How will we vote?Upcoming elections could be a referendum over inclusion of identity versus exclusion of nationality and nationalism
Election fever has once again gripped Nepal, after two Constituent Assembly elections and the recently held local elections. Since 2008, Nepalis have experienced these three elections; this record is not at all bad for a fledgling democracy. And if one goes by the voter turnout in the recent local elections, voters have been getting more and more politically aware about their rights, and have been more active in securing these rights.
Yet, political parties continue to run themselves through the use of their old electoral tactics of smart and strategic choices in picking electoral candidates, strategic electoral alliances with this or that political party, bombastic electoral manifestos—knowing full well that nobody would hold them accountable for their manifestos—and cold calculations of cash and incentives and demographic distributions. Recent mergers and alliances, such as the ditching of one party to join another, and the open-armed welcome received by these truant boys such as Bijay Gachhadar and party ditchers too numerous to count here prove my point.
Appealing to identity
In the past, these tactics worked. And this time, too, they can work in a place where the parties have viewed themselves as patrons and the voters as clients—and to some significant extent the voters have done the same by constituting their political identity not so much as citizens but through identification with one party or another. This reification of political identity after a specific political party has occurred because citizens have converted themselves from peasant subjects of the past into client consumers of political patrons who control the distribution of state controlled commodities and resources either directly or indirectly.
So, as in the second CA elections, the advantage in tactical experience and application may yet reap electoral dividends. However, the situation seems to be changing. People are increasingly divided on issues. Specific parties have carved out their specific electoral ‘hot button’ capital, and during the election, they will use that capital fully to coax the voters to vote for them. Thus, the UML has made nationality, nationalism and survival of Nepal’s sovereignty its capital to entice people to vote for the party. The Maoists have brought with them their residual credibility of inclusionary struggle during the insurgency years, while development remains their secondary agenda. The Nepali Congress, which was in a fix about their electoral manifesto after the Maoists dissolved the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), embraced democratic politics and became a party, finding a new lease on manifesto-making after the formation of the so-called left alliance. This is their left bogeyman as a sarvasattabad against which they claim to be the only force that can save democracy from extinction. And then, there are Madhesi and Janjati parties, such as the Rastriya Janata Party Nepal (RJPN) and the Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum Nepal (SSFN), the identity rights parties whose professed manifesto is inclusion. In this holy trinity of nationality/nationalism, inclusion and development, some parties such as Rabindra Mishra and Ujwal Thapa’s Bibeksheel Sajha party and Baburam Bhattarai’s Naya Shakti Party have made development and corruption-free efficient governance their sole agenda.
Now, which party would deny that development is not their agenda? Because the country is hungry for development and clean, corruption-free management of state affairs. Yet, development, even though its needed all over the country, essentially has more traction in the urban areas than in the rural areas, because the urban areas more acutely experience the lack of efficient management and delivery of essential goods and services in daily life. If service delivery is obstructed or comes to a halt, urban life comes to a standstill, whereas rural life, even though affected, continues with its daily rhythm because it is still more or less self-sufficient.
Nationality and nationalism are primarily the issues of the Nepali-speaking lower middle class—even though the UML has managed to rope in even the Nepali-speaking middle- and upper-middle classes, who are the traditional bastions of the Congress and the RPP, into the nationality ambit after the Indian economic blockade and KP Oli’s aggressive move away from India and towards China. The only fear that will drive the nationalism-loving upper and middle classes away from the UML’s full embrace is their fear that the left alliance may impose socialism if it wins a sizable majority, and will redistribute private property one way or another.
Yet, it is not development that will clinch the election. Like secularism is not a hot button issue for the rural masses in rural north India, as the Hindustan Times Associated Editor Prashant Jha found out in his travels through UP and Bihar during India’s Assembly elections recently, which he describes in his book How the BJP wins, development is important for the urban middle class but not the rural population—at least not yet. Nepali-speaking rural masses are more galvanised by the anti-India nationalism that Nepal’s rulers fostered and the UML has most recently latched on to, and inclusion that the Madhes and Janjati Movements and the Maoist insurgency spread. My feeling is that, given what I saw in my area in Morang, this election will very much be a referendum over inclusion of identity versus exclusion of nationality and nationalism, even though development will remain a floating signifier.
In other words, this coming election will be between issues and tactics. The old parties may very well win the election by just deploying their tactical hot buttons over deep-seated issues of others, but in the future elections the picture will get increasingly clearer about whether electoral tactics continue to win elections, or deep-seated issues, such as inclusion or exclusion, occupy centre stage. For now, the unfolding electoral spectacle will grow from bizarre to more bizarre given the messy political culture.
Mishra is department Chair of English Studies at Lewis University in the United States