Sujeet Karn and Sangita Thebe Limbu
Sep 20, 2017-A few hours before the start of the ‘silent period’ preceding the local elections when electioneering has to be stopped, Gajendra Narayan Chowk at the centre of Rajbiraj was transformed into an exhibition space for the display of power, politics and contesting democratic practices. Local security agencies and an Election Commission official arrived as if to give a practical demonstration of the implementation of the election code of conduct. Police officers took down banners and posters from the roadsides. Media persons pointed their cameras at the chief district officer as he spoke about the security measures put in place for the voting. He gave a scripted response emphasising the government’s commitment to hold ‘free, fair and peaceful elections’.
A vehicle of the Rastriya Janata Party Nepal (RJPN) carrying loudspeakers that were blaring out slogans was pulled over by the police. Some government officials talked to political party cadres about the silent period and the election code of conduct. Workers of the big political parties took the moment as an opportunity to show their strength and presence to the authorities. They started a commotion with animated rallies. The Federal Socialist Forum Nepal (FSFN) held a huge motorcycle rally while confidently chanting, “Jitega bhai jitega, masal chhap jitega.”
They were followed by a relatively smaller motorcycle rally held by CPN-UML workers who chanted, “UML jindabad.” The RJPN came out on foot in smaller groups carrying placards and banners. The marchers had their palms together in the gesture of namaste in an attempt to present a picture of humility. The display continued in front of a growing and amused audience without any intervention by security personnel.
For a while, it appeared as though the police force was there to show that any untoward situation would be handled swiftly. However, many expressed surprise at the way security had been beefed up, especially in Saptari. People questioned why they needed to have 10-12 police officers at each polling booth when one or two guards were sufficient during previous phases of local elections in the hills and mountains.
Saptari and Siraha are being seen as hot spots by the state and the media as they have misread Madhes and Madhesi issues. Since past Madhesi uprisings started in Rajbiraj, the state has used this as a pretext to increase military presence in the city and surrounding regions during election season while sidelining genuine concerns of local Madhesi constituencies. People also cast doubt on the impartiality of the media and often ask, “Where were these people when Madhesis were being killed?” This attitude reflects the wider public sphere that will have severe implications on voting patterns.
Misconceptions and confusion
Evidently, the ongoing and dynamic political discourse in public spaces further offer a nuanced insight into how people perceive democratic politics and voting rights at the periphery. When asked which political party or candidate they are likely to vote for, many people expressed uncertainty and confusion. They were hesitant to draw any conclusion and were waiting for a trend to emerge or decided to vote on a whim. Many feared that they their vote might go to waste, so they were trying to decide strategically. At the same time, they express scepticism and concern about the candidates’ pre-election campaigning and the issue of accountability in the post-election phase.
In contrast, most voters who support various political groups that emerged after the 2007 Madhes movement like the RJPN and FSFN were much more vocal about whom to vote for compared to those who support national-level parties like the UML, CPN-MC and Nepali Congress. At the same time, there is fear among Madhes-oriented party supporters that votes will be divided as two Madhesi political parties are competing against each other and with both the mayoral candidates being Yadavs, other parties will benefit.
Beyond the procedural dilemma of democratic engagement, there are other forms of counteractive ideology and movement building up in the backdrop. A senior advocate of the Supreme Court based in Rajbiraj appeared rather disoriented when asked what he thought about the local election. He flatly declared, “I am for boycotting it. I will go with CK Raut. This election does not make any sense; it is rather a naked dance of people who want to play on Madhesi emotions to ensure the status quo.”
Even though a majority of voters did not support boycotting elections, by no means can the challenge posed by such opposition and divergent views be dismissed. They say that it is about selecting the right person who can take Rajbiraj forward. However, they appear undecided as to who that candidate may be as many are sceptical, based on past experiences, about whether the elected representatives can bring much needed development to this once prosperous municipality.
The ordeal of institutionalising the democratic system and its values is never a linear and short-term process. When formal democratic structures and practices interact with entrenched yet dynamic local politics and power structures, the outcome may be far from equal and ideal. In the case of Rajbiraj, it is likely that the existing dynamics between Yadavs, Pachpaniya and Muslims will determine voting patterns. At the same time, the politics of ‘money and muscle’ persists on the ground, sidelining more able and intellectual candidates. As seen during previous elections, most female candidates have been limited to the post of deputy mayor, while those from Dalit and marginalised groups are hard to find. In the meantime, the democratic ideals of equality and unity remain embodied and unrealised in the form of Gajubabu’s statue in the centre of Rajbiraj.
Karn is a Senior Researcher at Martin Chautari; Limbu is a Research Fellow, also at Martin Chautari