15 November, 2013

I just saw a camel go by in Baluwatar

Sushma Joshi
I just saw a camel go by in Baluwatar. More precisely, it was a jeep (no doubt one of the 700 diesel emitting vehicles so kindly donated by friendly nation India for our second round of the Constitution Assembly) with a camel plastered on the side.

Just like the camel, there’s a lot of unknown parties out there, throwing their hats in the ring. In my own Chetra Number 5, I’m thinking of voting for an independent candidate. It feels like the disillusionment with big party politics has made a large number of unknowns descend on the political playing field, and surely some of them are going to win. I am sick and tired of the old candidates—the UML still has Ishwor Pokharel, who ran last time, and the NC still nominated Narahari Acharya, to run in Number 5. These two men won last time, but  I didn’t see any significant work from their side. Besides a rather forceful bulldozer that arrived and took down two dozen old-growth trees in our historic neighborhood with no consultation from the local community and widened the lane by a few more inches (thanks guys, that’s really going to help with groundwater recharge, clean air and ecological preservation), there wasn’t any tangible benefits to Chetra Number 5 that I could see from this group of leaders.

And just as I am thinking of moving away from the big parties, I sense a lot of other Nepalis are readying for mutiny. I was in Boudha a few Saturdays ago when a solemn group of men walked by a poster with a young man’s face on it. They were so remarkably gloomy and solemn it made me think I was observing a funeral—there was nothing on the banner besides what looked like a religious icon. No microphones asking people to “Vote for…” accompanied them. There was no noisy young men tooting horns on motorbikes, no flags of parties, no slogans, nothing other than a solemn procession of men. Turned out it was one of the ethnic parties asking for an ethnic state. As to why they chose this particular form of public display—a procession that closely replicated a cultural/religious event, is moot. What is clear is that smaller parties with specific concerns are going to split the vote, effectively weakening the bigger parties.

News has it that the Maoists are out and out in the mid-west, offering money for votes. Whether the “cash prizes” will actually get them the votes is moot. What is clear is that they are still going to play the game in many more ways than just a polite UN observed elections would have it.  But the other parties are not averse to the “cash prize” technique of getting votes either. In my short story “Waiting for Rain,” written circa 1998, a character facing this very same situation observes: “I’m going to take money from all parties and vote for neither.” And that I think is sort of the capricious nature of the Nepali voter—take the cash and run. Incidentally, in this story the Maoists are not yet a party and people can’t vote for them yet, which means the history of the time honored tradition of cash-for-vote predates the Maoists. 

There’s a shift in the air, and people are sick and tired of the big parties.  My sense is that a lot of unknowns are going to descend on the playing field, splitting the vote and effectively making it difficult for any party to win a majority. Some of the old guard are also going to make a comeback.  This is going to create a much more diffuse situation, one where there’s going to be a lot more actors and a lot less cohesion, making the Constitution writing process even more difficult than it was from 2008-2013.

So what’s my read of the coming years of Nepali politics? With some people predicting a stronger hand of the military in political affairs (but this sort of prediction has always occurred in Nepal during times of political transition but never come to pass), and others prediction a return of the Hindu nation-state, and still others predicting that the elections is just a front and it will go back to the stasis of the status quo, my sense is that the Constitution will continue to remain unwritten, despite the one year assurance the leaders have given the people. In fact, this excuse of writing the Constitution is going to drag Nepal along for the next two decades or so—unless and until leaders with a real sense of responsibility and statesmanship take over the reins of government. And that I do not see happening with this current batch of leaders, although there are more than a few young people with good intentions who’ve been fired up by the rotten state of affairs and who are running for elections, and who may bring about some good. 

The donors and election observers as always are more enthused about this whole affair than the rest of us—for many of them, it’s a nice trip to Nepal during a particularly lovely tourist season. For the majority of Nepali people, who face rising food prices, lack of employment opportunities, and seasonal migration to questionable Gulf states with slavery-like work conditions, the coming elections probably will not bring any significant change to their lives. And that is probably why that hint of sadness hangs in the air, despite the cheery parade of flags and tooting motorbikes in Baluwatar today.   

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