Polish and politicsNepali Congress cannot rise from the ashes of the election defeat by evoking such simple mantras as boot polish abhi subedi
A familiar theatrical performance took place at Chhakubakku Park in Baneshwor on Martyr’s day (January 30, 2018). Veteran and young generation leaders gathered for a shoe-shining event at Chhakubakku park. The event was organised by the Nepali Congress (NC) leader Krishna Prasad Bhattarai’s (1924-2011) Memorial Foundation. According to the available news, they polished each other’s shoes because they wanted to make a symbolic gesture rather than a realist activity. They organised this performance as a symbolic gesture for cleaning the bad practices and irregularities haunting Nepali politics, which was surely a grandiose claim. By linking this activity to the philosophy of Kishunji, a santa neta, the event was claimed to have been guided by a mantra of simplicity and Gandhian message given by him. The genesis of the event was that when some young pupils said to Kishunji, “we are poor, we cannot buy books and copies to go to school,” he had advised them to sit by the roadside and polish shoes for a few hours each day to make some money for their studies. He had said to them “you should not beg, you should work and get paid for that”.
We do not know what Kishunji had said exactly, but this narrative of sitting by the roadside and polishing boots could be seen as having some link to an award winning Hindi film of 1954 named Boot Polish, which was directed by Prakash Arora and produced by Raj Kapoor. The film was strongly rooted in the Nehruvian vision of socialism and nationalism that extolled the virtues of labour. Begging was not the right thing to do. Two orphan minors thrown out by a landlady end up in the street, where they struggle not to beg but to polish boots to get the fruits of their labour. The story of these two poor children ends happily, but in this realistic film we get some very famous songs about the virtue of labour and the Gandhian mantra—“don’t give us alms, give us work to do”—which can be realised through labour and honesty. Boot polish most possibly had its origin in that film in this part of South Asia. The film through a quaint combination of melodrama and hope, and the nestling of altruism into the romantic drunkenness of a man who sits to get his boots polished by minors whom he comes to love and eventually adopts, influenced several other films and stories. This somehow simple vision was one of the constituent factors of democratic socialism as envisioned by politicians of that era. Literary writers in Nepal and India too at different times have used this modus operandi to protest against the wrong practices of society and government policies. Nepali writers launched what is known as a ‘boot polish’ movement in 1974, mainly in the streets of Kathmandu. That was a tradition of the benign semi-Gandhian mode of protest.
Chhakubakku Park boot polish was not a theatrical event. I am not sure if any of those people who attended the event are in any way related to theatre. Few of them would have come to see plays, including Sandajuko Mahabharat, a play that I have written based on the life and works of Bishweshwarprasad Koirala, alias BP, and performed under the direction of an NSD graduate Bimal Subedi, and acted by various seasoned theatre artists. That play drew the attention of several NC leaders. But among the politicians, more Maoists came than the NC leaders with the exception of Narahari Acharya, Purushottam Basnet—who helped me in the process of writing the play—Dr Minendra Rijal, Laxman Ghimire, and Shriharsha Koirala. My point is that those who were preforming the boot polish do not appear to have much of an inclination for generating the energy of theatricality and performance. As they rightly claim, this event was a simple symbolic gesture.
Far from enough
I want to hazard repeating once again, as it warrants repetition, one other narrative related to the boot polish experience of none other than the great NC leader, the late Ganesh Man Singh. Poet Kedarman Vyathit who was a friend of Ganeshmanji, Kishunji, BP and other leaders for being a Congress activist himself, once invited writers and poets to his residence in Jyatha to meet Ganeshmanji and have dinner and poetry reading. Poet Vyathit began that night’s discourse by alluding to the early days of struggle that NC had to contend with while organising from across the Nepal-India border. In one event, a group of leaders and fighters entered into Nepal, but for being a radical and revolutionary by nature, Ganeshmanji was not allowed to enter for fear of being arrested. In the evening all the comrades returned, but Ganeshmanji was not seen anywhere. Vyathit who went out to look for him was moved to tears seeing Ganishmanji polishing the boots of comrades that had trampled the soil of Nepal. After Vyathit narrated this story of the past, Ganeshmanji, who, I had heard, was an iron man or lauha purus, started weeping like a child. Ganeshmanji was very unhappy with the political mistakes that he thought his comrades, especially the second-generation Congress leaders, were making then. He said, “friends will give democracy to the king very soon”. Though Ganeshmanji did not live to see this happen, his comrades did eventually give democracy to the king, as he predicted. We changed that great sombre and sublime mood by asking poet Bhuwan Dhungana to recite her powerful poetry.
I knew Kishunji personally, apart from reading his autobiography and a novel based on his life written by a friend and writer Hari Adhikari. I cannot quite see how the NC, a party embroiled in power and corruption, would rise from the ashes of the election defeat like a phoenix by evoking such simple mantras as boot polish. To regain popularity, the NC requires thorough self-searching, a complete hand over of leadership to younger people—the NC does not have a dearth of them—and forward-looking political philosophy. Only then would the obscurantism haunting the NC be corrected.