Appearance and RealityIn the middle of a paddy field, an election candidate bows down to touch the feet of an elderly woman who has stopped cutting rice plants and has stood up to greet him.
In the middle of a paddy field, an election candidate bows down to touch the feet of an elderly woman who has stopped cutting rice plants and has stood up to greet him. Another candidate squats as he cuts rice plants with a sickle. Yet another candidate pushes the oxen plough to furrow the field. Meanwhile, another politician gently touches the hands, folded in greeting, of an elderly villager.
These are some of the images from the election campaigns to cover the front pages of various print and online media in the recent weeks. These pictures paint a seemingly rosy portrait of electorate-politician bond, seeming to present election candidates who are connected to their voters, who have internalised their concerns, and have won their hearts.
For those uninformed about the workings of politics in Nepal, these could well mean images that have captured the ideals of politics—a platform that allows political candidates to connect to the people in order to speak on their behalf and solve their problems. Eyes well acquainted to Nepal’s intrinsic political culture, however, cannot miss seeing the discrepancy these images reflect between reality and depiction.
In Nepal, election campaigns are periods when the candidates, with their fleeting display of ostensible kindness and desire to serve, attempt to shroud their true attitudes and past deeds that showed no seriousness to attend to their voters’ needs. These images are representations of this same process. So remote are these depictions from the candidates’ true natures that Nepalis cannot help but delve into the reality the images in these pictures attempt to cover.
In a teashop where regular customers meet during afternoons, a middle-aged man cringed on seeing one such picture on a newspaper.
“Look, how they transform overnight when election comes,” he said.
“They come to people during election, and then mysteriously go missing until next election comes around,” responded another.
This ignited a series of responses, even curses at politicians and political culture in Nepal.
“They’ve lost all shame,” one of them said.
Such remarks seem only reasonable given the reality that the contenders were absent for a long time since the last election. It was only when the Election Commission announced the ground officially open for the parties and candidates to launch their election campaign did common Nepalis find at their doorsteps the candidates they had elected four years ago.
Through their momentary acts—trying a hand at cutting paddy plant, pushing the plough, or touching a voter’s feet—the candidates attempt to weave a fiction, one in which they are no different from the common people, that they share lifestyles and values.
The harsh reality is that the gulf between voters and candidates is so enormous as to suggest a division of class. And this division is indeed another prominent stand out in these pictures. Even on the surface, the neatly adorned candidates with their glowing faces sharply contrast with the worn out, wrinkled faces of the voters wearing soiled clothes.
More than this, the notion of a politician representing someone ‘big’ is a commonly held idea. Rather than working to dispel this thinking, which is just the opposite of the spirit of equitable society that democratic political culture strives to promote, and connect with the voters in the real sense, election campaigns reinforce this idea. Garlanded, surrounded by cadres, often reaching the campaign locations on expensive vehicles or choppers that the local people have never seen or travelled in, and mostly waving to the people and only briefly halting to talk to a few, this idea reaches the nook and corner of the country during the election campaigns.
Hardly any candidates represent those who have lived among their voters, or more precisely shared their problems or sufferings. They are, among others, businesspersons, contractors, even ‘dons’ and goons who have the strength to spend millions and mobilize hundreds in the campaigns. While it was not a secret that an individual’s financial capability was prime factor in determining whether he/she got election ticket, this sad fact has been openly publicised by top leaders from major parties this election through their actions.
The discomforting discrepancy of voter-candidate class is also reflected in the ways the manifestoes spread big dreams while common folks’ needs remain rooted to the basics. Nepalis are hard-working and live simple, rustic lives. Election after election they have voted with hopes of seeing small changes to ease their lives, which contrasts with the big plans and dreams sold by the election manifestoes of all parties.
The concerns and priorities of Kathmandu denizens, for example, are dusty roads, traffic congestions, pollution, water problem, skyrocketing vegetable prices, and public spaces to be closer to nature and breathe fresh air. Hardly anyone would mention the need for the metros that both the Left and Democratic alliances highlight in their manifestoes.
People in the remote areas are much more anchored on having their basic needs met, including reforms in their social, cultural ills that directly affect their lives. In the special election reports from various parts of the country that this paper recently covered, respondents from Bajhang, for instance, lamented that the candidates only sold big dreams of infrastructural development while paying no heed to their actual, everyday social needs as actual elimination of problems of Chhaupadi and promotion of education facilities in their villages. The respondents said that negligible efforts have been made to address their needs and concerns.
The photos that depict belying images of the candidates, however, captures the true faces of common Nepalis just like these respondents from Bajhang. Their images suggest their resilience and innocence. More importantly, they capture the true spirit of Nepalis—Nepalis at work. When one of the candidates elected by these very people actually see these noble qualities of common Nepali people and use them with good visions, Nepal as a nation will not take long to usher in prosperity.
- Gautam writes on contemporary social and cultural issues