Democracy’s discontents

Populism is a wake-up call for Nepal’s parties to mend their ways.


Populist right-wing parties made a strong showing in this week’s EU parliamentary elections. Populism is spreading in democracies around the world.

Nepal was ripe for the rise of populism. The 2022 election saw the emergence of independent mayors like Balen Shah in Kathmandu, the RSP’s Rabi Lamichhane, CK Raut’s Janamat and the Tharu-dominated Nagarik Unmukti in the Tarai.

These parties came out of nowhere by campaigning mainly through social media to ride the wave of disillusionment against the three established parties and their alpha males who have monopolised Nepali politics for the past 18 years. 

The mainstream media and established parties see populism as a threat — as they should. After all, populism is a revolt against complacent, non-performing kakistocracies that have forgotten why they were elected by the people.  

Nepal’s populists tend to lump the press together with discredited parties, since both have struggled together to restore democracy in the past. Populist leaders distrust corporate media, and have found an ally in the algorithm-driven social web. 

This was manifested most glaringly last month after Home Minister Lamichhane masterminded the arrest of Kantipur Media Group’s Kailash Sirohiya for his paper exposing the scamming depositers of savings cooperatives. 

Lamichhane’s supporters on social networking sites cheered Sirohiya’s detention, echoing his hostility towards journalists. Lamichhane has built such a personality cult that facts do not matter for his supporters as they wilfully ignore his murky dealings.

Then they mercilessly trolled Nepal’s most popular comedy duo Madan Krishna Shrestha and Hari Bansha Acharya after they supported Sirohiya. The cyber-lynching was not funny anymore, so the satirists posted an abject apology and retracted their comments. 

This is a familiar tactic of populists the world over: weaponise the web to silence critics. In Nepal, besides Lamichhane we see the same hubris and intolerance in the cyber persona of Balen Shah and Dharan Mayor Harka Sampang.

Lamichhane’s political launchpad was his popular tv show in which he supported underdogs against an unresponsive state. Balen Shah is a rapper whose rebellious lyrics were his campaign platform against the capital’s antiquated and feckless leadership. Harka Sampang, a migrant returnee, also branded himself as a rebel and social activist.  

Populists need gimmicks to sustain support from voters, and fall back on social media. Balen Shah mobilises YouTubers as his bulldozers raze sidewalk structures, dig up the asphalt on New Road or string multi-colour LED lights on the airport road. He displays a map of Greater Nepal in his office, has banned Bollywood movies, and threatened to burn down Singha Darbar.  

Sampang strong-arms his way into planting saplings on private property, and posts inflammatory statements on social media while fanning ethno-religious tensions in his constituency. 

Lamichhane has continuously disparaged the media, resorting to whataboutery when confronted with his role in the cooperatives scam. As Home Minister, he has transferred officials who were assigned to investigate his involvement in various scandals. 

To be sure, established party bosses are not averse to resorting to populism themselves. Former Prime Minister K P Oli still maintains that Lord Ram was born in Nepal, and was the hyper-nationalist architect of Nepal’s pointy map. 

Last week, he targetted RSP’s Education Minister Sumana Shrestha for having a foreign husband saying in a video: “She came to visit Nepal, but became a Minister instead.” 

The royal right also rabble rouses, and its main exemplar is Gyanendra Shahi of the RPP who also burst into the public spotlight to be elected to the federal Parliament due to his hyperbolic rhetoric magnified by the social web. 

He is a vocal critic of the MCC, and last week said the US Embassy’s rejection of Sandeep Lamichhane’s visa to play in the T20 Cricket World Cup was “a threat to Nepal’s existence”.

Populists do not necessarily threaten democracy unless they use violent means, as Trump supporters did on 6 January. In Nepal, as elsewhere, they are a warning to established parties and the neo-elite to shape up. After a metoric rise to power, most populist leaders burn up on re-entry. Nationalism, persecution of minorities and migrants, hate speech and xenophobia do not work after a while, as we saw with Trump in the US, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines — and most recently Narendra Modi next door. 

Modi won a third term but barely. He coopted the mainstream press, but it was the freedom of the Internet that kept the door of freedom ajar. The poorest and most persecuted Indians rejected the BJP’s divisive religious extremism. This is a lesson for Nepali leaders: do not mistake populism for popularity. 

YouTube stunts are no match for action in development delivery and improving living standards.

Shristi Karki