20 November, 2013

VOTING FOR THE ANT AND OTHER NEPALI VOTING STORIES

VOTING FOR THE ANT AND OTHER NEPALI VOTING STORIES
Sushma Joshi

I rolled out of bed this morning specifically to vote for the Dog. The Dog is the sign of the Bibeksheel Nepalis—a group of young Nepalis who threw their hats in the ring of politics, with the aim to bring about the some real change in Nepal’s troubling political scene.

It was about 10 am perhaps when I got to my voting site. The area was full of people—quiet, respectful and completely engaged, it appeared, in the process of putting in their votes. There was no tension, no violence, no sign of anything but the greatest of engagement and respect for the election process. Which was refreshing, after all the news of violence, threats and intimidation on TV.

I had a sense Khil Raj Regmi’s address to the Mantriparishad the night before had something to do with this. For those who saw Mr. Regmi for the first time, they would have been struck first by his complete lack of political savvy. The first thing he did was stop his prepared speech with a startled look, saying: Is the mike on? Clearly he was not a masterful political orator, or someone even used to speaking in a mike.

After a small giggle at his startled look, I realized in some ways with what masterful acumen Baburam Bhattarai had chosen this non-political man to head the process. It was impossible to feel ire against this man—for a country riven deeply by ideological conflict, Mr. Regmi, with his chief justice authority, but lack of political savvy, was the perfect man to draw respect from all Nepalis. And his speech heightened this—he apologized to the victims of violence. He urged for people to create an atmosphere of harmony, peace and co-operation. He urged young people not to go out and harm children, women and seniors with their violent activities during Elections Day. He stumbled on every other line—clearly, oratory was not his forte. There was nothing one could disagree with what he said—including the fact that Nepalis needed to come together at this crucial hour to finish the task of writing the Constitution. There was a polite silence in the room where I sat and watched his speech—and no doubt all across the country people listened to him with the same sort of respectful silence.

And on Elections day, there was that atmosphere in the air. Everyone was there, from across the political spectrum. I didn’t see, however, any hint of aggression, violence or intimidation. Unlike the previous election, there was no sense of a greatly competitive race—it appeared all people appeared to be casting votes more for the sake of using their voting rights rather than with any great sense of winning or losing.

The security guards were firm, polite and guided me to my spot within minutes. The five people who were checking their voter records found mine within half a minute. Then I was given my blue sheet. I put my right finger print on the matpatra. The woman asked me to carry the sheet with my left hand so I didn’t smudge the sheet with the ink. Then I sat down at the booth. I looked down at my blue sheet for the Dog.

But there was no Dog.

I looked again. There were a lot of other signs, but I didn’t see a Dog.

Now this is the dilemma that probably faces a lot of Nepali voters—the confusion of the matpatra on Election Day. I deliberated. I could get up and go ask the people, but an impatient voter was already behind me with his sheet, looking over my shoulder before vanishing again, so I had to make a quick choice. Rather reluctantly, I put a sign next to one of the big parties.

Dissatisfied, I got up and went to the next table, where they handed me the red samunapatik sheet. I put my thumbprint on the top. Immediately I was escorted to the booth. Somehow the silence made me feel I shouldn’t ask the people at the table where the Dog sign was nested.

I looked down at my red sheet. Surely the Dog would show up at the samunapatik sheet. But there was no dog. There was a bee, an ant, a camel, a goat, an umbrella, and various other intriguing signs which I had never seen before. I checked vertically, and re-checked horizontally. No Dog.

Clearly this was like the multiple choice test. Time was running out, and I had to make an educated guess what might have happened to the Dog sign in the next half minute. Maybe I just didn’t recognize it? I looked at the big parties lined up at the top, and thought how unfair it was that the first thing the voter got to see were the biggies—they were impossible to miss. So I looked down and decided, in the spirit of inclusivity, to give it to a total unknown. But which one?

The Ant looked at me—I am an industrious, hardworking and community-oriented little animal, it seemed to say. Clearly somebody who made it to the Elections Office and asked for the ant as the symbol of their party must have small egos and a great spirit of community organization. My one concern as a Buddhist is that I could be supporting someone who’d go against the first Buddhist precept (“Don’t kill.”) As to “Don’t steal and don’t lie,” all parties probably violate this code of conduct, so I couldn’t check these two precepts out. As far as I knew, most people who put themselves behind a party probably agreed in large parts with the democratic principles not to engage in violence. Anyways, the ant had always been a favorite little animal of mine. And wasn’t the Samunapatik track an exercise in giving voices to the small and the voiceless?

So I took up my little marker, and dropped my vote. For the Ant. I have absolutely no idea who’s in the Ant Party, or what they stand for. But I hope, in the spirit of inclusivity, that a small unknown party who didn’t even have the funds to put up election posters will be happy that they got at least one vote from an unrelated voter.

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