Battle of narrativesPolitical parties, basking in their complacency, didn't bother to check the rear-view mirror, preferring to just look ahead.
If BP Koirala were alive today, he might have called the 2022 local election results “bado romantic” in his characteristic fashion. Forty-two percent of the representatives are under 40 years of age; the percentage of women elected to local units has reached 25 from 18, and independent candidates have won in Kathmandu and Dharan, among other places. While the ruling coalition partners tried to push their candidates, many people decided to revolt against such a top-down approach, because, after all, that is not why we decided to become a federal republic and decentralise power. These were some of the remarkable new trends of the recently concluded local elections.
Major old trends did prevail, of course. Men continue to dominate public offices, voting over party line continues, and come election to the federal Parliament, the entire country will once again fall into a feverish state; and polls will become the subject of particular conversations. But for now, the dust of the local election has settled, leaving us to make sense of the election spectacle.
By 2022, Nepali politics has been pulled into multiple directions. The House of Representatives was dissolved twice by a prime minister whose party had a two-thirds majority. But this also led to the unceremonious exit of KP Sharma Oli, with the Supreme Court stepping in to make way for Sher Bahadur Deuba as the next prime minister. Such an eventful year stirred many emotions, and the local elections eventually came around the corner. People were gutted and were actively looking for a change.
Storytelling forms a major part of political activism. Politics is about enhancing the lives of the people; but before being provided with an opportunity, they are expected to convince people how they can do so. During this election season too, while there were big promises being made, what stole the show were the narratives which were coherent, doable and aimed to solve the problems of the common people. In Kathmandu, it was waste management; in Dharan, it was drinking water. The narrative of this year’s local election was that voters sought a remedy for the problem of “out-of-touch elites” and that to win elections; you don't need money or strong party lineage.
While these factors cannot be discounted, if the voters believe in your ideas and are convinced that the candidate can deliver on those promises, party affiliation might not be the sole criteria. Running as an independent candidate was not mainstream a mere five years ago; now, it certainly is. And should those who won continue to prove themselves throughout their tenure, it will inspire the next lot to run for elections, not on the basis of favouritism or muscle power, but on sheer competence, regardless of one identifying with a political party or not. The independent wins have reminded us all of the value of election and of casting votes as an instrument of democracy. The sobering reality is that people want change, and they want to move forward. This election has betokened the kind of alternative politics we had been yearning for.
If there was a dominant belief that people either voted for the Congress or the communists, and that ideology came before anything else, it became clear this time that it was a misconception. In fact, the larger electorate had always been fluid; and there always remained an unclaimed, invisible space for politics where people did not fit into certain compartments. This election first showed us that invisible space; and went further to announce that it can be claimed, proving that much of the electorate is rather fluid than rigid. These independent candidates did not make themselves seem electable as much as they made the candidates from the political parties seem beatable. Party politics prevailed once, but it may not remain unchallenged forever; at least when it comes to local elections.
Local problems require local solutions. The electorate must feel that their representatives are easily accessible and face the same problems as the voters. Naturally then, the candidates who presented narratives that sought to link personal experiences to larger social causes resonated more with the voters than those who didn't.
Election narratives hold a mirror to the electorate, enabling them to figure out who they are, politically. It connects the personal with the political. The electorate, by voting for a certain candidate or party, demonstrates its values. We use stories to define our own selves and even as voters, we like to see a bit of ourselves in what the other person is saying. If the issue of drinking water has been plaguing our life for years, we like to seek a solution to that, not get excited with the prospect of, say, getting free beer every Friday. Given that, drinking water is as much political as it is natural for the existence of human beings. What we witnessed in this election was the personification of Kathmandu, Dharan and Dhangadhi’s pain over its fallen leaders.
They say objects in the rear-view mirror often really are closer than they appear. Moving forward from Ujjwal Thapa and Ranju Darshana to Balen and Harka–their win was imminent, but the UML and the Congress and other political parties, basking in their complacency, didn't bother to check the mirror, preferring to just look ahead. This inattention led to the "accident" that none of the parties saw coming. The dominant political class was suffering from the delusion that the electorate was passive, and that they will take whatever has been given to them and vote diligently on Election Day. They were wrong.
The local election of 2022 carried a message: The times are changing; the electorate would prefer promises of service delivery over lofty dreams; and it is the narratives that they can personally identify with that will resonate most with them. The political parties have much to look inward to and change their ways. The citizenry has never been afraid of experimenting, and their appetite for bottom-up decision making is ever-growing. What is personal is increasingly becoming political; and the political space beyond party politics, which was until now invisible, is becoming clearer. The results tell us that the invisible space, which was waiting to be claimed, has been found, and will be widening its boundaries.