Balen: His challenges and strengthsChanging a long-established bureaucratic culture is one of the hardest things for any leader.
Balen Shah's election as Kathmandu's mayor three months ago broke the myth of the invincibility of big political parties. Balen contested the election as an independent candidate. He did not have money, big business connections, ground-level organisation, and an army of goons—the primary tools the parties use to entice voters, intimidate opponents and buy votes. How did he do it? The answer is simple. Nepali voters were tired of “political lifies”—political leaders who never retire, have outlived their usefulness, treat their parties as their fiefdom; are corrupt, incompetent, and bereft of a moral compass.
Voters were looking for a way out of the rot and Balen came along—young, educated, articulate, untainted by corruption scandals, not beholden to any political leader or party, and full of promise. They trusted him and gave him their votes. He won the battle, but the war has just begun. He has to speedily deliver on his promises if he is to retain the voter's trust. The delivery is fraught with numerous challenges.
Balen will have to drive his agenda without support from the political parties because his success will spotlight their failures. Political leaders at all levels have close relationships with the business nexus that has made Kathmandu the mess it is. Balen's actions to bring the maleficent businesses under the ambit of law will put him directly in conflict with the business-politics nexus. The politicians would not shut their money tap by siding with Balen.
The courts are packed with party henchmen. Despite numerous corruption scandals involving politicians and big business, the courts have not prosecuted a single politician or big business in recent times. A well-known tactic of businesses is to use the courts to validate their actions or delay prosecution, if any. This has worked for them, and there is no reason to believe it will not now.
The existing laws limit the mayor's authority even when efficient delivery of municipal services is not possible without such authority. Consider the never-ending cycle of paving and excavation of Kathmandu's roads. No law in Nepal requires road authorities and utility agencies to cooperate and coordinate their work with municipalities, although all of them share the same real estate—the road. Government agencies set their work schedule and act accordingly with no regard to the impact of their works on the municipal services or the road users or the cost of the cycle of paving and excavation. Balen will not be able to stop this debilitating agency unilateralism unless the law is changed.
As if the above is not enough, the current work culture in the municipality suffers from negligence, lethargy, delay and corruption. This must be changed to improve the municipality's service delivery. A culture of pride in public service needs to be imbued in the municipal staff. Changing a long-established bureaucratic culture is one of the hardest things for a leader, any leader.
But Balen is not without strength.
Balen's biggest strength is the public support he enjoys. His biggest challenge is to sustain this support. Sustenance will require speedy execution of his agenda to clean up the city of nefarious business; improve the city's infrastructure and services and so on. His actions need to be visible and transparent. The campaign of bringing Kathmandu's business within the ambit of law is a good one. The public response to this campaign should guide his way forward.
At the time of this writing, the three-week-old campaign was ongoing. Under this campaign, Balen plans to rid Kathmandu of all unauthorised construction and unauthorised use of commercial housing and public spaces. The first illegally constructed property the municipality had marked for clearing happened to belong to an owner close to the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). When the owner defied the order to demolish the property within 35 days set by the municipality, the municipal forces demolished it. The action was widely supported by the public. Except for a few, even small vendors, who were operating from the space fraudulently rented to them by the business and are amongst the most unfortunate impacted by the campaign, generally supported Balen.
But Mahesh Basnet, a powerful parliamentarian, widely believed to be party president KP Sharma Oli's hatchet man, was incensed. He called his minions to silence Balen by use of “mouth” and if that does not work “by using limbs”—a clear call for violence which would be illegal in any civilised society. He went as far as promising to take care of anyone who may run into trouble for “silencing” the mayor. The press and social media exploded with Basnet's condemnation and support for Balen. Even the UML was shaken by the public anger and came up with a muted rebuke of Basnet. Many businesses have started clearing their illegal occupation/construction before the municipal forces arrive.
Government offices in Kathmandu, which were occupying parking bays designated for visitors, have started voluntarily clearing them. Reports suggest Lalitpur, Dharan, and Pokhara have also started to clear illegal construction and occupation.
The main criticism against Balen is that he has not given enough time to the owners of the illegitimate properties. This is not wholly true. The targeted property owners were given 35 days’ notice to voluntarily demolish the illegitimate structure. When they did not, the municipality took action. Given our slow and corrupt judicial system, the extension of the notice would most likely have thrown the campaign into a legal quagmire from where it would never come out. Biden’s agenda would have stalled; speed lost.
The odds against Balen are huge, but he will be successful if he can maintain the level of public support he has generated. This will require him to work transparently, with honesty and integrity, and in good faith without fear or favour. He has given hope of escape from venal politics, and people are excited. His failure will be catastrophic, not just for Kathmandu, but for the whole country. It will send a message that nothing works in this country. The result will be the country going into irrecoverable despondency or total anarchy. Frightening scenarios!
Balen has to recognise that we live in a multi-party democracy. Political parties are the fundamental structure of our polity. The votes he secured was not against multi-party democracy per se; it was a rebuke to the “political lifies” who have seized the parties. If his work inspires the youth in all parties to clean up their parties, that will be one of his significant contributions.