Off the Record 051: The race for Kathmandu
Issue 051 • 29 April 2022
It’s April 29, 2022, and you’re reading Off the Record, the weekly newsletter from The Record. We are an independent, ad-free, digital news publication out of Kathmandu, Nepal.
I’m Pranaya Rana, editor of The Record, and in this newsletter, we’ll stop, take a deep breath, and dive into one singular issue that defined the past week.
Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening from Kathmandu in the grip of election fever. With just 14 days to go before the local elections, the candidates have all registered their candidacy, the voter list has been made public, the ballot papers printed, and it is all systems go. Candidates are on the campaign trail, the media is reporting on electoral issues, and voters are talking and debating, all symptoms of a healthy and vibrant democracy.
But all is not well with the elections. The ruling alliance of Nepali Congress, Maoists, Unified Socialists, and Janata Samajbadi has decided to split up constituencies among themselves, with all the other parties supporting whichever party candidate the alliance has chosen. For instance, the Nepali Congress is contesting Kathmandu for mayor and deputy mayor so all the other parties in the alliance are not fielding candidates of their own.
This has irked many local party members who had wanted to contest the elections on their own. But since the central committees of their parties decided on an alliance, they’re not allowed to. Quite a few of these ‘rebel’ candidates have refused to abide by their parties’ decision, contesting the election regardless. In Pokhara and Bharatpur, local Nepali Congress politicians have filed their candidacies despite the alliance deciding that the Unified Socialists will contest Pokhara and the Maoists Bharatpur.
The Nepali Congress has threatened to expel any politicians who go against the alliance’s decision but according to the Election Commission, pressuring candidates to pull out of the race is against the code of conduct. Voters too are not happy with the limited choices they’ve now been presented with. An ‘alliance’ to elect politicians chosen by the central committees goes against the very spirit of local elections, especially in a federal country.
What is further incensing both voters and rebel candidates is the fact that many of the candidates are kith and kin to the top party leaderships. In Bharatpur, Renu Dahal of the Maoists, daughter of Maoist chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal, is the alliance’s candidate for mayor. In Biratnagar, Amarendra Yadav, son of Janata Samajbadi chair Upendra Yadav, is the candidate for deputy mayor. In Kathmandu, Sirjana Singh, wife of Nepali Congress politician Prakash Man Singh, is the candidate for mayor. The list goes on.
So voters are getting a narrow choice of candidates and even among that shallow pool, many are candidates because they’re relatives of top politicians. And as if that wasn’t enough, representation has already taken a hit. The constitution has provisions for women’s representation, requiring either the mayor or the deputy mayor candidate to be a woman. Predictably, during the last local election in 2017, women were made deputies while men were mayors. Things are even worse this time around. The constitutional provision only applies in cases where one party is fielding candidates for both mayor and deputy. But as the ruling alliance is fielding candidates separately, with one party’s candidacy for mayor and another’s for deputy, they are not required to field any women. And so, in many cases, both mayor and deputy candidates are men. And this lack of representation is not just with women but all Dalits, Muslims, Tharus, and other marginalized groups too.
Elections aside, this past week also saw some geopolitical developments, most notably in the visit of a high-level congressional delegation from the United States. A high-level delegation led by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was in Kathmandu this past week, visiting top government officials and political party leaders. The delegation consisted of Senators Sheldon Whitehouse, Cory Booker, Mark Kelly, and Representative Mondaire Jones. (Senator Mark Kelly, a former astronaut who flipped Arizona blue, was surprisingly absent from almost all meetings.) The purpose of the visit, according to observers, was to shore up support for the American position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict and make sure that Nepal doesn’t follow suit with China and India, both of whom have refused to condemn Russia so far.
As an aside, Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar recently made a very astute speech at the Raisina Dialogue with regards to India’s refusal to tow the US’ line. “We have to be confident about who we are. I think, it is better to engage the world on the basis of who we are rather than try and please the world as a pale imitation of what they are. This idea that others define us, somehow we need to get the approval of other quarters, I think, that is an era we need to put behind us,” Jaishankar said. You might not agree with India’s position or even the actions of India’s government but Jaishankar’s speech was very impressive. It was deeply cognizant of geopolitics and India’s own place in the world. It was smart, assertive, and bold, much like Jaishankar himself. One wonders when we’ll ever hear a speech like that from a Nepali foreign minister.
Back to the Americans. News has now emerged that Uzra Zeya, Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights in the Biden administration, will be visiting Nepal on May 20-22, once the local elections are over. According to The Kathmandu Post, the US had wanted to send Zeya before the local elections in the first week of May but Nepali officials were worried about optics so the visit was pushed back. Zeya’s visit is ostensibly to mark 75 years of Nepal-US relations but tellingly, she is also the US’ Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues.
To mark the same 75 years, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken issued a statement saying, “Nepal has seen incredible changes in its governance, economic development, and international engagements. We are proud of our accomplishments as partners, and look forward to many more decades of friendship.”
There are rumors of more high-level visits, possibly from US Vice-President Kamala Harris or Secretary of State Blinken, but nothing has been confirmed yet. Harris, who is part Indian, has not even visited India yet.
Perhaps it is best not to read too much into these visits and statements but we must keep in mind that foreign relations are as much about appearance as they are about substance.
But let’s put all this aside and go back to elections, especially the election for mayor of Kathmandu.
The deep dive: The race for Kathmandu
(Top row left to right) Sirjana Singh, Keshav Sthapit, Balen Shah. (Bottom row left to right) Samikshya Baskota, Madan Das Shrestha, Sushil Thapa.
A few weeks ago, we at The Record had profiled two young independent candidates for mayor — Balen Shah and Sunita Dangol. To see two new faces vying for the mayoral post was heartening, as it showed that young people were interested in politics and were willing to take up public office, especially as independents. Both Shah and Dangol had made bold choices to go at it on their own, or so I believed.
This past week, Dangol did a hard 180 and tied up with the CPN-UML to contest the election. Not as a mayoral candidate, but as deputy mayor. Her running mate is Keshav Sthapit, a former Kathmandu mayor who has been accused of harassment by at least two women. The allegations against Sthapit, which Itisha Giri, Bhrikuti Rai, and I had first reported for The Kathmandu Post in 2018, were seen to be the beginning of the MeToo movement in Nepal. Numerous allegations had just surfaced against prominent actors, journalists and government officials in India and Nepal too was feeling the waves. When Rashmila Prajapati and Ujjwala Maharjan went public with their allegations of harassment against Sthapit, it was the first instance of a Nepali in a position of power facing a public reckoning. Sthapit at that time had notoriously dismissed the allegations as a “rape of men’s rights.”
Nearly four years later, as Sthapit stands for mayor under a UML ticket with a young woman as his running mate, these allegations have come back to bite Sthapit in the ass. His candidacy has been dogged with questions about MeToo and harassment. Initially, he played them off, saying that he was made for controversy (His exact words: “विवादमा आएन भने केशव स्थापित नै हुँदैन”).
But yesterday, Thursday, Sthapit finally lost it. At a Q&A with mayoral candidates held at National College, a young woman asked him once again about the allegations, demanding that he address them and not dismiss them as he had done earlier. Sthapit jumped up from his seat and began to yell at the questioner, screaming until veins began to pop in his head. Among the many things he said, there was one that people took particular issue with. First, he told the young lady, “You are nice lady but थुतुनो ठिक छैन”, basically telling her that she was mouthing off to him. He went on to say that there was no proof of any of the allegations and that he shouldn’t be questioned solely on the basis of media reports, saying that tomorrow he could publish a news report stating that the woman questioning him was a prostitute.
This latter comment has really pissed off a whole bunch of people, both men and women. The language he used and the behavior he displayed were both completely unfit for someone vying for public office. But to further threaten to smear a young woman simply asking him a question really crossed the line. His response was all that many people needed to confirm his guilt, or at least some semblance of guilt. After all, he doth protest too much, methinks.
Sthapit might have run himself out of the race with his behavior if this were a more established progressive democracy but much of the chagrin has been reserved for social media and women. His party members and other political actors have said nothing. Even women party members have remained silent. His running mate, the afore-mentioned Dangol, has quietly side-stepped all allegations, saying there’s no evidence and that she’s not a judge to decide what happened. In a frankly bizarre move in one interview, she even turned the tables around and said that she was being ‘victimized’ by being asked these questions about Sthapit. UML party chair KP Sharma Oli dismissed the entire issue, saying that the MeToo allegations were only coming around because of elections.
I know, I’ve spent way too much talking about Sthapit and Dangol but the entire episode bears repeating because it lays bare just how things are in Nepal. A powerful man is accused of harassment and misbehavior but instead of being penalized, he is instead rewarded with a mayoral candidacy. And then, a young woman who could’ve stood for something more decides to tie up with him in order to further her own political career, basically throwing the victims under the bus. It is a deeply upsetting state of affairs and I must say that I am very disappointed with Sunita Dangol. For a capable young woman, she made a very cynical choice. Whatever her reasons, she sacrificed her morals for the sake of political expediency.
It is also important to talk about Sthapit and Dangol because they are two of the frontrunners in the Kathmandu mayoral race. Many people believe that Sthapit did a great job during his last tenure as mayor, crediting him with the road expansion and for building the Maitighar Mandala. I’m not sure how much of that can be attributed to Sthapit alone but many do tend to remember him as a capable guy. I like to think of Keshav Sthapit like Rudy Guiliani, the former mayor of New York City. Guiliani won plaudits during his tenure as mayor but since then, he’s descended — how do I put this — into madness. Sthapit seems to have followed that same trajectory.
For me, no matter his accomplishments, the harassment allegations and his response to them disqualify him as a mayoral candidate. And Dangol, with her tacit support of Sthapit, is duly disqualified too. But again, that’s just me. I’m sure many will vote for these two, and they might even win. And that would just be depressing.
Besides the Sthapit-Dangol duo, the other frontrunner currently is Sirjana Singh from the Nepali Congress. I’m not too sure what Singh has done politically so I can’t speak for her record. She is mostly a homemaker but she was once active in student politics and in the women’s wing of the Nepali Congress. But being the wife of Prakash Man Singh and daughter-in-law of Ganesh Man and Mangaladevi comes with its own political capital and in Newa-centric Kathmandu, her background means a lot to voters.
Singh has not taken part in any debates so far, choosing largely to stay out of the spotlight. I would say that that’s suicide for any candidate but she has the entire machinery of the Nepali Congress behind her and that is bound to count for something. She’s issued a 7-point agenda though, under the quaint title ‘सिर्जना को सात स’ (Sirjana’s seven Ss). They are: service and good governance; health, education, and social security; clean environment; safety; culture and heritage; infrastructure; and empowerment of women and youth. She’s also come up with some populist promises — allowances for housewives and widowers, public toilets, a cycle lane, daycare facilities for daily wage workers, etc. These cover the basics but is it enough to sway voters?
There are other candidates for mayor too, 56 of them to be exact. Among the more prominent ones are, according to my personal ranking of their chances — Balen Shah (independent), Samikshya Baskota (Bibeksheel Sajha), Madan Das Shrestha (Rastriya Prajatantra Party), and Sushil Thapa (independent). I don’t believe that any of these other candidates really have a shot at winning. I’m not being cynical or trying to dissuade anyone from voting for them, but realistically speaking, the contest will be between the UML and the Nepali Congress.
I say this because none of the other candidates have half as much buzz around them as 21-year-old Ranju Darshana did in 2017. If anyone can even come close, it’s Balen Shah but he’s too much of an outlier to really be able to take on the political parties. Shah’s support seems largely limited to social media and from what I’ve seen, a large proportion of his supporters are not Kathmandu residents. Shah is confident and claims that he will win, that’s a good attitude to have, but I seriously doubt that he will even get as many votes as Darshana.
As for Baskota, Shrestha, and Thapa, I’m no Nate Silver but their presence so far has been lackluster.
To me, the Kathmandu election is the Congress’ to lose. The current mayor, Bidya Sundar Shakya, is widely reviled, even among Newas, and he is from the UML party. Many voters might hesitate to vote for the same party again, but the UML hopes to bring those vacillating back on board with Sthapit and also woo the youth and women votes with Dangol. It’s a calculated move and it just might work but it really depends on how Singh and the Congress are able to capitalize on the anti-incumbency factor. So far, I haven’t seen much campaigning or even targeted messaging. If the Congress believes that it can simply rely on Newa votes and Ganesh Man’s legacy then it might be in for a rude awakening. Shah might cut the youth vote, Sthapit the Newa vote, and Dangol the women vote.
In any case, elections are always exciting times and Nepal loves a good election. Our voter turnout is always high and there’s always a conversation to be had on the merits and demerits of candidates at every chiya pasal. Personally, it would be nice if Balen Shah won. That would send a strong message to the political parties and encourage independent candidates and young people. But realistically, I don’t think he has much of a chance. Between Sirjana Singh and Keshav Sthapit, I have to favor Singh because we really can’t have someone accused of harassment in office as mayor. Dangol could still pull off the deputy win but that’s only if she hasn’t been tainted by association with Sthapit. I will say that it would be nice to have a woman mayor for once.
There’s two weeks to go. We’ll just have to wait and see.
On The Record this past week:
Shuvangi Khadka profiles four Nepali women who had documentaries showing at Film South Asia
Alok Pokharel on ensuring that the upcoming local polls are truly free and fair
Tim Gurung on the lessons he’s learned as a writer
Sajeet M Rajbhandari on the 25-year legacy of Film South Asia
Shambhavi Basnet reviews Itisha Giri’s new collection of poems, An Archive
Happenings this week:
Sunday - Four Indian citizens and their Nepali driver died in a car crash on the Prithvi Highway in Dhading. The Indian citizens were tourists on their way back to Kathmandu from Pokhara.
Monday - Nepal marked the seven-year anniversary of the devastating Gorkha earthquake that struck the country in 2015, resulting in over 8,000 deaths.
Tuesday - Four Nepalis who had been held hostage for three days in Turkey by Pakistani criminals were finally rescued by police. The criminals had demanded 10,000 euros each for the release of the Nepalis. Turkish police had apprehended one of the criminals during the handover of the ransom and then managed to gain access to the house where the hostages were beind held. All of the Nepalis are safe and sound.
Wednesday - A Cabinet meeting decided to institute a two-day weekend for all government offices starting May 15 in a bid to conserve fuel. All government offices will be closed on Saturday and Sunday but office hours have been extended from 9.30am to 5.30pm.
Thursday - A Nepal Airlines Airbus A330 wide-body aircraft successfully completed an ‘operational performance test flight’ at Bhairahawa’s Gautam Buddha International Airport. Although the airport formally came into operation last year, international flights will only begin from mid-May. So far, only one international airline, Jazeera Airways, has sought and received permission to fly in and out of the airport.
Friday - The Supreme Court upheld its interim order reversing the Deuba government’s decision to suspend Nepal Rastra Bank governor Maha Prasad Adhikari, directing that he be allowed to continue his work unhindered.
Article of the week:
‘If I hadn’t written Karnali Blues, I wouldn’t be who I am today’ — Buddhisagar, one of Nepal’s most prominent novelists, reflects on how he wrote Karnali Blues, arguably the most popular contemporary Nepali novel.
That’s all for this week. Off the Record will be back in your inboxes next Friday. I shall see you then, in your emails, for the next edition of Off the Record.
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