Off the Record 052: One year of Off the Record
Issue 052 • 06 May 2022
It’s May 6, 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 preparing their votes for elections that are now exactly a week away. Local elections will be taking place next Friday, May 13, across the country and things are really heating up. The Election Commission finally released the list of candidates, albeit in a massive Excel sheet dump, and has pledged to provide ballots to all 77 districts by tonight.
Candidates are campaigning, a lot more on social media, and a festive mood is already in the air. Every chiya pasal and social media forum is now rife with speculation as to who will win. More than 145,000 people have registered for 35,221 posts of mayors and deputy mayors, chairs and vice-chairs, and ward members. This election, there are elderly candidates over the age of 80 and there are young candidates, some just 21 years of age. It really is an exciting time, as local elections test the health of a democracy and provide voters with a chance to engage in politics that affects them very directly.
But, as is often the case, all is not well. As I wrote in last week’s newsletter, Kathmandu mayoral candidate from the UML, Keshav Sthapit, has been demeaning women and rubbishing the harassment allegations against him. This past week, he went after Balen Shah, the young engineer-rapper, who’s being touted as a significant challenger for the mayoral post. Sthapit called Shah an “international thag” (he used the Nepali/Hindi word ‘ठग’, which the English word ‘thug’ comes from), saying that Shah was a Madhesi pretending to a ‘pahadiya Thakuri’, a clear dog whistle to insular Newa voters in Kathmandu.
Then, fake news began to circulate regarding Sunita Dangol, Sthapit’s running mate for deputy, alleging that she had somehow faked her way to a position as an advisor to the current Kathmandu mayor, Bidya Sundar Shakya. While Dangol was an advisor, she hadn’t faked her way there, as a fact check quickly pointed out.
In Bharatpur, Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal threatened the country could be headed towards a “grave crisis” should his daughter, Renu Dahal, not get re-elected as mayor. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has also been lobbying hard for Renu, given that she’s an alliance candidate but also to placate her father. The primary challenger to Renu is Jagannath Paudel, formerly of the Nepali Congress, who was expelled from the party after refusing to withdraw his nomination. (For those not in the know, the ruling alliance of Congress-Maoists-Unified Socialists-Janata Samajbadi is jointly fielding candidates in major cities across the country after dividing up the posts among themselves. This has not gone down well with local party leaders who feel they were robbed of legitimate chances at winning). Bharatpur is especially important for Dahal because it is a gauge of his chances at the federal elections later this year. Dahal’s constituency is Chitwan-3.
Then, there was Arzu Rana Deuba, wife of Prime Minister Deuba, brazenly threatening to withhold funds for any areas that don’t vote for Nepali Congress. She’s been lambasted for her comments, which seem to treat the federal budget as if it were her own private treasury.
I talked a bit about the lack of women’s representation in this election on last week’s newsletter. A Kantipur article now points that, out that only 5.67 percent of candidates for municipality chiefs are women. Among mayoral candidates, 3,219 are men while only 230 are women, and among municipality chiefs, 3,186 are men while only 155 are women. In keeping with trends from the last election, women have been fielded for deputy posts — 1,435 women and 603 men for deputy mayor. Many women who had been promised primary positions in the last election if they stood for deputy have been denied, with parties choosing overwhelming to field male candidates for the top posts. The electoral alliance between the ruling coalition has meant that parties no longer have to field at least one woman candidate, as long they’re only fielding candidates for either chief or deputy, a loophole that the parties have only been too happy to take advantage of. Given this low number of women candidates, it is unlikely that we will see many women in top positions.
Yet another concern with the upcoming election has to do with invalid votes. There’s a fear that many more votes will be invalidated this time around. Here too, the electoral alliance is partly to blame, especially in metropolitan and sub-metropolitan cities. As each party is only fielding one candidate, voters will have to search through a long list of election symbols to pick their choices and make sure that their choices align with the correct post. Here’s what a ballot for Kathmandu Metropolitan City looks like:
The ballot itself is divided into two sections, with seven columns each and a total of 64 rows. Each voter will have to mark just one symbol from each of the seven columns, taking care not to smudge their marks or to mark outside of the boxes. The mark should not even be touching the borders of the boxes. Each voter will thus have to look through the ballot for the election symbol of their chosen party or candidate and then carefully mark them according to the column header. Any mistake can lead your vote to become invalid. If this sounds confusing, that’s because it is.
Things have also been complicated by the fact that there has been very little voter education this time around. The Election Commission should be flooding social media, telelvision and newspapers with advertisements regarding the correct way to vote. In 2017, the commission had mobilized thousands of volunteers to go door-to-door and educate voters on how to vote. But there was apparently a lot of criticism that the volunteers were campaigning on behalf of the parties so the commission, this time around, decided not to mobilize any volunteers. Combined with the excessively complicated ballot paper and voting method, it is likely that there will be even more invalid votes this election. In 2017, despite voter education, some constituencies had invalid votes as high as 24 percent (Biratnagar) and 19 percent (Lalitpur).
That’s about all I can talk about elections. I personally am excited to be voting and I look forward to election day. But since I will be at the voting booth next Friday, there will be no newsletter that day. That is all very well since I did plan to take a break after the 52nd newsletter, and here we are, a full year of writing this weekly newsletter. For this week’s deep dive, I’d like to keep it lighter, even a little personal, as I look back on a year of Off the Record.
The deep dive: One year of Off the Record
It was 2020, the height of the pandemic. I’d left my job as Features Editor for The Kathmandu Post (for personal reasons) and I was stuck at home, rereading Aimee Bender and playing Age of Empires 2 with my brother. I had made attempts to work on my fiction but writer’s block had set in, paralyzing me at 30,000 words. I needed to write but since I wasn’t a journalist anymore and didn’t have a job, I didn’t really have to, and that meant I wasn’t going to.
That was when I decided I’d start a newsletter. I’d write weekly epistles on all that was happening in Kathmandu, a very subjective opinionated take that was meant to entertain as much as inform. That way, I’d keep writing and I’d also keep abreast of current affairs. Since so many journalists in the US were jumping ship from prestige publications to start their own newsletters on Substack, I joined the bandwagon. I created a Substack account and thought I’d start writing.
I never did get around to writing that newsletter.
It was only in 2021, about a year later, after I had joined The Record as editor that I thought I could finally bring that newsletter to life. Editing and managing The Record would not leave me a lot of time to do reporting but I thought I could manage a few hours every Friday to write a thousand words or so about all that had happened the past week. Only, every newsletter stretched to about 3,000 words and consumed my entire Friday. I had to hand off editorial duties and concentrate solely on the newsletter, calling up a few people and doing extensive research.
This newsletter takes a lot out of me but I enjoy writing it. It helps my writing discipline and it keeps me thinking critically. Every Friday, it forces me to look back, reflect and attempt to piece together something cohesive and readable. Every newsletter is really a labor of love. So whenever I hear that readers enjoy this weekly epistle in their emails, it warms the cockles of my cold, cold heart. After all, what writer doesn’t enjoy hearing that people actually read their writing? Even an audience of one is still an audience.
The attempt that this newsletter makes is part of the larger ethos of The Record — a resistance, perhaps futile, against fast, easy news. There is a prevailing belief in the media industry, abroad and now increasingly in Nepal, that journalists must not just adapt to the internet but also embrace its virality. I agree with the former, but not with the latter. Yes, journalists must get used to the new digital world we find ourselves in but that does not mean we have to chase clicks. Yes, revenue depends on clicks but when did journalists turn into copywriters and content creators? The aim must still be to tell the truth in full, unvarnished. And if it takes 3,000 words to do so, so be it.
Most things are complex. Understanding a subject takes effort and time. Not everything can be distilled into a two-line caption that appears under an apt photo. In fact, most things can’t. The Nepali media cannot take Routine of Nepal Banda as a model, no matter how successful they are. Pithy, one-liners are not news. It’s just information. And information without context and without history is just noise. We need to decide whether we want to tell stories and explain issues or just impart information.
That does not mean that we reject the internet and the tools it gives us. Media must move towards multimedia — videos, podcasts, and yes, newsletters. Everything doesn’t have to be 3,000 words or 30 minutes but it shouldn’t be 2 lines or 10 seconds either. Every story dictates its length. Reporters and editors must be cognizant of that and allow the story to breathe. Suffocating an article so that it fits a certain format doesn’t help anyone, not the writer and not the reader.
My mantra at The Record has been to slow things down. I take inspiration from the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Bela Tarr, and Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still. There’s a larger movement out there to slow things, to actively resist the urge to constantly switch from tab to tab, video to video, tweet to Instagram post. It is not a rejection of technology, just a change of pace.
And so, our articles aren’t short but they aren’t always long either. Most pieces can be read in less than 10 minutes and readers should be willing to dedicate at least that much time if they wish to understand something. We cannot turn journalism into pill-sized capsules of information to be swallowed in one gulp. Real journalism is a full meal; it is meant to be savored and it is meant to be fulfilling.
You can take your time with this newsletter. It is not meant to be finished in one sitting, even though it can be read in just about 15 minutes. It arrives in the evening or early morning, depending on where you are, and you have the entire weekend to peruse it. Some readers tell me they read it on Friday night itself before they go to bed. Others tell me they keep it for the Saturday morning breakfast or later in the day, when things are quieter. You can skim it, you can skip certain sections, you can always abandon it and come back to it. The choice, as always, is yours.
Complementing this turn towards the slow is a centering of the subjective. Journalism has always been about objectivity. This is not to say the journalist is an objective, passive observer but that the method is objective. Arguments are presented with evidence and both sides, generally speaking, get a fair shake. But objectivity was a modernist impulse. We understand now, after Derrida, that meaning is inherently unstable and depends as much on the time and place as it does on the text, beautifully illustrated in the Jorge Luis Borges short story ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’.
Journalism has attempted, in many ways, to grapple with this radical rendering of subjectivity. The first-person is becoming more common in reportage, especially long-form and magazine reporting. Journalistic podcasts center the podcasters as much as the subject in question. Documentaries now increasingly favor the Werner Herzog style of overbearing subjective narration. We in Nepal and at The Record find ourselves attempting similar experiments. I’ve tried to help introduce the writer behind the words to the reader, sometimes through subtext, other times more directly through the first person. I believe that the time has come to cast off all pretense at hiding the person behind the reporting. We journalists too, after all, have thoughts, ideas, beliefs, sympathies and antipathies. The reader is more well-informed when they know what those are.
This newsletter too is one such attempt. I hope it allows some insight into the beliefs, attitudes, and proclivities of the one who is editing and deciding what appears on The Record. These days, it is equally important to pay attention to the man behind the curtain.
This newsletter, I’ve spoken of lofty ideals and philosophies but in the end, and all too cruelly, we must come down to material matters. The Record has been an experiment in more ways than just this newsletter, as our long-time readers are well aware. Our founders, Gyanu and Kate, took a leap of faith and attempted something bold. They’ve handed stewardship to quite a few over the years, I’m just the most recent one. We still need your support to keep this ship sailing. The doomsday clock continues to tick for The Record. Give money if you can. If you can’t, share this newsletter among your friends and family, post our articles on your social media, get people talking, bring us more eyeballs. Anything would help.
If you’ve gotten this far into this highly personalized iteration of the newsletter, I thank you. Good night, good luck, and remember to take things slow.
On The Record this past week:
Prasansha Rimal on the persistence of long covid
Tom Robertson on writing with strong verbs
Poonam Khetrapal Singh on the WHO’s efforts to reduce malaria in South-East Asia
Samik Kharel on local elections in the age of social media
Dev Datta Joshi on the barriers to an inclusive election in Nepal
Happenings this week:
Sunday - Additional Inspector General (AIG) Dhiraj Pratap Singh was promoted to chief of the Nepal Police. AIG Bishwa Raj Pokharel duly filed a petition at the Supreme Court against Singh’s promotion on the grounds that he, Pokharel, had been passed over despite being senior to Singh.
Monday - Indian National Congress leader Rahul Gandhi arrived in Kathmandu to attend the wedding of his friend, former CNN journalist Sumnima Udas. A video of Gandhi at a club in Thamel sent Indian media into a frenzy, with some even bizzarely alleging that a woman seen with him in the video was Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi.
Tuesday - The Kathmandu Post reported that India had proposed Navin Srivastava, head of the East-Asia Division at the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, as Indian Ambassador to Nepal, replacing the outgoing Vinay Mohan Kwatra, who’s been appointed Foreign Secretary. Srivastava is believed to be a ‘China hand’.
Wednesday - A bomb threat was called into Tribhuvan International Airport’s domestic terminal early in the morning, leading to mass chaos and evacuations. An unknown person reportedly called the duty officer from a Pakistani number and warned that seven bombs had been placed around the terminal. The threat turned out to be a hoax as no bombs were discovered by the Nepal Army’s bomb disposal unit.
Thursday - USAID and the Nepal government signed a grant agreement wherein the US has pledged Rs 79.91 billion to help Nepal graduate to a middle-income country over the next five years.
Friday - An Indian national died while attempting to scale Mount Kanchenjunga, the third fatality in the Nepali Himalaya this climbing season. Earlier, a Greek climber had died on Dhaulagiri while a Nepali climber had died on Everest.
Article of the week:
‘A personal Ramadan’ — Prajita Gupta explores what Ramadan means to young Muslims in Kathmandu
That’s all for this week. Off the Record will be back in your inboxes on May 20 after skipping a week due to the elections. I shall see you then, in your emails, for the next edition of Off the Record.
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