New faces win Nepal polls, vow to ‘change political discourse’

Biraj Bhakta Shrestha had just stepped out of his teens in the early 2000s and used to spend his time busking out at what is popularly known as Freak Street in Nepal’s capital, Aljazeera reported.

With a guitar in his hand, he would pick a spot on the street of Kathmandu’s Basantapur area and play some of his own songs and some popular covers of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd among others.

The Himalayan nation was then going through a Maoist rebellion, which ended in 2006. Two years later, an unpopular monarchy was abolished, making Nepal a federal democratic republic.

“I think the prime minister even at that time [the early 2000s] was Sher Bahadur Deuba,” Shrestha told Al Jazeera. Two decades later, Deuba at 76 is still the incumbent prime minister – his fifth term.

It was this resentment over Nepal’s politics dominated by parties with ageing leaders that drove dozens of younger leaders such as Shrestha to contest the parliamentary elections held last month.

The November 20 polls witnessed a wave of youngsters challenging the hegemony of the old guard of Nepali politics. While a handful of them won, many others secured substantial votes, with some of them even competing against popular leaders in their long-held constituencies.

Shrestha, a candidate from the newly-formed National Independence Party (NIP), was among the winners as he secured a seat in the House of Representatives from Kathmandu-8 constituency.

“I was really happy with what I was doing. I loved art, I played music, I was a young tourism entrepreneur and an avid traveller,” Shrestha said.

“The only thing I was always yearning for was self-respect. While I was trying to stand on my own feet, I felt the country hardly respected what I was doing. It is necessary for the state to respect and extend dignity to all professions and feel responsible about them.”

Joining Shrestha in the House of Representatives will be the eloquent Sobita Gautam, a 27-year-old lawyer and journalist who secured her victory from Kathmandu-2 – a keenly watched constituency where traditional parties held a tight grip.

“As a young representative, I plan to bring fresh discourses to the parliament. In the past, we have always had old political approaches and the same faces, so no one talked about contemporary issues,” Gautam told Al Jazeera.

“At the same time, we are educated and experienced in our fields, which gives us diversity. We can change political discourse and take it to new directions.”

Also boarding the NIP bandwagon is Shisir Khanal, an educator-turned-startup entrepreneur who is working to improve the state of education at the local level.

Khanal, who was elected from Kathmandu-6 seat, founded Teach for Nepal, an initiative to ensure all Nepali children have access to good education.

“I have realised the youth are leaving the country because they lack opportunities for good education and employment,” Khanal told Al Jazeera. “All issues revolve around politics. I am here to be at the forefront and raise concerns at the national level.”

Political analyst Bishnu Sapkota thinks the underlying message of this year’s election is change and youth obvious vehicle for that.

“This is loud and clear and encouraging. The traditional parties, their party structure has been hijacked by old leaders for a long time and the internal democracy within the party has been weakened,” he told Al Jazeera.

“In this scenario, the handful of youth who have been elected from old and independent parties gives a positive message.”

In Nepal’s 275-member House of Representative, 165 are elected through direct voting while the remaining 110 enter the house via a proportional representation system.

At least 138 seats are required by a party or coalition to form a majority government.

The question of ideology

While the young and new faces – mostly representing the NIP which has won seven seats so far – are ready to enter the parliament, politicians from the traditional parties – most of them communists – were seen dismissing them as “inexperienced” and “lacking ideologies”.

Former Prime Minister and United Marxist Leninist (UML) party chairman Khadga Prasad Oli criticised the cohort of newcomers for not having any ideology, which he said is very important in national politics.

“Parties do not govern without an ideology,” he told a Nepali TV channel.

In response, the newly elected parliamentarians have opted to settle for jargons such as centrist, left or right of centre, and even non-ideological.

“The traditional forces have always been concerned more about ideological stands and leanings. It doesn’t matter what ideology one carries and I think we need not be so concerned about it,” Gautam told Al Jazeera.

Khanal says his party is clear with its stance on not having a particular ideology, stressing on a “delivery-based” politics.

“We are more focused towards development and good governance,” he said. “Our party adheres to the constitution which clearly states we are a socialism-oriented state.”

Analyst Sapkota says having a political ideology and a political identity are two different things.

“Those elected from the National Independent Party come from diverse professional backgrounds but as soon as they step into parliament, they should have a point of view to take positions on where they stand on various national issues,” he told Al Jazeera.

“It is important to have a common political vision to be able to define themselves with clarity and take stand on issues.”

‘Alternative forces’

The new breed of leaders says they are keen on exploring agendas seldom discussed as national issues.

“It is not just about the youth, but about nurturing a techie youth. We need to initiate discussion on emergent technologies, blockchain and open-source programming. These are the game changers for our generation and meant for economic prosperity,” said Shrestha, who also plans to include art as a prime agenda during his tenure.

“We might use the latest cell phone with the fastest internet but we still lack drinking water. This is the challenging part,” he added.

Gautam thinks she needs to concentrate on environmental issues and sustainable development. “It’s high time we bring these pertinent global issues to our national discussions,” she told Al Jazeera.

“We do not have to do the opposite of what the traditional forces do to become alternative forces. The next five years of performance will decide whether we will rise as one.”

Sapkota thinks the emergence of new faces with the formation of the NIP has rekindled the idea of an “alternative force” in Nepal’s politics in order to meet the people’s aspirations.

“They have been entrusted with this huge responsibility. It’s one thing to criticise the old leaders and say they will do things in a new way. But when it comes to delivery, it will be a serious responsibility,” he said.

But will the traditional parties cooperate with their younger colleagues in parliament?

Gautam says she is aware of the challenges ahead. “I think we will not witness massive change very soon,” she told Al Jazeera.

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