Acknowledging the independents’ realityThey promise effective governance, corruption eradication, and overall, a political overhaul.
Saugat Raj Gautam
The elections are coming—again. The prime minister is expected to announce a tentative timeline for the election to the House of Representatives, and less ceremoniously, the provincial assemblies. There are, of course, the usual cast of characters in the election—Maoists, monarchists, Congress and CPN-UML. In recent times, however, a new faction has popped up—the independents. These are candidates without any political affiliation seeking representation from one of the 165 electoral constituencies. The independents weren’t expected to be a wildcard this election cycle until the recent local election results—where independent candidates, especially in urban and semi-urban areas—vastly outperformed expectations. The victories of Balen Shah in Kathmandu and Harka Sampang in Dharan are testament to the increasing clout of this movement. Their rise has been attributed to mass discontent over the political establishment, developmental stagnation with growing economic uncertainty, and the country’s appetite for political experimentation. The independents being discussed are largely a new generation of mostly political novices seeking to make their mark this election cycle.
This new batch of independent candidates have lofty promises. They promise effective governance, corruption eradication, and overall, a political overhaul. The composition of this batch, which includes many promising youth activists but also several relatively venerable individuals, has meant their platforms are open to a higher degree of scrutiny. The promise of this movement of sorts also means that it would be remiss to fail to examine their prospects, and to point out shortcomings which must be rectified if this is going to be a viable alternative.
The central question regarding the independents revolves around political viability. Does the sole presence of independent candidates prove an opportunity to instantaneously revolutionise government? The answer, in short, is no, it doesn’t. You don’t have to be a political junkie or a constitutional scholar to understand this. Just look up Article 84 in the constitution and you’ll see that the federal Parliament is made up by both direct first past the post elections and proportional party representation. This essentially ensures that without a party, you’re extremely unlikely to attain executive authority. If you want to run the numbers, this means independent candidates would have to win almost 84 percent of the directly elected seats to be able to form a majority government without any partisan support. Even with the most sanguine approach, that outcome seems extremely unlikely given the composition of our current electorate and political discourse. And although mere legislative representation and scrutiny will go a long way in ameliorating our governmental standards, it wouldn’t go anywhere near the vast executive changes currently being proposed by some candidates and hoped for by the general public.
The promise of rapid executive decree can’t be entirely blamed on candidates. After all, the same strategy worked like a charm for local election candidates just a few months back. The problem with picking up this mantle, however, is that local elections had candidates vying for inherently executive positions. Local candidates could, in theory, deliver promised executive decree with the resources they had at their disposal. In this election, however, the question concerns legislative constituency representation, not any form of executive exercise or resources. Some might argue that there is, of course, the usual work-around that’s been popularised after 2007—the Parliamentarians’ Fund—better known as the Samsad Bikas Kosh. This could be a means to force some constituency-focused executive action if enough independents nudge the then government, but it is unlikely given the unpopularity of this programme fundamentally undermining federalist principles. The candidates themselves are likely to be targeted if they favour this route with accusations of opportunism and avarice likely swirling from the established political parties themselves.
So does this mean all hope is lost, that we should cede all expectations for the independents running? No, such lugubrious rhetoric wouldn’t help anyone, especially when we’re dealing with replacing such decrepit actors, and discourse that needs a fundamental shift. The route for independent candidates lies through acknowledging reality, in this case, recognising that executive action in the short term is undeliverable and may end up making this moment an ephemeral political hiccup rather than a strong base for reifying political progress.
Independent candidates should, by nature, be conducting grassroots campaigns. The tendency of veering too much into national political discourse dissipates their potential to broach issues truly reflective of their constituency. They can take a page out of their local political counterparts’ playbook here. Both Balen Shah and Harka Sampang raised issues acutely affecting their electorate—Balen with waste management in Kathmandu, and Harka with water accessibility in Dharan. Although a histrionic display excoriating our national political discourse might seem appealing, this might actually lead their constituents to question their probity for the office they’re currently seeking.
This grassroots approach has to be coupled with shedding this omnipotent notion of a “new image” precipitously implementing quixotic policies to fundamentally alter their constituency. Instead, the notion of legislative scrutiny has to be embedded into the electorate—the choice is either a meretricious stooge obsequious towards their party, or a fresh face that is going to hold the system liable for any transgressions. This is undoubtedly going to be a hard-sell. We all want our leaders to be cultish heroes that wield a hammer and deliver results. It will be difficult to deliver unanimity on such an approach, but if we can get the electorate to acquiesce that a climate scientist is better to peruse environmental policy, and a structural engineer to critique infrastructural projects, that is likely to be far more sustainable for political reform.
It is inherently difficult to postulate how independent candidates will fare in the upcoming elections, but it would be benighted to throw a polemic remark and look away. The vast majority of new-generation independent candidates would be a welcome upgrade on the current crop of party loyalists walking up to your doorstep with facile solutions to our most pressing problems.