Silence period in votingThe above news headline struck me as a metaphor of the election that is underway. The metaphorical meaning is that there are many unanswered questions, many quirks and silences not revealed fully in this election.
The above news headline struck me as a metaphor of the election that is underway. The metaphorical meaning is that there are many unanswered questions, many quirks and silences not revealed fully in this election. The question as to why it took nearly two decades to hold local elections itself demands an answer. The irony is that Nepal took major political turns in recent decades, one in 1990 and the other in 2006. Major national elections were held during this period.
But despite the high level of political consciousness, party activities, and moments of turbulence and peace, dialogues and failures, hopes and fiascos that mark the political narratives of this period, the local level elections continued to be stalled. It looked as though the political parties during this period even forgot that there should be elections at the local levels. The local level political activities were considered ancillary to national politics and did not deserve to be considered as part of the national political anxiety. People suffered as a result of the non-existence of the locally elected governments and bodies. People travelled miles to get a simple document signed by the few karmacharis (bureaucrats) stuck in the headquarters. As a result, the degree of people’s suffering continued to increase day by day.
The political parties, which were interested in metropolitan politics, became more and more insensitive to the needs of the people. The sufferings were endured silently; complaints were made silently; loud calamities occurred, but the victims confronted them silently and with equanimity. During the last two decades, a unique and almost bizarre kind of urban culture developed in Nepal. Political parties and cadres all left their local bases because there was nothing there for them. People thronged the Capital and other big cities, as doing so was more productive and useful for them.
Common people’s hardship
As a result, the distance between the cities and the countryside widened. It became fashionable for parties to declare that the future programmes would be rajdhani-kendrit or Capital-based because of which, a privileged, elitist and lazy class emerged whose only forte became to make the best use of the available opportunities. The relevance of any project lay in the only question of how much money it would bring to them. They went to their localities only with a patronising and money-making purpose—to sell the narratives of hardship of the local people through ‘projects’. For them, people’s suffering became ATM cards that they could swipe in the Capital and abroad.
All these privileges and habits of the political parties and bureaucrats gave them a tremendous capacity to forget the countryside and the need for creating the local level governing mechanism. This amnesia was seen in its worst form when the big earthquake of April 2015 hit several regions, including the Khumbu Valley and the Nepal Mandala. This aspect of forgetting worsened after that calamity. People of the remote villages of Gorkha, Sindhupalchowk and other hard-hit areas found themselves marooned physically, politically and administratively. Their misery increased when they were compelled to carry documents that they could not read or decipher. They carried those mysterious papers and travelled for days to wherever the officials were stationed.
They found the office with great efforts, only to be told that their documents were not filled properly and that they should come again. They exhausted whatever money they had on these absurd travels. Many quake survivors became like the mythological Greek king Sisyphus, rolling immense boulders up a hill of hardship, only to watch it come back to hit them, repeating this action for eternity. This narrative was and continues to be directly related to the fact that there were no elected local level authorities. Many, if not all, politicians were heard saying every now and then that the cause of people’s suffering was the absence of elected local level bodies. Such behaviour on the part of the politicians is called bujhpachaunu (to feign ignorance). Successive political parties and leaderships continued to practise such conduct.
But the reality is that the political planners who have put off the local level elections for so long fail to understand the power of the people from villages, small towns and the nooks and crannies of the cities. I was very moved to hear the president of the Nepali Folklore Society, Tulsi Diwas, say a few days ago that Nepali folklore represents the enduring saga of the common Nepali people. The local self-government should facilitate the stories of common Nepalis, not stifle them. The earthquake narratives speak loudly about these stories. But people’s capacity to endure has a limit, especially when their land holdings are dwindling and their children have been leaving the country to work in the harsh conditions of the deserts.
That the elections are finally underway fills us with a sense of hope and relief. But there is a caveat. Will the political system let this mechanism work? Will the so-called constitutional wrangling facilitate the establishment and functioning of the local governments? Looking at some clueless approaches of our political parties, we cannot be very optimistic. The greatest scepticism about the smooth functioning of the local level bodies stems from the fairy tales told by the parties in their manifestos.
I was struck by an underlying sense of distance and misnomer when I carefully read these fairy tale projects the other day. These election promises indicate their distance from reality. Hardly do any manifestos address the simple and quotidian reality of people. The dream that lurks behind the surrealism of the political manifestos shows how the distance between what is called a metropolitan fantasy and the reality of the countryside is painted in them. I hope the soon-to-be-elected local governments will be of the people, by the people, for the people and not for the elitist metropolitan dreamers.