After Balen, the Rabi Phenomenon
While mainstream political leaders in Kathmandu were vacillating on a date for the upcoming provincial and federal elections, one Ram Bahadur Biswokarma was up on a stage of an open stadium in Nepalganj.
“May my country be like Rabi Lamichhane,” said Biswokarma in a quivering voice. He was prompted to speak about ‘the country of his imagination’ at a district meeting of the newly launched National Independent Party in Banke.
Another participant, Balkrishna Chapagain added: “May my country be what Rabi Sir has envisioned!”
Rabi Lamichhane is using this public preference for independent candidates because the incumbents are old and incompetent to his advantage and to catapult his National Independent Party to prominence. His personal brand as a well-recognised face has helped.
Lamichhane is only the latest figure cultivating tv popularity for politics in a long list in Nepal, India and other countries. Viz: Donald Trump, Silvio Berlusconi, Volodymyr Zelensky, Smriti Irani.
According to John Street, English professor and author of Mass Media, Politics and Democracy, it is easy to have 'celebrity influence' on politics through television. The reason: compared to any other mass medium, television focuses more on the human aspect of the people -- making the audience in turn feel seen and heard.
Lamichhane’s News 24 show सधा कुरा, जनता संग (Straight Talk with the People) allowed him to generate a massive fan base after it was first aired in 2016. He took on issues of public concern including foreign employment fraud, mismanagement of airport immigration, and corruption. Heated political confrontation in the studio, live rescue of abused workers meant that people were now coming to him in the hope of solving their problems instead of going to the police.
Soon enough, Lamichhane was everywhere. At political party events, the crowd lined up for selfies with ‘Rabi Dai’. On Facebook, he has over a million followers which is more than the combined total Sher Bahadur Deuba, K P Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal have on the platform.
But his influence was perhaps most visible when he was taken into custody by Chitwan Police in 2019 for the suicide case of a former employee. Even as an alleged video emerged where Salikram Pudasaini before his death blamed Lamichhane among others for mistreatment, supporters took to the streets calling the incident a smear campaign against the tv presenter.
Read also: Kathmandu’s ‘Balen Phenomenon’, Sarala Gautam
Which might as well be, but Lamichhane’s persona is cultivated by sensational, clickbait journalism. his content is provocative and unapologetic, it incites antagonism against guess. Few anchors on national television have hurled invectives and threats as he has.
But when the Press Council sent Lamichhane a warning letter, he wrote back, ‘I’m not a journalist, not yet.’ And yet, he has used the media to propel himself to national popularity. 'I would rather be a cobbler than apply for a press pass,' he added, which the followers supported by waging a cyber jihad.
For a celebrity presenter of his status, he is quite fast and loose with facts. His forte is not fact-checking, as exemplified by episodes on Nepal manufacturing its own Covid vaccine and a haunted house in Kathmandu which were baseless, problematic and promoted false narratives.
So it is only natural to wonder if his politics will resemble his journalism. After all, a leader has the responsibility to forge a path without crowd pressure, having judged right from wrong.
Lamichhane accepts that he lacks leadership experience in Nepal, but claims to have led a large group at his workplace in the US to improve customer service. Lamichhane was formerly a manager at an outlet of the sandwich chain Subway in Baltimore.
It was also the Chitwan incident that prompted Lamichhane to join politics, he has said. He had even announced a new reality show titled Leader to find candidates for his new political party but the pandemic intervened.
But when he joined Galaxy 4k TV where he was also an investor, one could see a marked difference in his demeanour. He was constrained, and diplomatic with his guests. Perhaps he was just biding his time to join politics.
“I had thought of running for mayor of Kathmandu,” Lamichhane was quoted as saying. But the results of the May election where independent candidates were victorious in some of the major cities appears to have emboldened him to launch an entirely new political party.
Read also: Rise of the independents, Editorial
Lamichhane set some ground rules during the campaign. At his party functions, it is not the leaders who speak and make false promises but participants who talk about their expectations, election tickets will be given only to the candidates chosen by ordinary members and the party will refrain from setting up cadre and forming fraternal organisations.
But Lamichhane’s unclear stance on federalism and secularism is suspicious to many. To be sure, he was in the news for his anti-republicanism and anti-federal sentiments around the time Rajendra Lingden won the RPP chairmanship.
There was also talks of him joining the party prior to local elections in May. Lamichhane’s celebrity status combined with RPP’s stronghold could have been a powerful alliance, but by setting up his own party, it seems he wants to be his own boss and not be led by crowds.
We have already seen how Bibeksheel Sajha Party went into decline after its chair also a former media personality Rabindra Mishra demanded feudalism to be scrapped, monarchy restored and a referendum on secularism.
Will Lamichhane be able to connect to the people with his politics as he did with his brand of journalism? Will the voters amid their distaste for mainstream parties and the same old leaders seek an alternative as they did with Balen Shah and Harka Sampang in May? We will have to wait till November for answers.
So far, the new party has enjoyed a good turnout at its district meetings. But so do gatherings of rural cooperatives. And despite the Lamichhane Craze, his new party lacks candidates and leaders to properly contest the election. Even Lamichhane’s otherwise tv presenter-style provocative oration lacks substance at his political events.
“Giving a public speech is much more difficult than speaking on tv where we talk based on facts,” Lamichhane himself admits. But one cannot discount the possibility that the celebrity presenter could cut the vote bank of the establishment and even capture their strongholds.
Rabi Lamichhane’s transition to politics is an experiment. Voters will also be experimenting by voting for him. For many, given the current crop of ageing leaders, that is worth a gamble.
Read also: SNOWBALEN, Shristi Karki
Umesh Shrestha is the editor at NepalFactCheck.org, a joint initiative of the non-profit Center for Media Research Nepal (CMR-Nepal) and the Nepali language blog, MySansar.com