopefully we will all be able to enjoy similar musical bliss in our lives.
On a more serious note, Sthapit also demonstrated very clearly how out of touch he was with the electorate. He tried to make an issue of the fact that Shah is of Madhesi ancestry while also calling him a crook. Sthapit’s engaging in dog-whistle politics that seems aimed specifically at alienating Shah mainly from the Newar population may have mattered naught ultimately but it was shameful to begin with.
There is a long history of discrimination faced by Madhesis in Kathmandu, in particular through the use of the horrific phrase “Manu makhu, marsya kha” (“It’s not a man, just a Madhesi”) that Madhesis have either suffered or learnt about for decades. There is also the equally pernicious view drummed in over generations in casual conversations among Newars and other hill folks that Madhesis in general are cheats. Words have consequences and thankfully it worked against Sthapit this time. Nothing mattered in the end except the promise of change.
Shah’s elevation to Kathmandu’s mayoralty by a plurality of Newar voters will have been reciprocated in full by Madhesi-majority Birgunj voting in Rajesh Man Singh, a Newar. Now, that’s the kind of identity politics we could do with.