Evolution of the political spectrum
Any commentator worth their salt can only be interested in the fact that Balendra Shah is now the mayor of Kathmandu. Indeed, there were other equally successful independents. Most notable among them were Gopal Hamal of Dhangadhi and Harka Sampang of Dharan. These three stand out for the simple reason that they were true independents, not malcontents ignored by the higher brass who will in all likelihood return to the party fold in due course.
Shah’s case differs even more from that of Hamal and Sampang since the latter two were well-known personalities in their respective constituencies, not to mention that they had both been candidates for mayor in the previous round as well. Shah was a total non-entity – unless one tuned in, I presume, to the very niche Nepali hip-hop scene. This is why since his candidacy began to gain momentum, comparisons have been drawn with the phenomenon Nani Maiya Dahal during the 1981 election to the then national legislature, the Rastriya Panchayat.
Arguably even more misunderstood than Shah, and without the power of social media to help her, Dahal received more than double the votes the other winner, establishment favorite Jog Mehar Shrestha, in the two-seat Kathmandu constituency. Analysts resorting to the parallel generally tend to make the distinction that Dahal’s victory was meant to serve as a slap in the face to the Panchayat system while Shah represents hope. Like Devendra Raj Panday, now the eminence grise of Nepalese civil society, wrote when Dahal’s astonishing performance was “a victory interpreted and celebrated as ‘votes of frustration and rejection'”. Even one of legends in the ‘Nani Maiya Dahal Collection’ of the web-based Nepal Image Library states neutrally and rather unflatteringly: ‘Dahal was elected to mock the Panchayat system as few people took her seriously . After his victory, there was a huge rally to celebrate which symbolized a fight against the system.
I remember his campaign as being equally steeped in high expectations and not just a political statement. I was still very young at the time and could have misinterpreted the adults’ mood. But writing about the 1981 elections, the late Harka Gurung had Noted which Dahal had won in Kathmandu where “six former serving members of the Rastriya Panchayat including four former ministers quarreled and only one succeeded” before concluding that the election results demonstrated “the rejection of traditional elites in politically conscious constituencies” .
With Shah’s victory, rejection of the “traditional elite” was clearly on the minds of the Kathmandu electorate. We grew up hearing that Nepal’s late Congress leader Ganesh Man Singh once boasted that the victory was theirs even though the Congress is offering a cane as a candidate in the capital. Whether he actually said it or not doesn’t matter since it’s now part of the political tradition. The irony, of course, is that her daughter-in-law had to suffer a resounding defeat at the hands of a virtual person who wielded the cane as an election symbol.
Needless to dwell on the pride of the other candidate, Keshab Sthapit of the UML. Arriving on the scene a little late in the day, he had the nerve to declare that his entry into the field meant “the game is over”. He pooped longstanding accusations of sexual harassment. In this, he was strongly backed by his party leader, KP Sharma Oli, who dismissed the charges, saying it was all part of election bashing. Kathmandu voters told them both who they believed in the most.
Coming back to Dahal, just look at the photograph from his victory speech to infer that there must have been an element of heightened anticipation among the huge mass gathered to hear him. The same kind of hope that Shah must now carry on his untested shoulders. That Dahal was an absolute failure was as much a reflection of her own shortcomings as of the political system within which she operated. I believe this is the lesson our new mayor needs to learn.
All the enthusiasm Shah brings has already begun to crash headlong into reality and the multiple challenges that lie ahead. To begin with, he learns that he must gain the confidence of the entire municipal executive. That in itself will be a tall order. As the results began to show Shah taking a decisive lead, an unnamed UML leader was cited like basically saying something to the effect, “We’ll show him his place.”
One can only hope that such pettiness was just an expression of frustration born of the rout Sthapit faced. On a more optimistic note, Gagan Thapa, Secretary General of the Nepalese Congress and MP for Kathmandu, promised collaborate with the new mayor. Only time will tell if the UML will actually attempt to thwart Shah or how long Thapa and the goodwill of Congress will last, if extended.
I wish I was wrong, but the omens of the first meeting of the newly elected municipal executive does not bode well for Shah. To his credit, he seemed able to hold his own. But in his rush to get started, the mayor seems to have been pretty lost even on how these meetings are conducted or the limits of a mayor’s powers. The pushback he received as he tried to navigate his way through a battery of seasoned politicians without even a with-your-leave must have been a sobering experience for Shah.
The optics were pretty bad to begin with. In a meeting consisting of the mayor, the deputy mayor, 32 ward presidents and the general manager, there was only one woman. That “politically aware” Kathmandu managed to put together such a biased group is in itself an achievement of which we should all be collectively ashamed. Worse still, the men forgot that there was a woman among them and that she was someone who surpassed everyone except the mayor. That Deputy Mayor Sunita Dangol actually had to deliver a verbal note to the Mayor reminding him that she was sitting next to him was highly unacceptable, and I sincerely hope that social media has given Shah more than an ear. for this error.
On a more personal note, now that his sunglasses brand has managed to get him elected, Shah had better give up his dark glasses. I wonder why no one told him that it is discourteous in polite society to wear sunglasses indoors or when socializing. Unless this is the first sign of eccentricity in our young mayor? We do hope that is not the case.