Some said there was no way there’d be elections. Some said elections would happen, without too many incidents, although there’d be some. Things were uncertain. Some said the army would take over. The Maoists said the army was stockpiling weapons. Some Royalists said the army would take over. Everybody was waiting and watching. Everybody was preparing to leave the country on a moment’s notice. If it comes to that, if the Maoists win, although they won’t, there is no way.
I told anyone who cared to ask me that I hoped the elections would be peaceful. I hoped the parties, and the YCL, would behave. Let the people decide.
On Monday, my parents left to vote in Abu Khaireni, my birthplace. I am not on the voters’ list there. I didn’t think I was on the list here, at Gongabu. But I was. I said – all parties are thieves. I said – I won’t vote. I am not satisfied with how the parties are behaving, how they suggest the peace that hopefully will be restored in the country after peaceful elections is their benevolent gift to the people, rather than something the people have earned through their patient practice of democracy.
More despairing was what I saw among those whom I idolized – the people. I have realized over the days leading to the election that the people are as much thieves as are the political parties. More reason not to vote. I felt like a cliché – America-returned, liberal-arts-degreed, nitpicking over everything about the elections, doubly-fatalist, looking for an argument with everyone with a contrary view. I turned down opportunities to be an election observer: on election day I would sit and write fiction to earn my keep. I worried about what I would write for Samudaya, the only place where I wanted to express my opinions on the events of the day. It would validate my rants in the past, I thought, if I could tell Samudaya how I lived this momentous day.
I awoke to my brother’s frustrated shouts. He was yelling at his six-year-old son and my Bhauju because he couldn’t locate the chit with his name and roll number corresponding to his information on page 27 of the voters’ list. I tried to sleep through it, him banging the daraj open and shut, opening drawers and flipping the mattress over. He yelled at Bhauju, who was in the kitchen upstairs, and he sent his son, Abhi, to fetch her.
“How would I know?” Bhauju said. “You took it somewhere the other day. How would I know where you put it?”
“When?” asked Dai. “When did I take it?”
“How would I know?” Bhauju answered. Back and forth. Pitch and volume rising, Dai acting as if his world would end, as if, without that chit, Bhimsen Das Pradhan would surely lose to Yogesh Bhattarai or Hitman Shakya.
It was six-thirty in the morning. Voting wouldn’t begin for another thirty minutes. Voting was to happen four minutes away from home, and he had a volunteer’s pass. He was Bhimsen Das Pradhan’s party representative inside the polling station. Nobody would stop him from voting.
I called my father in Khaireni. From the bustle in the background, I could tell that he was already at Shri Ram Shah High School, where I imagined the polls were happening, as they always did. I could be wrong – they tell me Khaireni now has a population of close to forty thousand people. When I last left it, it wasn’t a quarter as crowded and land sold at a lakh a hand. “Look in the black bag in my daraj,” he said.
“Look in the black bag in Ba’s daraj,” I said to Dai, who had found what he was looking for, something that had been right under his nose all morning.
“Your name is also on the list,” he told me. “Come, vote.”
“All are thieves,” I said.
I didn’t even want to watch any of the news channels: all full of politicians lying left and right, talking in one befuddling tongue. If one were to believe them, the elections were simply an exercise in wresting legitimacy from the people to stamp approval on sheet after sheet of secret arrangements among the three major parties.
But there was no electricity, therefore no television. Abhi went next door to play with their year-old baby. I went to check my mail, read the news, and I thought I would see how the election was faring. Dai was standing with the other representatives, handing out a business-card-sized profile of Bhimsen Das Pradhan. Illegal to hand out campaign material on election morning, but I guess business cards didn’t count. I told him I was going to watch the election.
“You should vote,” everybody said. “Page number 27, your name is on page 27,” Dai said.
Okay, then, I thought. “Go to the party’s table and get a chit made,” Dai said.
The chit listed your name and a serial number between one and thousand, identified which line you’d stand in to vote. The same information would be with the officers appointed by the Election Commission.
“I don’t want any help from any political party,” I said. “If I can prove I am Prawin Adhikari, I should be able to vote.” Unless someone present at the polling station – at the desk where Congress, UML, the Maoists, and Independents put their heads together and colluded – could challenge my identity and prove that I was not Prawin Adhikari, it was my right to vote in that particular polling station. This was guaranteed by laws drawn up under the interim constitution. I said this to Dai and his friends.
“Doesn’t work that way,” they said.
“Doesn’t work the way guaranteed to me by the Election Commission?” I said.
“Here the representatives have agreed to a different agreement.”
“Whose representatives?” I said. “Did you ask me? Did you let me know about your decision through public media?” Sarwajanik sanchar madhyam. Anger pushed my words closer to Sanskrit than the coarse Tahanunle Nepali I speak. They laughed. Fuckers, I thought. “Everybody is a thief,” I shouted in disgust, throwing my fist in the air, not as a gesture of anger but of disgusted dismissal. I huffed and returned home, confident they didn’t deserve my vote.
But I wanted to vote in the proportionals, the only way some of the people with agreeable ideas on democracy, with which I am familiar through sarwajanik sanchar madhyam, could be placed in the debate that would shape the constitution of the country. I was so angry that it made me want to defecate, but I let it deposit, constipate, just out of spite. Fuckers, I fumed on the roof, watching schools of middle-aged women dressed as if for teej make their way through Town Planning, their mouthz moving in tandem, dhoti-ends fanning faces.
Dai brought Sujan home: Sujan is a year older than me, but is an uncle by relation, someone I grew up with in Khaireni. We used to knock on doors to watch Mahabharat as kids, and read the book together after watching Bhimsen tear apart Dushashan. “Youth like you,” he said, “If youth like you won’t vote what hope is there?”
They are all thieves, I said. But, it was futile not to vote. I would regret this opportunity to belong again after a long absence, a period in which so much has happened. I would have no moral authority to point my finger and direct my anger at the chor politicians at a later date if I didn’t put them in debt to me, if I didn’t put my mark on the constitution of this country. I know very strongly that I will leave Nepal at the first decent opportunity I get, and I know that I will choose to be a citizen of my professional world – fiction, cinema – over any country. But I wanted to vote, my first, if you don’t count student association elections at Whitman.
“Come with me,” Dai said as he was returning to the polling station.
“I’ll come on my own,” I told him. I didn’t want help from any political party.
Isn’t this illegal, I thought, when I saw UML and Maoist flags right outside the polling station. By law, they are required to be at least a hundred meters from the polling station: they weren’t that far even from the polling booth inside Navodit High School. I looked at the face of Hitman Shakya, large, in keeping with the tradition of his party, no doubt, adorning walls and aggrandizing. Party cadres were busy finding the names of people who wanted their help to locate themselves on the voting list. I took long, what I thought were authoritative, strides to the polling station. The policemen stopped me right at the gate.
“Where is your chit?” they asked.
“What chit?” I asked. I knew what chit they wanted me to show – but that was a game prepared and agreed to by the parties. I didn’t care for that.
“Look here,” I said to the policemen, “as a citizen of this country, I have every right to go in and vote. I know exactly where my name is on the list. It is illegal for you to stop me.”
“I don’t know any of that,” they said. “Can’t let you in without a chit.”
“What chit? I don’t want to have anything to do with the parties. You can’t stop me from voting. You have no right to turn me back. Only election officers can tell me if I can’t vote, not you, definitely not the parties.”
“Jabarjasti nagarnus,” they said. “Don’t try to bully us. Mildaina.”
I was bullying them? I knew there was no point in engaging in a yelling match. Some Nagarik Samaj people gathered around me. “There is an agreement in place,” they told me. “We aren’t affiliated with parties either, but the parties have decided. Don’t ask me under what Ain.”
Dai heard the shouts, I guess. He appeared at my elbow. He put a hand on his chest and another on my shoulder. “This is my brother,” he told the policemen. “Wait, wait here.”
I put a foot across the school gate. There were people watching from the rooftops. Four extremely slow-moving lines inching into the shade under a colorful tent. An election must make a wonderful spectacle, even in its placidness. A policeman put his foot across the gate from the inside. People worked their way around us. Dai came with the chit – nothing but my name and the line in which I was to stand (ka), but a sanction from one of the parties, I think the Maoist desk, sufficient to convince the policeman that I was decent enough to vote. I didn’t enter immediately. I wrote in a notebook first: At 9:45 AM, I was denied entry into the polling station without a chit issued by a political party. I did it more to show the people around me that I was angry at them, the entire lot of unscrupulous fuckers that they were.
Bhimsen Das Pradhan came around wishing luck to everyone. “Isn’t this illegal?” I asked him. He didn’t respond, moved on down the line, up and down all four lines, like a tick sucking at the entire length of a particularly windy snake. Another Nagarik Samaj man came to my side. “No. Not illegal. Election Commission laws allow candidates to come with one assistant. If he had brought many, would be illegal.”
“Sure,” I said. “But how is this not voter-influencing?”
“Those that are doing are doing everything,” somebody said. Garne le sabai garya chhan. Ke legal ke illegal.
It is okay. The important thing is not to fight inside the polling station. Sanctity of the process. Nagarik Samaj tried to talk to me. Sanctity my black ass, I thought, everyone is a thief. Sabjana chor. I wrote in my note book: At 10 AM Bhimsen Das Pradhan tried to influence voters in queue at a polling station. I have to record this, I thought, I’ll show these fuckers.
“Uncle,” a small voice called from behind and pulled at my pant pocket. Abhi and Bhauju were also in line. Since she was in the female line (kha), Abhi had come to stand with me. “Is your name on the list?” I asked him. “No,” he said shyly. The man behind me showed Abhi a picture on his cellphone: Abhi riding his bike, its left training wheel broken and pointing upwards. Abhi hid his head inside my shirt, talked to my belly. We tried to fit inside the shade of a faded black umbrella held high by an elderly man in front of us.
Gongabu is an area that has grown very rapidly in the past two decades. It is more a direct product of political change than something like, say, the real estate market. As the UML and Nepali Congress diverted the nation’s wealth to a crust of the petty bourgeoisie within their folds, they bought small patches of land in small installments and built small houses, often financing it with money got from selling agricultural land elsewhere. Around the late nineties, when the corruption of the parties was at its height, large, ostentatiously decorated houses mushroomed here, sometimes with the national flag and guards inside. Very often they were the homes of people who ran overseas employment consultancies. As Maoist violence in the countryside increased, their targets poured in, building another crop of small houses or renting flats from those already there. As security deteriorated outside the valley, constructions around Gongabu grew faster than in most other areas in the Kathmandu Valley. After the April Revolution of 2006, Maoist activists came down to live as neighbors with those they had flayed, forced to flee. YCL and Maobadi-pidit sharing the scarce water and microbus seats available to them. All of them at the polling station. Rarely an indigenous Newar in queue, not a single person of Tarai origin. Most voters born elsewhere.
An elderly lady came to the front of the line waving a chit. The heads at the desk huddled, looked up at the lady. Is that really your name, they asked, can we see your chit? This can’t be you, they said.
“Maybe the people writing the name in that book made that mistake,” she said.
“No, no,” the heads said. “You can go back out,” one of the heads told her.
“Wait,” I said to the lady. “You don’t have to leave. These people have no right to tell you whether or not you can vote.”
“That name she gave us,” one of the representatives said, “She is our friend’s mother. This lady isn’t her.”
“Can’t they have the same names?” I asked.
“Maybe,” they said. “Maybe not. But our friend’s mother has already voted.”
“Doesn’t mean you can’t vote,” I told the lady. If she wanted, she could petition the head of the election officials at the station. If that officer was convinced that her grievance was genuine, the officer would give her a ballot, which would then be sealed in a special envelope. Her vote wouldn’t be counted unless the difference between the total number of votes cast came to be so close as to make hers the decisive vote.
“Go back and ask for another vote,” one of the heads said.
“That isn’t proper,” I said. It would be proper for her to petition to the election officials. Anything else was wrong.
“I don’t want to stand in line again,” the lady said. “You can come straight to the front,” the heads said. I looked around. People were standing under any patch of shade they could find. Maheshwor Shrestha was carrying water to those in queue. The elderly lady walked out. Fuckers, I murmured, looking at the huddled heads of the party representatives. They had intimidated the guard at the front of the queue – he was handing over the chits of queued voters, for the heads to consult their copy of the voters’ list and pronounce whether or not a person could vote.
“These people have no right to tell anyone who can or can’t vote,” I said to people close to me. The guard asked me for my chit. I waved it under his nose. “I don’t have to show it to these people,” I said. “I know I can vote. I’ll show it only to an election officer.”
Another man was stopped by the heads. He had given his name as Shyam Piya. Problem was, Shyam Piya died of cancer about a year ago. I know because Shyam Piya was a neighbor, a Newar with roots in Bandipur, Tanahun. “You should come this way,” one of the heads called the man, but I heard later it was the same man who had given Shyam Piya the Proxy his chit. Maoists, I heard.
“Page 27,” I told the election officer when it was my turn. “I am Prawin Adhikari.” Prawin Adhikari bhanne ma nai hum.
The man confused himself by looking at the roll number, turned to a later page and couldn’t find my name. “Twenty seven,” I said, poking at the list. The man looked up, I looked down at him. On page 27 I could see my father’s name. “That’s my father,” I told the man. He took my chit and tried to put a red mark on it. His pen didn’t write. He scratched at the paper furiously, the red didn’t stick.
I moved one step up the line. The blue ink of the vote seeped under the cuticle of my left thumb, a dark crescent under the nail. Marked. A third man tore off a light blue ballot sheet and asked me to put my thumb print on the stub.
“Thumb print?” I laughed. Ajhai pani aauntha chhap nai ho?
The man looked up. Perhaps nobody else had questioned him about that. “What’s the use of this?” I was annoyed that I had to roll my thumb in ink for no reason. I’ve hated it every single time I’ve had to do it. It seems too personal a mark to put just anywhere. The only function of thumb prints should be to increase the intrigue in a crime scene.
“This is proof that you took a ballot,” the man said.
“Yeah, maybe, but it is no proof it was me that took the ballot,” I said. I meant – how does a thumb print warn you if somebody drops a proxy vote? What is there to stop anyone from dropping a proxy vote in my name? So it is proof that you gave a ballot away, but what does it really signify in the democratic process?
“But this is proof you took a ballot,” the man repeated, irritated that I had broken his rhythm of tearing off ballots from a pad. Smirk on my face, I must have tarnished the sheen of dignity he had been wearing all morning. I folded the ballot once, twice, three times as I waited for the person before me to finish stamping his ballot with a swastika stamp.
When it was my turn to cast a vote, I leaned over the light blue ballot, put my stamp on it secretively, deliberately, lightly, afraid of how delicate an idea I was dealing with. It didn’t ink well – too faint for comfort. I needn’t have worried – surely there would be heads huddled together and a head would speak for my faint swastika. But it was my first vote, and I needed it to be strongly imprinted, forceful and righteous. I inked the stamp again, leaned as close to my earlier stamp as I could, and placed it ring on ring, arms of the swastika superimposing. I looked at it again – there was no ink in the ink pad; the second swastika was just a tad off, creating the illusion of a shadow under the first stamp. “It won’t count if you stamp it twice,” someone in the queue yelled. “I know that,” I yelled back. “The stamp doesn’t stamp.”
I folded my ballot. A strange thought occurred to me: since the ballot is vertical, instinct leads people to fold it in half. In fact, in a lot of places election officials were instructed to give people the ballot already folded. The tree and the sun were placed such that if the ballot were folded in half, and if the stamp had too much ink on it, it would transfer a mirror image onto the signs of other parties in boxes at the very end of the column. A stamp on the sickle-hammer, on the third column, wouldn’t, because its column was shorter by two boxes, just short enough.
For the pink ballot, I inked my thumb without any protest, stamped the ink pad with force a few times before leaning over my ballot. I cast my vote and wondered if my blue ballot would be more important than my pink one: my gut feeling was that the pink would count for more.
I picked up Abhi and told an election observer to keep her eyes wide open. She had beautiful brown eyes. I had just cast my first vote ever, and possibly – I hope there is no reprisal in my lifetime of the events that led to this election, or of a similar election – the most important vote I’ll ever cast.
I checked the time as I walked past the guard. 10:45 AM. A man in his early twenties seemed agitated, itching for a fight. “Congressi boys want something to go wrong there,” he pointed towards the booth. “They just want a reason.” “And what will they do?” I asked him. What? Fight? Stab, shoot, burn? Do what? Why? He didn’t answer. Fucker, I muttered.
At home, Bhauju made vegetable momos. The Dhakals who live downstairs also voted or tried to, all proxies. Aarati forgot what name she was supposed to use, and was caught out. The Maoists gave them chits to vote, waited for them to come out and asked them if they had voted Maoist. UML was doing the same. “Congress not so much, but they’re doing it too.” Because Congress hadn’t bothered to set up a party booth. The trick was to have representatives constantly walk back and forth between the party’s booth and the representatives’ table inside the polling station. Within the first hours of polling, a clear pattern emerged of those absent for various reasons – those registered in two places, therefore gone to their village of origin [like my parents]; overseas working or studying [millions, throughout the country]; deceased [Shyam Piya]; late to the station. Representatives noted these names, went outside, sent someone fresh inside with a new chit. It was agreed upon by all parties. Those chors, fuckers!
“Did they get the ink on your skin?” Someone wanted to see my thumb. If it had been just on the nail, I could scrape it, buff it, get it clean, put a coat of varnish on it, go back, take care not to let the ink get under the skin. Vote again. And again. Everybody is a thief. Fuckers.
Again and again people asked me which party I had voted for. “It is a secret ballot,” I said.
“What harm is there in telling us?” they said. I remembered how people waved their ballots in front of a loudly cheering crowd when they voted for the first time, in 1991. They didn’t understand why a vote like this needs to be a secret ballot, and why some other votes need to be transparent. I gave them my view on democracy:
“Every person has one vote. Every person has the right to use that vote to decide. Every person has an equally sacred right to refrain from using that vote. And lastly, every person has the duty to refrain from asking others about their votes.” People should not tell others, while the elections are going on, how they had voted, or how anyone should vote. That is against the spirit of democracy, I said. Prajatantrik maryada biparit kura ho. People laughed at me or called me rude for not telling them how I had voted. Hamlai bhanda ke hunthyo ra?
Throughout the day rumors and facts filtered through TV channels: so many bombs, so many booth captures. A majority of booth captures involved Maoists. In the evening, Ananta was smug and overconfident, gloating about how everybody had told them about their surprise at how little violence the Maoists had used in the process. I found it revolting that the Maoists were taking pride in the fact that they hadn’t spilled blood. Implied, I think, was a declaration that they are still capable of killing if needs be, but out of some sense of nobility they refrained. For their part, UML and Congress politicians cried foul before a TV audience, said there were rampant abuses by Maoists – voter intimidation, booth capturing, banning other parties from sending their representatives into the polling stations in places like Rolpa. A table filled only with Maoist heads, colluding, no doubt, to ensure their ten thousand martyrs got to cast their votes. Comrades made useful in their afterlife, too; surely martyrs don’t mind that.
I suppose it will be a few weeks before everyone – people, parties, King – settles to a new reality as directed by the mandate of the people. Everybody has the Maoists as the focus of their talks now, amazed at how little bloodshed they created: more Maoists have died in the past three days than have cadres of any other party. But this patronizing and spoiled brat forgets the Tarai and its complications. All incidents of real violence came from the Tarai.
One thing is for sure: these have been among the most successful elections in the history of the country. People have voted in larger numbers this time than in any other election. I am sure most of them voted today. I am sure my parents voted from Gongabu and from Khaireni. No one will be so foolish as to say that all votes are genuine – millions and millions of them are proxy votes. If my parents could register me to vote, there is no reason to imagine our Nepali brothers working in countries from Korea to Kuwait weren’t registered.
Party representatives have prior agreement. Important thing is to keep elections peaceful. Small irregularities are always happening. In the interest of greater good we must overlook minor incidents. New Nepal means looking forward, always forward, no matter a little dispute here and there.
(This article was first published on www.samudaya.org in 2008)