Caste VoteEven more than in previous elections political parties are falling back on caste vote banks because of the absence of party ideology
An election is a political process that allows citizens to select the most honest and efficient candidates to manage the country for a given period. It is also a public process that affects a nation’s social psychology.
With days to go before the 20 November elections, party strategists, media pundits, and even strangers in buses are obsessed with the arithmetic of elections. This win-lose analysis distracts us from the social polarisation, communal friction and competition for natural resources that underlie the polls.
Elections alone do not ensure democracy. Social media now provides unprecedented immediacy and amplification to manipulate public opinion.
This election is a battle of two coalitions at the federal and provincial levels. Amidst the cacophony, young independents are trying to find a voice. The slogans have added a new vocabulary to the Nepali language and the country’s social ecosystem in an election devoid of ideology or agenda.
Voter apathy is high because unholy alliances have turned yesterday’s foes into friends, and few candidates talk about their everyday concerns like jobs, inflation, education and health. Unlike previous elections, very few Nepalis working in India have returned home to vote.
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More than half of Nepal’s population now lives in the Tarai. And across the plains, there is little mention of the Madhes Movement for autonomy. The past five years have given the people of Madhes Province little to celebrate, as their leaders sway with the political wind to switch allegiances to Made-in-Kathmandu coalitions.
The JSP and the LSP cannot rely on block votes from traditional loyalists in the plains anymore. So, the ballots could go to those who dole out cash, spread lavish feasts, or appeal to caste allegiance.
Even though candidates are not directly using caste as a basis for votes, it is an unspoken strategy at the hustings. Even more than in previous elections, and just like in Bihar across the border, political parties are falling back on caste vote banks because of the absence of party ideology. Political analysts have to factor in caste in poll forecasts.
Because the coalitions are not fighting about principles and livelihoods, the real competition is more about caste and cash than in previous elections in the Tarai. Raising the caste issue allows candidates to mask their incompetence and duplicity.
Even though traditional politicians are relying on caste, feasts of rice and raksi, or handouts for votes, there is an undercurrent of deep disillusionment – especially among younger voters here.
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I ran into 80-year-old Digambar Chaudhari in Rautahat who has seen many elections in his time. He told me: “The caste vote banks are not as solid as before, not everyone can be bought with cash.”
At a tea shop in Siraha, I heard a catchy election slogan: “जातपर न भातपर ,मोहर लगाऊ विकासके बातपर” (Vote for development, not for caste or rice curry). In another roadside stall, we heard “पैसा, सेकुआ आउर दारू, इसबके मारी झाड” (Let’s sweep away all cash, roast meat, and booze).
Manju Bhattarai, 36, sees the election as an opportunity to reject candidates who are buying votes: “We can change things by being responsible voters.”
We do not know if these four vignettes represent the larger Tarai picture, but conscious voters are determined to make their ballots count. Politics usually impacts the social structure of a society, but we may be seeing a changed social milieu affecting politics this time.
Watching door-to-door campaigning in these borderland towns, I noticed voters were not as passive as before. They engaged directly with candidates, cross-questioning them. Some were Dalits who earlier would have assured a party middleman of their community’s votes in return for cash or food.
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Many voters, especially from poor and marginalised communities, are not just listening anymore. They are asking candidates how they plan to fulfill their promises to improve their lives in the coming five years.
Chandra Kishore is a Birganj-based political commentator. This is the first of his monthly column BODERLINES in Nepali Times. @kishore_chandra