The strike began on July 21, the day Nepal made its first attempt to choose a new Prime Minister. Our bus had just creaked its way from the narrow alleyways of Sauraha to the highway that would take us to Katmandu, when a jeep went by with four boys sitting on the roof. They brandished sticks and thundered slogans, but the grins they cast our way were friendly. They looked as though they were having too much fun to pose any threat.
Our driver thought otherwise. Without warning, he turned the bus around and headed back into the village alleys from which we had just come. Back we went, past the green fields where storks circled overhead, past the edge of the forest that gave way to the rippling elephant grass. No one aboard the bus appeared at all discomfited.
“What’s happening?” I asked the conductor, a fair and portly man with a pencil-mustache.
“Bund. Strike.” The boys were going to block the highway, he explained; the detour eluded the strike and joined the highway farther up. His mustache now twitched and stretched as he grinned in triumph. “They’ll soon close these roads, too. If we hadn’t turned when we did, we’d have been stuck with all the others back there.”
“Does it have to do with the election?” I asked. I had been asking questions about the election since arriving in Nepal from China some weeks before. No one had seemed remotely interested when I asked about it, but now a strike would suggest some passion about the matter, would it not?
“Oh no”, he replied. “Nothing to do with the national election at all. Someone in the municipal government proposed an increase in the land tax and the villagers are protesting against it.”
It had been like that throughout my time in Sauraha, located in the Terai, Nepal’s southern belt: Life had nothing to do with the parliament’s scramble to elect a Prime Minister. The parliament, which was also the constituent assembly, was chosen through direct elections for the most part, with a few seats reserved for minorities. The scramble had begun this past June 30 when Nepal’s Prime Minister, Madhav Kumar Nepal, resigned. (He had stayed on as caretaker Prime Minister, but, as his would-be successors pointed out, that did not confer any legitimacy upon him). Squaring off against one another for the post were Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the head of the Maoist Party, who had been Prime Minister until resigning on May 4, 2009, and Ram Chandra Poudel, the leader of the Nepali Congress. These two parties, along with the Communist Party of Nepal and the United Democratic Madhesi Front, have formed the main players in parliament since the monarchy was abolished in 2008 after a fierce civil war. A new representative democracy was about to elect a new head of state. It was, I had thought as an American historian of international politics, a moment of deep significance.
No one in Sauraha saw it that way. In the jungles of Chitwan district, where this village of less than 3,000 people is located, concerns were more basic. The villagers were mostly farmers who would walk into the jungle to cut elephant grass. In the jungle, they did not know when a tiger or leopard might seize them, or an elephant or rhino pound them to the ground— but they needed the grass to thatch their roofs. An enterprising boatman could pole upriver and fish, but even here there was danger. One boatman we met stood painfully on a leg that bled in several rivulets from his knee, the marks of a recent encounter with a crocodile. “Lucky man”, said Gobhinda, our safari guide, meaning that he was lucky to be alive. What extra money the villagers had came from surplus produce on the farms or from remittances sent by relatives working abroad. A new Prime Minister, as they saw it, would do nothing to change their lives.
Gobhinda, a young man who sauntered through the jungle in flip-flops, summed the matter up neatly. As a jungle guide, he made less than 10,000 rupees per year (about $135 U.S.)—enough to live on but not yet enough to be taxed. In his spare time, he pored over a battered copy of Birds of Nepal. When he realized that I shared his enthusiasm for crested serpent-eagles and lesser adjutant storks, we became friends. Ornithology mattered deeply to Gobhinda, but politics was a bird of a different feather.
“What can the government do for us?” he said, when I tried to canvas his views on the race for Prime Minister:
They could fix the roads. They could supply us with regular electricity. That would make business better. But they haven’t done that and it doesn’t matter who wins, no one is going to do that. So why would an election matter to us?
As if on cue, the electricity in our hotel went out.
In the distance, an elephant trumpeted, and Gobhinda began to tell me the story of how, the last time he had been home, a tiger had come to claim a goat from his family. Yes, I thought, one could certainly feel removed from the elections out in Chitwan.
But even in the capital the election was treated as immaterial. “Who won?” I asked Rinku, a Nepali friend, when we got back to Katmandu. Rinku was a sociable young woman who spoke seven different languages. “We do not”, she said, with an arch of her eyebrows, “take an interest in politics.”
It was true; they don’t. For politics to matter, constituents must perceive that a change in government will have some concrete ramifications for them: how they will be taxed, how the infrastructure in their neighborhood will develop, how opportunities for their children might come or go. In Nepal, none of the politicians had made the slightest effort to explain how the elections would alter the lives of their citizens. For most Nepalis, whatever happened in parliament had no bearing on their daily tasks. The elections were neither a help nor a hindrance. And that is why, while the first election failed to produce a Prime Minister, Katmandu went on the next day as it always had. Hindus and Buddhists still made their way to Monkey Temple to worship. Friends still gathered over momos (dumplings) to chat. Commercial deals were made. Plans to visit old hometowns were aired. The fact that a fruitless attempt to choose a Prime Minister had just occurred did not pierce the threshold of public significance.
Most of Katmandu’s citizens may be divided into two broad categories: those economically secure enough to ignore the election, and those too poor to care. For the former, the political deadlock was irrelevant. It had not hurt business, and it was not going to. One party was much the same as another. None was likely to interfere with private enterprise. “I’ve got plenty of friends among the Maoists”, laughed a businessman. He was a man of conscience and compassion. Much of his energy and a good portion of his profits went to charity. “They might talk a lot, but they’re just like everyone else. I’ll scratch their backs, they’ll scratch mine, and we’ll all get along.” He paused. “That’s true for anyone else in power.”
For a vast majority of those less wealthy, questions more pressing than the election waited to be pondered. The rise in petrol prices made business harder, when the moody electricity supply permitted it to go on in the first place. In narrow streets, where motorcycles, cars, pedestrians and livestock jostled against one another, police were few and far between; those representatives of government authority that did appear seemed chiefly occupied with demanding money from cab drivers who could ill spare it. The rains that year were not enough for a good harvest. Food prices were rising and people had to figure out how to feed their families. “It’s already so expensive”, said a villager from Gorkha, “that it’s amazing it can still go up.”
The poverty that runs so deep in Katmandu and Chitwan does not paralyze people, however. Their problems are grave, but they remain cheerful. (After wondering how he would afford food, the man from Gorkha pointed delightedly to the kitten beside him. She had just killed her first rat and was playing blissfully with the rodent’s head. “She’s small, but she works”, he said with paternal pride). Part of that cheer stems from a certain fatalism: Life is tough, but that is just the way it is and one might as well learn to deal with it. And family and community bonds remain intensely strong—strong enough to offer some relief from poverty. A relative working in the Middle East or the United States would send some money, or let one use a little piece of land to grow some food. Such are the attitudes and institutions most Nepalis rely on in times of need, and these have nothing to do with government.
On the evening when parliament tried to elect a Prime Minister for the second time, a few people gathered in the living room of the hotel we were staying at to watch the results: an engineer, a botanist and the hotel’s receptionist. They did so as if watching a rerun of a show they had seen many times before. There was nothing more entertaining to do on this particular evening, and the election, even though they already knew that it would end in deadlock, kept boredom at bay and provided an opportunity to socialize. There were no policy issues to discuss, because none of the main parties had bothered to chart out their policy differences. There were no plans to fix the electricity system. There were no plans to deal with inflation or crime or land reform. There was no debate over what a constitution might look like now that the monarchy was gone. So in the living room, talk turned from relatives in distant places to what the city had looked like in the past, to how quaint it was that my name was the same as that of a Bollywood star, and how strange it was that the rains had not come in force yet this monsoon season. Only now and then, when a candidate failed to garner enough support or when I asked a naive question, would the conversation return to what was unfolding on television.
“The Maoists won this district last year”, the engineer told me. He was a bald, bespectacled man who had spent a lifetime studying Nepal’s waterways. “People were tired of their fighting”—I remembered how Gobhinda’s face darkened as he told tales of rape and murder the Maoists had committed—“and besides they were new. So people decided to give them a chance.”
That chance had not been well treated. The Maoists had been a revolutionary force when they first came to power in 2008. For all the violence that people attributed to them, they had capitalized on genuine grievances born of Nepal’s poverty. They promised thorough land reform. As a result, Katmandu’s population grew dramatically as wealthy Nepalis in Maoist districts fled from land they thought would be confiscated. It is always, however, easier to lead a revolution than a government. The novelty soon wore off and the Maoists did little to alleviate the harsh living conditions that had caused Nepalis to turn to them in the first place. People felt that they had failed to deliver on their promises, which made them seem the same as all the other political parties. Some felt that democracy had had its chance and that things had been better in the time of the old King Birendra. “One says I’ll build a new Nepal, the other says, no I’ll build a new Nepal, the third says, no I’ll build a new Nepal”, snapped one gentleman. “They’re all the same. In building a new Nepal, they’ve destroyed it. They just care about the chair of power, not about the people. The king was better.”
Whether or not Birendra’s rule had been better than the new order, that perception underlined how meaningless democracy could be in the absence of a political culture that linked parties to people. At the time of this writing, Nepal had tried to elect a Prime Minister seven times and failed. That might seem a serious matter to an outsider, but it is a failure entirely disconnected from the rhythms and concerns of daily life.
“So what will happen now?” I asked, at the conclusion of that evening by the television.
“Now?” said the engineer. “Now they will try again. They will fail.”
“But what will happen?” I persisted.
“What will happen? Nothing will happen. Life will go on.” And he beamed.