Fifty percent of the one crore, twenty-one lakh voters registered in Nepal had already voted by the time I sat down to drink some tea in front of the television this afternoon.
But I could keenly feel the sense of disenfranchisement of the 2/3 of Nepali citizens who did not get to vote, for various reasons. A woman in the neighbourhood, from Okhaldhunga, marveled at the card in my hand, and wanted to know how I’d gotten to vote. She said even her landlady and her daughter, who owned a house in Kathmandu, hadn’t managed to get the proper documents, despite great effort.
“How do people vote? How did you manage?” She asked, clearly puzzled a young woman had somehow managed to cast her vote. In her view, the voting process was restricted to elders and those with more power. I showed her my voter registration card which I had received yesterday from the Elections Office officials, and who’d told me to keep it carefully since it could be used later as the primary identity card.
“Ohhh!” she said. “That’s what you need to vote. Imagine, it even has a photograph! Esto garo raicha (I didn’t realize it was this difficult.)” She wanted to know how I’d gotten this card. I said that we’d gone to the Ward Office almost two years ago, and gotten it made then. “So many obstacles to voting. Its so difficult,” she said. “Kunai kunai manchay lay matrai vote halnu paunay raicha.” Her voice implied voting was restricted to certain people who had access to these elaborate mechanisms to get these priviledged documents. Through her eyes, it is clear that voting is restricted to elites of the Kathmandu Valley and other people with access to jumping through these elaborate hoops.
I asked her where her village was. She said it was Okhaldhunga, which of course is too far to go and vote. And besides, from what she was telling me, the process of getting the voter registration card, which happened almost two years before the elections, is not just elaborate and obscure to most Nepalis, it is also difficult, if not impossible, once the date has passed. One can’t simply stop by the Elections Office at the capital or district and ask for a voter card, which is how universal suffrage would be achieved. I admitted to her that if my parents, who pay attention to public service announcements and government notices, hadn’t told me to go to the ward office, I probably would not have a card in my hand either.
The gloomy faces of my neighbours, who own a shop in Kathmandu but whose home is in Solokhumbu, told me these young people also got disenfranchised—because it would take too long for them to travel to their district to vote. There were many of these folks in my neighborhood, who could have been given voting rights based on residency in Kathmandu or other district other than the one of their birth, but were not. A man tells me that while people from other districts can vote for the samunapatik candidates, they can’t vote for the direct track. “Some arrangement should have been made for them to vote,” my mother says. “It would have been so easy to do.”
Then there’s the 40 lakh voters who dropped off the rolls. They are all working in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and other countries. They, of all people, should definitely be able to vote. These are the young people of our country—if they don’t cast votes, who will?
The woman who owns a tailoring shop said she was from Kavre. She wasn’t going to vote—because there was no transport to go there on voting day.
The woman at the cybershop said she wasn’t going—because she didn’t want to risk life and limb to vote. Her husband, however, had left for Sindhuli a day ago, a three hour bus ride away from Kathmandu.
Then there was the young man who’d returned from Saudi Arabia, intent on work, who told me he wasn’t going to vote. Why not, I asked. “Vote garera kehi kaam chaina,” he said, “Hami jasto manchay lai.” Indicating that he thought that voting was a somewhat useless process for people like him, because nobody was going to look out for their interests anyways, even if he voted.
The new Constitution is going to be written by people chosen by 1/3 of the more empowered Nepalis—those who were able to read newspaper notices, understand radio messages, who keep in touch with the ward offices, and who are aware of the deadlines of government agencies for handing out precious cards like the voter cards. For those who are living in a district other than the one of their birth, who are living in countries where they are working to send remittances back, and for those whom the voter card may be inaccessible not just because they missed the deadline but because they can’t even access a citizenship certificate, their voting rights remain remote indeed.