An incumbent minister had this to declare at a recent public event: “Sukumbasi are the raw materials of electoral politics!” He is also a prominent leader of the ‘Tarai Madhesh Loktantrik Party’. The minister’s claim was not without merit. After all, in much of the cities in the global South, urbanization is becoming increasinglysynonymous with the rise of slums, due largely to the erosion of the state as service provider. In these cities, ‘vote bank’ is the politics that brings political parties and squatter communities together. The politics comes alive during election time when each makes calculated move to access power and service. In some ways, vote bank politics provides a level playing field for both parties. Generally speaking, political parties need votes from squatter communities to capture municipal/local state power, while the communities need good relationship with the ruling party to access basic services such as drinking water, electricity, sewage lines etc. among other contingent assurances.
However, the politics takes place slightly differently in Nepal’s case for two reasons. First, significant numbers of squatter population in Kathmandu are without citizenship status. It is because landownership and citizenship are uniquely tied to one another in Nepal. You need one to be able to obtain the other. If you don’t have one, you have none. To be able to vote, one needs formal citizenship, which also guarantees legal access to basic services. Although the 2006 amendment of the Citizenship Act removed landownership as a mandatory condition for obtaining citizenship status and added few provisions for inclusiveness, it still excludes large number of ‘Nepali’ from being citizens due to various conditions (discussing which is outside the scope of this article). Second, after the locally elected governments were dissolved in 2002, no local/municipal election has taken place in Nepal, rendering the vote bank politics irrelevant. However, this is not to say that political parties and sukumbasi communities are not co-constituted politically. In particular political moments, conventional associations between the two evolve as well as explode to give rise to new ones. Such politics takes place mostly in the infrared zone; to many, they remain invisible.
POLITICS OF ‘URBAN BASE’
When the UCPN (Maoist) entered mainstream in 2006, it needed ‘urban base’ as the Maobadis had made hinterlands their revolutionary base following the ‘people’s war’ strategy. Anecdotes from the Bagmati riverbanks claim that as the Maobadis shifted base to Kathmandu, they brought with them a number of families and individuals from outside the city and settled them in the riverbanks under the Bagmati Bridge. State laws were bypassed and voter’s ID distributed. The new settlements would become a part of the Maobadi urban base to be displayed in the streets of Kathmandu during political events. Many households in the post-2006 settlements, including the Paurakhi Basti in Thapathali that was recently demolished by the government, claim to be affiliated with All Nepal Proletariat Association (ANPA). ANPA is UCPN (Maoist)’s sister organization that represents a faction of sukumbasi population that split with Society for Preservation of Shelter and Habitat—Nepal (SPOSH-Nepal) few years ago. SPOSH-Nepal is an independent central organization that represents majority of sukumbasi communities in Nepal and has federated networks in over 44 districts. Sukumbasi households that are members of SPOSH-Nepal live mostly in settlements few decades old in the city. However, when the threat of eviction loomed dangerously large few months ago, it was important for sukumbasi communities that political and ideological differences were overcome to form new associations while casting aside the old.
Expecting the Big Three to engage sukumbasi demands critically in their politics as Nepal’s emerging urban question is unthinkable.
Noted philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote in one of his prison notebooks: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” This is the kind of conjuncture that Nepal is currently at; incubated in the interregnum is the sukumbasi politics. When the current government led by UCPN (Maoist) ordered phase-wise eviction earlier this year, sukumbasi communities were left feeling betrayed and victimized. Recourse to forming association with the other ‘communist’ party, the CPN-UML, would follow as a logical step to display ‘solidarity’. Along with that, it was also time for ANPA and SPOSH-Nepal to cast aside bitter past and form a united anti-eviction front. UML’s student body saw it as an opportune moment to make rhetorical claims about being the only vanguard party of the proletariats. In a public event organized by the sukumbasi, one prominent leader of UML, a central committee member, even went so far as to claim that the Maobadis will have to walk on his dead body before they even dare to step into the settlements.
Youth organization of the other major party, Nepali Congress (NC), would soon become vehemently active in the anti-eviction campaign. The politics of exploding and evolving associations scaled new heights when the anti-eviction front took to the streets in solidarity with 13 youth and student organizations affiliated with major political parties of Nepal. This was for a protest organized in February this year against petrol price hike. “Price hike affects the poor more than anyone else”, was the rationale for the sukumbasi communities to join the protest. Although it would be fair to assume that it was also a strategic move in which everyone needed everyone else to display solidarity: bigger the better.
THE URBAN QUESTION
ANPA and SPOSH-Nepal split because of ideological differences and political contingencies. They have adopted different means for achieving the same demands of obtaining citizenship status and landownership. A thorough review of party doctrines of the three political parties— UCPN (Maoist), UML, and NC—indicate very little of their urban vision. So to expect them to engage sukumbasi demands critically and constructively in their politics, as Nepal’s emerging urban question, is unthinkable, period. Hence, it wouldn’t be far off the mark to suggest that the three-way battle between the ‘national’ political parties is geared only toward taking ownership of the ‘urban base’, which is no more than electoral politics. Other political parties are not far behind in showing absolute emptiness in their political vision for dealing with the urban question. At the same event mentioned at the beginning, another leader of the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum would later roar in rhetorical rage: “If the Maobadis meet the demands of the illegal sukumbasi, I can also bring thousands of Madhesi people and settle them in Tudhikhel!”
The writer is a student of urban geography focusing on South Asia
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