A paradise, on paper – Saturday Features

Jul 1, 2017-

As three of the country’s seven provinces waded into a damp and wet, second-phase of the local level elections, I had the opportunity to closely follow the campaigns and electioneering in the cities of Province One, where I am based.

These local elections, twenty years in the making, might have been marred by numerous incidents of violence and political squabbling, but at the grassroots, the excitement was palpable.

In these two decades, the country has changed so much and so have the aspiration and the needs of its citizens; and the electoral sloganeering seem to have reflected that.

The usage of digital platforms and social media by voters is at an all time high, and it has helped some candidates reach out to their constituents—especially young voters—like never before.

But has this increased connectivity been a blessing for voters looking to better study the candidates and policies on the roster; or has it just become an empty vessel for hollow promises? 

Take for instance, some of these buzzwords that have found their way into most election manifestos. While going through campaign documents of various political parties and even independent aspirants, newer election commitments like building smart cities, initiating digital governance, and installing free Wi-Fi zones are a dime-a-dozen.

Atleast in the urban clusters of Province One, nearly all political parties have zeroed in on the ‘smart city’ pledge as their Holy Grail.

But despite such lofty election promises, are candidates fighting for leaderships of metropolitan cities, sub-metropolitan cities, municipalities, village councils and wards, showing any inklings of coming good on these pledges? For many voters, it has already started to feel like déjà-vu—an utterly old wine in a somewhat new bottle. 

For example, many parties have spoken about converting Itahari, Dharan and Biratnagar into smart cities that would become the envy of the nation.

However, they haven’t exhibited early possible behaviours towards this goal. Leaders harping on promises of digital governance, free Wi-Fi zones and smart cities are not publishing digital manifestos.

They don’t have their own web portals giving details of their election campaigns; their election pledges; personal details of their candidacies or transparent records of election expenditure. 

Another irony is that many candidates, even in the urban hubs, don’t even have social media accounts at a time when the platforms have become a shared space where vibrant discussions and debates are taking place.

If candidates aren’t willing to invest in making this digital leap, how are we to believe that they will bring us smart cities and digital governance once elected?

An election manifesto is not just a periodic ritual to woo voters. It is a public display of both short-, medium- and long-term visions a party or a candidate has on how they plan to serve the best interest of the constituents.

It should be a product of protracted dialogue and reflection on how to rule, regulate and reshape localities, not whimsical documents drafted just for the sake of populism. Unfortunately, our political parties are not serious on this front. 

A political party in Itahari, for instance, has said it will issue ‘patent right’ to local agricultural and industrial products— something that would be an uphill struggle even in the capital Kathmandu.

Likewise, another political party has pledged to set up an industrial zone along Jhumka-Khanar section of the Sunsari-Morang Irrigation Project, but doesn’t specify the kind of industries, its investment climate and other technicalities. Another political party in Itahari says that it will convert Itahari into a quadrilateral hub for dry ports connecting India, China, Bhutan and Bangladesh, without specifying why these nations would even use Itahari as a transit, when they already have existing interconnectivity.

In this way, as a voter, you cannot help but suspect that all this is just a part of the political game that we have been party to all these years. How can we buy these election promises, when there is scant evidence that the parties have done the necessary homework to deliver on them in their short term of just five years?

Promises without financial and technical details and timelines are at the end of the day just promises—and hollow ones at that.

We, the voters, are partly to blame for these theatrics as we are so keen on voting along our party lines—as the first phase of election showcased.

Now, with the second-phase too wrapping up, all we can do is hope that votes were not cast with rose-tinted glasses but with a critical eye on the viability and the affordability of the election manifestos. Else, these hollow promises will yet again echo out into the next decade. 

The author can be reached at [email protected]

Published: 01-07-2017 09:20