Nepal Populist Party (Balenist)

Personality cults and populism find fertile ground in Nepal, feeding on public scorn of established parties

Nepal’s cybersphere is rumbling with posts by politicians vying to go viral by being ultra-nationalist.  

Thrust to electoral victory last year riding Facebook booster rockets, Kathmandu Mayor Balendra ‘Balen’ Shah is leading the charge. First, he posted a photo of his office with a pre-1816 map of Nepal to counter the Akhanda Bharat mural unveiled in India’s new Parliament building.

Then, he went ballistic on rumours (later proven to be untrue) that the Indian movie Adipurush claimed Sita was “a daughter of India”. He retaliated with an indefinite ban on all Bollywood movies in Kathmandu cinemas until the non-existent dialogue was removed not just in Nepal but by Indian censors as well. Sound familiar? The Maoist 40-point demand in 1996 also included a ban on Bollywood films.  

When the Patan High Court issued an immediate interim order rescinding the movie ban, Balen fired off another salvo from his social media account saying no way was he going to follow the court’s order or, for that matter, the Constitution. Safeguarding the national interest and preserving Nepal’s sovereignty and culture was far more important, he said. 

And he used a similar argument about hanging the Greater Nepal map in his office, despite constitutional experts calling the tit-for-tat anti-Constitutional, irresponsible and over-stepping his jurisdiction as mayor. 

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Ultra-nationalism in Nepal is not new, it is usually retaliatory India-bashing over some perceived affront. Madhuri Dixit once said that she found Nepal “just like India” and we got worked up about that. But it can also turn deadly, as shown by riots in 2000 over Bollywood actor Hritik Roshan purportedly slandering Nepal in an Indian tv interview. 

Nepali politicians through the ages have resorted to nationalism to hide under-performance, to distract public attention from more pressing issues, or for electoral gain. All it does is expose insecurity, and only becomes serious when the flames are stoked by politicians.

To be sure, the Indians add fuel to the fire by taunting Nepalis, knowing fully well how sensitive historical memory here about past wrongs can be, and anything said or done in New Delhi tends to be magnified in Nepal – as with their claim to Kalapani-Lipu Lek.     

Nationalism is the last resort of scoundrels, as someone said. Italian media tycoon and 3-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who died last week, perfected the art of populist politics even before the age of the internet. Donald Trump copied the formula ditto by weaponising social media. Narendra Modi in India has demonstrated how to pulverise pluralism with populism. 

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The temptation to appeal to raw instinct, intolerance and hidden bigotry is so strong that even politicians who have fought long and hard for democracy succumb to it. After Balen Shah’s map went viral, the NC’s Gagan Thapa couldn’t resist putting in his own two cents.

Former BBC journalist Rabindra Mishra, who practiced objectivity for decades, has also gone off on a tangent. Rabi Lamichhane of the RSP is only held back by saner voices in his party.

Every politician is entitled to their personal conviction, ideology, and faith. It is when their exercise of freedom impinges on someone else’s right to choice that it becomes dangerous. In countries with entrenched discrimination, inequity and social injustice, populism can be turned into a political warhead.   

Balen Shah promised a lot during his election campaign, and some cosmetic changes have been made to the streets. To be fair, it would be too much to expect one mayor in one term to solve Kathmandu’s multi-faceted crises decades in the making. Still, hanging maps on the wall and banning Bollywood films serve to distract public attention from failures. 

Even the mayor’s proactive campaigns have been unjust and excessive: bulldozing squatter settlements without first offering alternatives and his Metropolitan Police upturning fruit and panipuri carts of street vendors. The poor and neediest became collateral damage.

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Any critics of these actions are mercilessly trolled by Balen’s supporters who are internet avatars of his street gendarmes – as we probably will be for posting this Editorial online.

The challenge for democracy worldwide now is to protect open societies from populist politics. In Nepal, the royal right is crafting a narrative of nostalgia about the glory days of monarchy. But it is not so simple.  

Political changes in Nepal in 1950, 1990, and 2006 have all come about because of outrage over an existing system. But outrage alone does not guarantee a change in the character of the state. 

Populists feed on this rage against the status quo, but they offer no solutions except hyper-nationalism. The silver lining is that Nepalis also rejected many serial politicians, and elected some capable technocrats who are now raising hell in Parliament.

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