Changing political spectrumRejection of the ‘traditional elite’ was clearly on the minds of the Kathmandu electorate.
Any commentator worth her name cannot but engage with the fact that Balendra Shah is now the mayor of Kathmandu. Indeed, there were other independents equally successful. Most notable among them were Gopal Hamal of Dhangadhi and Harka Sampang of Dharan. These three stand out for the simple reason that they were true independents, and not the disgruntled passed over by the top brass and who will in all likelihood return to the party fold in due course of time.
Shah’s case differs even more from Hamal’s and Sampang’s since the latter two were known personalities in their respective constituencies, not to mention that both had been mayoral candidates in the previous round as well. Shah was a total non-entity—unless one were attuned to, I presume, the very niche Nepali hip-hop scene. That is why ever since his candidature began to pick up steam, comparisons had been drawn with the Nani Maiya Dahal phenomenon in the 1981 election to the then national legislature, the Rastriya Panchayat.
Arguably even more unknown than Shah, and without the power of social media to assist her, Dahal got more than double the votes of the other victor, establishment favourite Jog Mehar Shrestha, in the electoral district of Kathmandu that used to consist of two seats. Analysts resorting to the Shah-Dahal parallel generally tend to also draw the distinction that the latter’s win was meant to serve as a slap in the face of the Panchayat system while Shah represents hope. Devendra Raj Panday, now the éminence grise of Nepali civil society, wrote at the time that Dahal’s astounding performance was “a win interpreted and celebrated as ‘votes of frustration and rejection’”. How far that view is ingrained become clear from a caption in the web-based Nepal Picture Library’s “Nani Maiya Dahal Collection”, which states matter-of-factly and rather unflatteringly: “Dahal was elected to mock the Panchayat system since not many people took her seriously. After her win, there was a huge rally to celebrate what symbolised a fight against the system.”
If I recall correctly, her campaign was not only a political statement but was also infused with high expectations. I was still very young at the time and could have misinterpreted the mood among the adults. But writing about the 1981 elections, the late Harka Gurung had noted that Dahal had won in Kathmandu where “six former and sitting Rastriya Panchayat members including four former ministers contested and only one was successful” before concluding that the election results demonstrated “the rejection of traditional elites in politically conscious districts”.
With Shah’s victory, rejection of the “traditional elite” was clearly on the minds of the Kathmandu electorate. We grew up hearing of the late Nepali Congress leader, Ganesh Man Singh, having once boasted that victory would be theirs even if the Congress put forward a walking stick as its candidate in the capital. Whether he actually said so or not is immaterial since it has now become part of political lore. The irony, of course, is that his daughter-in-law had to taste a resounding defeat at the hands of a virtual nobody who wielded the walking stick as his election symbol.
There is no point dwelling on the hubris of the other candidate, the UML’s Keshab Sthapit. Foisted into the scene somewhat late in the day, he had the gall to declare that his entering the field meant “the game is over”. He pooh-poohed long-standing charges of sexual harassment. In that he was strongly supported by his party boss, KP Sharma Oli, who dismissed the accusations further, claiming it was all part of electoral mudslinging. Kathmandu’s voters told them both who they believed more.
Going back to Dahal, one only has to look at the photograph of her victory speech to infer there had to be some element of heightened anticipation among the huge mass gathered to hear her. The same kind of hopefulness that Shah now has to bear on his untested shoulders. That Dahal was an unmitigated failure was as much a reflection of her own shortcomings as of the political system within which she was operating. I believe that is the lesson our new mayor needs to imbibe.
All the enthusiasm Shah brings has already begun to meet headlong with reality and the multifarious challenges staring at him. For starters, he is learning that he has to take the whole of the Municipal Executive into confidence. That itself will be a tall order. As the results started showing Shah taking a commanding lead, an unnamed UML leader was cited as basically saying something to the effect: “We will show him his place.”
One can only hope such pettiness was simply an expression of frustration borne out of the rout Sthapit was facing. On a more hopeful note, Gagan Thapa, the general secretary of the Nepali Congress and a Kathmandu Member of Parliament, promised to work together with the new mayor. Only time will tell if the UML will actually try to stymie Shah or how long Thapa and the Congress’ goodwill will last, if extended at all.
I sorely wish I am wrong, but the portents from the first meeting of the newly elected Municipal Executive does not bode all that well for Shah. To his credit, he appeared able to hold his own. But in his eagerness to hit the ground running, the mayor appeared to have been at quite a loss even about how such meetings are conducted or the limits of a mayor’s powers. The pushback he received while attempting to ram his way through a battery of seasoned politicos without so much as a with-your-leave must have been a sobering experience for Shah.
The optics were also quite bad to begin with. In a meeting consisting of the mayor, deputy mayor, 32 ward chairs and the chief administrative officer, there was just one woman. That “politically conscious” Kathmandu managed to put together such a skewed grouping is in itself a feat we should all be collectively ashamed of. Worse was that all the 34 men forgot there was a woman in their midst and it was someone who outranked everyone but the mayor. That Deputy Mayor Sunita Dangol actually had to pass a verbal note to the mayor to remind him she was sitting beside him was highly unacceptable, and social media users should give Shah more than an earful for that lapse, if that has not already happened.
On a more mundane note, now that his sun-glassed brand did serve him well during the election, Shah would be better off giving up his dark glasses. Wonder why no one has told him that it is quite discourteous in to don shades when meeting people in formal settings. It could be a sign that our youthful mayor has his eccentric ways. One sure hopes not since authority and eccentricity are a terrible combination.