A daughter also rises
Manushi Yami Bhattarai, daughter of Maoist leaders Baburam Bhattarai and Hisila Yami, followed her family’s footsteps into politics as a student at Tribhuvan University, where she was secretary of the All Nepal National Independent Student Union. She has an MPhil from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and has been nominated by the Maoist Centre to contest the November election from Kathmandu-7. Excerpts of interview with Manushi Yami Bhattarai:
Nepali Times: How is your campaign going so far?
Manushi Yami Bhattarai: We have been discussing our platform and plan to improve and strengthen our collapsing public institutions, which have been taken over by a handful of people within the political parties. They have fallen prey to the much stronger party structures. Constitutionally-guaranteed rights have not been upheld. Our health and educational institutions are near collapse. The corruption watchdog has been rendered ineffective by political interference. We need to restructure and empower these institutions from the policy-making level, for which we need effective legislature.
Once our health, education, and employment sectors are strengthened, the economy will run these institutions, and I am aware of the role we need to play to strengthen the economy in the first place. Also on my agenda is environment-conscious development at a time when we have been unsustainably exploiting our natural resources to advance development. The next generation will have to pay for it with frequent and catastrophic natural disasters.
We want to introduce laws that address conflicts of interest. Nepal’s political leaders are in business with interest groups who want to commercialise and privatise the education and health sectors, which is why they do not talk about strengthening public schools and hospitals. There is no one in Parliament to stand for universal healthcare and education, and there will be no one unless we stop people with connections in private healthcare and education.
I attended public school in Delhi from elementary to high school and was able to become a gold medalist at Tribhuvan University on the strength of my academic background. I want to send my child to a public school, and take them to Kanti Hospital when they are sick.
Why don't we trust or take ownership of public institutions? When we choose to employ services of public institutions, we will be able to identify problems within those institutions first-hand, and look at issues regarding manpower and infrastructure with more sensitivity because they directly affect our well-being and of people around us.
What are your priorities on infrastructure?
It is a given for leaders to promise what sells. But political leadership means being ten steps ahead of the public in terms of ideas and strategies, and should not just pander to the masses. Populism can be a problem. I am determined to address the basic needs Nepalis face. But what we have been unable to do until now is make Nepalis aware of the roles and responsibilities each level of government has, from the local to the federal.
But while it is important to address the immediate needs and the infrastructural development of Kathmandu-7, it is also important to discuss the country’s economic, foreign, health and education policies which have wider-reaching and long-term importance. It will be my responsibility to solve problems at the local level as well as speak to policies that have far-reaching consequences.
There is speculation that Baburam Bhattarai swapped his Gorkha constituency with Pushpa Kamal Dahal to secure Maoist support for your election candidacy?
That has nothing to do with my candidacy. If I was looking for an advantage, it would have been much easier and safer for me to run from Gorkha. Kathmandu is a challenging constituency even with support from the coalition.
But the announcement of your candidacy came out of the blue. How long have you been thinking about running?
This process has not been sudden. I have been in politics for a long time, having been involved in organisation and social movements since I was 15 years old. I worked for student welfare when I was at All Nepal National Independent Student Union. I have the experience and knowledge of the responsibilities that come with being both a representative and the opposition. This is the right time to put my academic, social and political experiences to the test and take it to Parliament.
There is a challenge in that most Nepali voters align themselves with their political beliefs and ideology and vote along party lines. However, there are now large numbers of voters disillusioned with Nepal’s political mechanism, who are frustrated with the lack of delivery, and will vote for candidates and issues over ideology. Similarly, a larger number of Nepalis are not affiliated with any party and are aware of the need to vote for competent and qualified candidates regardless of party. That is why I am optimistic about my chances.
The number of women candidates in the direct ballot is less than 10%.
Yes, no matter which political party, it is difficult for women to even get selected as candidates. And when women are given tickets, they are given constituencies where they have little chance of winning. It is also more challenging for women to secure election funding. Our social structure also makes it difficult for women to stand in elections while raising children and juggling family responsibilities.
A large part of the public is concerned with image rather than agenda, choosing to pay attention to how female candidates present themselves over what their election platform is. Women are thought of in relation to their husbands and families rather than as individuals.
Has having parents who are involved in politics worked for or against you?
On the one hand, it has been easier for me to get recognised and have a platform because of who my parents are. On the other hand, I am seen as an extension of my parents before people are willing to consider that I am a separate existence with my own abilities and agenda. In that sense, it has been both an advantage and a disadvantage.
My parents received a good education and chose to enter politics because they always believed it was a way to pure service. Had they chosen a different profession, they would probably have had different financial circumstances.
My parents never imposed their opinions or demands on me. They never expected me to follow a set path. I was never pressured to join politics -- in fact, they were always clear that politics would not get me financial benefits, and that I should pursue other interests if that was my goal. But seeing them inspired me to take this up.
I have learned from my family that one must never exploit or take advantage of their platform. They have always been aware of the responsibilities, and have always been connected to everyday Nepalis. I have also learned from them not to let victory feed my ego and not let defeat discourage or scare me.
Read Also: Nepal's Maoist revolution from the inside, Sahina Shrestha
Does that mean that considering the criticism, especially on social media, for being the daughter of political leaders you have considered another like of work?
I am not very active on social media. Outrage-filled discourse on social media has become a global culture. I see discourse on social media as transient — they can lionise an individual one day and vilify the same person the next. So I don't take it too seriously and have chosen not to engage with it. I prefer to meet and interact with people directly. Throughout such interactions, whether people choose to engage with me in anger or frustration, or love, I will accept it.
How will your leadership be different from the previous generation?
The previous generation of political leadership had to replace an autocratic, undemocratic, and centralised political system with a federal democratic republic. It is now up to our generation to stand on the shoulders of past leadership and focus on people and issues that affect them directly: education, healthcare, and employment. We must strengthen our economic foundations so that we can sustain our still-nascent political institutions and protect what we have achieved over the years.
Things have not turned out as I hoped. In the beginning, building a Constitution took precedence over representing the people, and while we focused on policy, we did not address issues that Nepalis faced in their daily lives. Now we have learned our lesson. As party cadres, we relied too much on our leaders to solve the problems, but we now want those leadership positions ourselves so that we can help people directly. You cannot win elections if you are unable to challenge the existing leadership.
What are the challenges of being a full-time politician?
I came into politics at a time when the 'power' of the leadership of our party was declining. I came into politics while we were under siege.
It is challenging to manage a household, both financially and logistically, when one is involved in politics full-time. It is especially challenging now that I have a two-year-old child who will have to start school soon and will have healthcare and childcare needs. So, I have started teaching. My husband was also in politics, but now he is looking for a job. I wonder how other people involved in mainstream politics run their households, and what their sources of income are.
What will your campaign message be to voters in your constituency?
My life and work have always been transparent. It's time to find solutions to problems that we have felt have not been addressed all our lives. And if we make it to Parliament, we will address those problems, in a way that people feel its impact immediately. But we will also need to address issues that will affect Nepalis in the long run and to make those changes we will need some time.
Read more: Nepal’s parties forge new pre-poll alliances, Shristi Karki