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Shishir Bhatta

July 8th, 2024

Harka and Balen: Era of Political Renaissance in Nepal?

0 comments | 10 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Shishir Bhatta

July 8th, 2024

Harka and Balen: Era of Political Renaissance in Nepal?

0 comments | 10 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Can a new, hands-on, citizen-focused practice of political governance change traditionally hierarchical élite political behaviour? Shishir Bhatta discusses how the politics of two mayors with no political bloodline is impacting political and citizen awareness in Nepal. 

 

In June 2023, Harka Raj Sampang Rai, the Mayor of Dharan, succeeded in bringing direct water supply to Dharan from a stream 42 kilometres away, after a 98-day voluntary labour campaign. The government had seemed reluctant to address the city’s drinking water woes; Sampang appealed for a voluntary mass campaign. More than 5,000 people from Dharan (and outside) pitched in every Saturday/public holiday to make possible a project that once seemed impossible. This was part of a clutch of projects of Harka Sampang — including planting 10 million trees, establishing soap and turmeric powder factories and motivating the youth to give up drug addiction — all showing varying degrees of success.

Similar stories echo in Kathmandu, where Mayor Balendra Shah (aka Balen) has shown immersive commitment to provide 24-hour free ambulance service, reclaim trespassed government properties, provide free lunch to public school students, allocate 10 per cent of hospital seats for free treatment of the poor and needy, establish adequate public toilets, research and preserve cultural sites, manage garbage in public spaces, and more.

Both mayors were elected independently out of the disenchanted malaise afflicting Nepal’s politics. They have hitherto remained true to their election vows, and are being hailed for their concrete plans and action-oriented behaviour. A meteoric rise in their popularity has sidelined the fame of other figures in national politics, establishing the ‘Harka and Balen’ era. Interestingly, neither mayor is solving new issues nor promising large-scale infrastructure projects, but have instead come up with practical methods to solve existing, long-standing public concerns. Contrary to their predecessors who tossed abstract ideas and lofty promises around, Harka and Balen have shown solidarity with the general public’s issues and concerns. This has sparked a debate about the beginning of a renaissance in the political culture in Nepal.

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Though Harka’s development model and implementation strategies does not align with Balen’s, the political and ideological practices initiated by them hold promise.

Harka’s labour campaign has demolished the crevasse between the ‘ruler’ and the ‘ruled’. As Mayor, he has himself toiled shoulder-to-shoulder with the people, disregarding any hierarchy. This has put moral pressure on other administrators to act as servitors of citizens rather than masters. In a country like Nepal, where politicians see themselves as élite, Harka’s gesture aids in breaking down such hierarchies and creating an egalitarian and equitable society with improved access of common people to governing authorities. Also, his dispassionate working attitude and firm determination has evoked a strong ‘work culture’ among the youth, which will pave the path for financial independence and societal transformation.

Grassroots involvement in development not only ensures its sustainability but also strengthens the foundation of democracy. Critics portray Harka as ‘Dhunge Mayor’ (loosely translated as ‘Labourer’s Mayor’) and criticise him for using manual labour over advanced technology. However, his voluntary participation campaign model should not be mistaken as people’s elective involvement merely to reduce infrastructure costs; rather, it should be regarded as a long-term strategic investment for sustainable democracy in the country. This is because grassroots activism and a broader engagement in political and developmental issues fosters a more informed and participatory society which ensures the success of people’s rule.

Harka’s model was imitated by parliamentarian Rabi Lamichhane in his election constituency to solve existing drinking water issues. Harka has succeeded in establishing himself as a role model amidst politicians of other political parties as well, eluding the partisanship prevailing in Nepal’s politics. His tenure not only marks the kick-off of the era of infrastructure development but also the period for the genesis of appreciative and collaborative politics.

Remarkably, Balen — who is of Madhesi/Terai origin — is receiving enormous public support for his policies and actions in Kathmandu, which is densely populated with the indigenous Newar community. This fact has over-ruled the long debated political slogans of ethnic federalism in Nepal because acceptance of cross-ethnic leadership in Kathmandu clearly reflects people’s call for a competent leader over a communal one. This could be ground-breaking for inclusive leadership and a denial of the politics of ethnicity and regional chauvinism. The institutionalisation of this small yet significant progress in political mentality can facilitate inclusivity, acceptance and tolerance in national politics which is vital for political rejuvenation.

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The commendable success of these leaders with insignificant political legacy has amplified the idea that competence stems from tangible vision, will power and transparency, and not from family genes — an indication that the ‘politics of inheritance’ can be discarded in Nepal where bloodline heirs of leading politicians have mostly been favoured in the history of Nepalese politics. This change can electrify the proficient and patriotic youth ­— belittled for their lack of ‘political godfathers’ — to lead the political future of the country.

It is noteworthy that leaders of established political parties have frequently denounced and disparaged the two mayors, especially for their hands-on approach and actions. However, the cadres of those parties, regardless of their political ideologies, are still buttressing the endeavours initiated by these mayors. This has inflicted a blow on the old guard in politics, expressing people’s silent revolt against hegemony, political bargain and extremism. Needless to say, the new and emboldened political conscience of people visible in the tenure of the two mayors will facilitate the crafting of a dynamic democracy, and accountable governance, in days to come.

Without a doubt, various novel political dimensions are being explored in this ‘Harka and Balen’ era, but it may be too early to tout the beginning of political renaissance as politics continues to be confronted by corruption, ill governance, political instability, nepotism, and favouritism. The two mayors represent people’s voice but only in local administrative units and have no substantial influence in national politics — there are miles to go before ethical and transparent national politics becomes a lived reality in Nepal. Despite the laudable performance by these two political leaders, and civil society should act as a watchdog to prevent the probable development of personality cults around them.

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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ‘South Asia @ LSE’ blog, the LSE South Asia Centre or the London School of Economics and Political Science. Please click here for our Comments Policy.

This blogpost may not be reposted by anyone without prior written consent of LSE South Asia Centre; please e-mail southasia@lse.ac.uk for permission.

Banner image © Alisha Limbu, Dharan, Nepal, 2024, Unsplash.

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About the author

Shishir Bhatta

Dr Shishir Bhatta is a registered dental surgeon, social activist and commentator on Nepal. He is currently pursuing a Masters in Social Work at Western Sydney University, Australia.

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