24 November, 2013


I asked an elderly gentleman from Kapilvastu who comes to do repairs in our house whether he’d voted. He said he did, for the Nepali Congress.  Then I asked him if his family voted.

“Hah, hah,” he said. “But in our family we vote chutta-chuttai.” 

I looked at him, puzzled, unsure what he meant. His studied nonchalance told me he was revealing something of import. 

“Afno-afnai. I vote for the Nepali Congress. My wife votes for the Cow-Kamal Thapa, RPP faction.”
He said this with a studied nonchalance that made me realize that this separate voting between his wife and him it was sort of a big deal. Almost with the tone of voice people would use when saying: “yes, we eat separately. Chuttai chuttai.”

In communities where people vote in big blocs, a husband and a wife voting separately is clearly a big deal. Decisions, from economic to political, in households are made jointly, and the woman follows the man’s lead. So to have the wife vote for some other party was clearly a matter of discomfort and embarrassment, to be revealed to the public in the most diplomatic way. His tone of voice seemed to say: “Yes, we are trying to keep an united front here, but its just not possible in this matter.”

Clearly for this elderly lady to show defiance to her husband’s party and go out and vote for her own showed a) a determined woman and b) someone who felt a strong conviction in the campaign message of the Cow.

Women have been part of Mr. Thapa’s core supporters since he started his campaign. On Elections Day, the TV showed a long line of women wearing colorful saris and tikas, almost as if they were lined up at a festival or to enter a temple, waiting to vote in Mr. Thapa’s Makwanpur district. As Mr. Thapa put his vote into the ballot box, he did his Namaste with great deliberation, almost as if he was bowing to the Divine.  Mr. Thapa has been out and about for the last few years, attending Ram-Sita wedding parties in Janakpur and taking part in colorful pageantries. His “yada yada hi dharmasya” posters appeared at strategic locations around the capital, and no doubt in other cities. So it’s a bit of a surprise that he has had such a poor showing at the polls. What is clear is that while he may not have won, his platform of campaign, which includes the very powerful appeal to female voters on the issue of culture and religion, probably has a strong foundation.

Whether this voting bloc got a say in this elections is moot. What is clear is that they are part of the warp and woof of Nepal’s polity. Living in Handigaon, I am very aware that leadership in Nepal runs through religious and cultural institutions. Despite the best attempts of modern global forces to prioritize the secular and political institutions as the most important ones in people’s lives, the fact remains that the daily act of leadership is happens through religious and cultural events and institutions. 

People who win elections appear in people’s lives in the form of election posters, and a once-in-an-elections appearance given via a rally and a speech. But the ones who organize vegetable markets, raise money for the poor, find work for widows and single women, provide psychological counseling, provide bereavement and grief mitigation solace, give out rice to single mothers, interface between the all-important Sarkar and paperwork, mediate community disputes, hear out neighbourhood complaints—these real leaders performing real tasks are the religious/cultural figures in the community. 

These figures will not get to write the Constitution. Nor should they.  This Saturday I met an old monk at a cybercafe who I recognized. I reminded him that we’d met at a peace rally in New York twelve years ago. The young man at the cyber joked that they were thinking of getting this monk to run for elections, and that he would certainly win if he did. I said: “Monks should not run for elections. Once you mix religion and politics, dharma khattam huncha (the religious sphere gets corrupted.)” And I believe this firmly. 

This lack of political participation of religious figures in the material realm, however, doesn’t mean that the religious and cultural doesn’t have a powerful, day to day impact on everything from governance to leadership. And the new Constitution should make space for this reality.

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