Baggage vs experienceCan the new parties strike a chord with the voters and shake up Nepali politics?
Nepali politics is heading in an interesting direction, and the much-debated and still-uncertain local elections have spurred thought-provoking issues. While big political issues still remain knotted and unresolved, more and more wide-eyed people have joined politics and asserted their claim to set the murky road of Nepali politics right. While the issues that remain tangled emerge from the deep recesses of Nepali geopolitics, geoculture and socio-cultural history, the new politicians and political parties that have emerged to assert their claim on national politics have come from urban, mostly Kathmandu-based backgrounds.
Given this situation, two questions become relevant: First, will these new entrants from the urban middle classes be able to set people’s imaginations on fire? And second, will they be able to resolve the intractable, deep-rooted issues surrounding the cultural and political rights of the marginalised that confront Nepal even if they are successful in capturing the public imagination?
Shaping of parties
The established politicians and parties have emerged from and have been shaped by three strands: traditional values and beliefs of hill Hindu culture and the monarchy, roughly called feudalism; the democratic and communist movements against the monarchy and the autocratic Panchayat system; and the Maoist insurgency and its partial offshoots—the Janajati and Madhesi parties. Even though Baburam Bhattarai and his new Naya Shakti party present new agendas, Bhattarai himself originated from the insurgency.
While the Hindu traditionalists remained with the king during the spring uprising of 2006, the uprising brought the forces of the insurgency (both pure Maoists and Madhesis) and the democratic parties together to join hands against monarchy. These political parties—traditionalists, democratic parties and Maoist-Madhesi-Janajati parties—have their roots in the political movements for democracy and the struggle for political and cultural rights of the marginalised. Thus, people in the villages as well as towns, including the Kathmandu Valley, recognise these parties and their politicians and identify them with their variegated agendas.
To be sure, these parties have their own agendas that include traditionalism, political regression in the form of ultranationalism and assertion of political and cultural rights. The consequent mess of opposing positions and agendas has created the present political imbroglio. In this mess, even Prachanda and his Maoist ilk seem to have found themselves enmeshed, consequently losing their sheen. Baburam Bhattarai has maintained his independence by asserting a new position; he has charted a different course by founding a new party as he straddles the challenging agenda of justice and development. However, his credibility still stems from his stellar academic background, his contribution to the Maoist insurgency, the Maoists’ participation in open politics and the subsequent political transformation of Nepal as a republic. But only time will show how far his new politics will go in resolving Nepal’s intractable issues and leading the country towards development. The baggage he carries could both anchor him and weigh him down.
Fertile political soil
In contrast, the new entrants into Nepali politics—Bibeksheel Nepali and Sajha Party—come without any political baggage. They are clean and they want to showcase their clean image, their young, urban educated background, and their untainted, wide-eyed moral outrage at the country’s condition. They can pull out charts and graphs, cite the latest data to prove why Nepal has fallen behind and how it can not only catch up but transform itself into an ideal nation. They have energy and youth, they are educated nationally and internationally, they have an understanding of the country’s problems and they also come from local and global backgrounds. They have a lot going for them.
However, baggage can euphemistically be called experience. And this is what these new parties lack. They do not have experience in dealing with the dirt, filth and weight of having emerged from the people’s struggle for political rights and so forth. At times, their lack of experience in the Nepali people’s political struggle for rights may even give an impression that they are more like NGOs rather than bona fide political parties in a country like Nepal, whose fertile political soil endlessly produces countless revolutionaries.
To be sure, their agendas are also those that politicians in established Western democracies concern themselves with in ordinary situations. Even Emmanuel Macron, the newly victorious French president-elect, campaigned as an independent candidate in the name of French Enlightenment, the historical essence of modern French national identity, against both the leftwing socialists and Marie Le Pen’s rightist politics.
A rosier future
Given this situation, can the new political entrants like Bibeksheel Nepali and Sajha Party make a dent just by raising developmental and environmental agendas without substantiating them with broader ideological support, thus neglecting to sync their agendas and ideologies? And with this approach, will they be able to catch the Nepali public imagination and establish their roots in people’s political consciousness? This is what older parties and their politicians have managed to do both positively through their long struggles and negatively through their sponsorship of patron-client relations.
That is why, when I see people like Sajha Party leader Rabindra Mishra or Bibeksheel’s mayoral candidate Ranju Darshana debate and articulate their issues with passion, I feel Nepalis must hear their voices and recognise them. Nepalis have more alternatives now than they did before. They do not have to stick to the lesser of many evils. But will the retail agendas of fixing roads, dust and petty corruption resonate with the people who have themselves become jaded with the same old, same old and have, over the decades, transformed themselves into clients of the established political parties and their leaders? This is where I wish these new idealists had some experience in getting their hands dirty by doing people’s work with broader ideological shovels. But as better, cleaner people and young blood enter Nepali politics, the political future will be all the rosier. Established parties better take note.