Republica Daily, 22 Dec 2017
When the Nepali Congress (NC) proposed Nripa Oda as the party's mayoral candidate in Dhangadhi Sub-metropolitan City last summer, a section of leaders within the party opposed the idea, saying someone like Oda won't enjoy the support of upper cast voters. The upper casts will not vote for anyone from the backward Dalit community and the party will certainly face defeat, they argued.
The anti-Oda sentiment was so strong that Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, who is also NC president, had to intervene. "You need not greet Oda with a namaste even if he gets elected; he himself will offer you the namaste. So, just vote for him," Deuba said while addressing poll rallies in the city.
Oda had already served as party chief in Dhangadhi Sub-Metropolitan City and the NC had no other local candidate matching his popularity. After analyzing his poll prospects the party went ahead and picked him over many others, and the seasoned Dalit leader managed to win the election.
"It is not easy for someone like me to win as one has to deal with caste, regional and linguistic factors," said Mayor Oda, adding, "A section of people brought these things up as election propaganda but I succeeded in winning by nearly 3,000 votes."
Even though the Constitution has ensured 13 percent representation for Dalits, very few Dalit politicians have had an opportunity to work as chief executives. Oda is a rare exception. Other than women members under the quotas set aside at each ward, most Dalits could not get elected.
A study conducted by Jagaran Media Center (JMC) shows that only 10 Dalits-- six mayors and four rural municipality chiefs--were elected as chiefs among the 751 local units. Apart from this, 11 Dalits were elected deputy-mayors, 14 vice-chairpersons, 194 ward chiefs and 797 ward members. Nearly 200 seats reserved for Dalit women members remained vacant in the total of 6,742 wards.
"Dalit inclusion remains a hollow promise. Parties did not prioritize Dalits in fielding candidates," said Rem Bishwokarma, chairperson of JMC. "Dalit inclusion can be taken as mere tokenism."
Dalit representation in the first parliamentary and provincial assembly elections conducted under the new Constitution is not so encouraging. Only three of them were elected to parliament and four to the provincial assemblies, all under First-Past-the-Post.
CPN-UML leader Chhabilal Bishwokarma, a common candidate of the left alliance, emerged winner from Rupandehi-1. Another UML leader, Jagat Bishwokarma, was elected from Kaski-3. Maheshwor Gahatraj of the Maoists won from Banke-1.
Sundar Bishwokarma and Dansingh Pariyar of UML were elected provincial assembly members from Bara-4 (a) and Mugu-1 (a) respectively. Maoist candidates Man Bahadur Sunar and Rato Kami were elected from Kanchanpur-3 (kha) and Rukum West(a).
Nepali Congress fielded only one Dalit candidate for the provincial assembly elections. Party central working committee member Jeevan Pariyar was fielded from Kaski-3 (a) but he failed to win. Madhes-based parties did not give much priority to Dalit candidates and those fielded by fringe parties like Rastriya Janamorcha were defeated. Upendra Yadav's Federal Socialist Forum Nepal fielded DB Nepali for parliament from Kaski. He also failed to emerge winner.
"When the parties see high chances of winning in polls they rarely opt for Dalit candidates. But recent poll results show that even Dalits can win," said Ganesh BK, general secretary of Mukti Samaj, Dalit wing of the UML . Other Dalit rights activists interviewed for this report, however, said lack of adequate finances and some social stigma have worked against them.
This time, the left alliance of the CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Center) fielded only seven Dalit candidates. They all won. NC's single Dalit candidate lost.
Dalit leaders complain that they do not get the electoral constituencies they desire. Ganesh BK himself had wanted to contest from Kailali-5 but in vain. His party fielded Naradmuni Rana instead, and he emerged victorious against NC's Arzu Rana Deuba. Another veteran UML leader, Lal Bahadur BK, was promised Kanchanpur-1 (b) but the party came under pressure to accommodate Bina Magar of the Maoists as part of the larger poll alliance between the two parties.
Two Dalits--Dal Bahadur Sunar and Ram Dayal Manda--who prevailed over influential rivals from Banke-3 and Mahottari-4 respectively in 2013, were not given party tickets this time.
Dalit rights activists say the mandatory provision on electing a Dalit woman in each ward increased Dalit participation at the local level. But the low presence of Dalits in key positions at the local units and at the center has affected the overall Dalit movement, they further said.
In 2008, altogether 50 Dalits were elected as lawmakers. Of this total, only six were elected under FPTP and the remaining under the PR category. The participation of Dalit lawmakers decreased in the 2013 elections. Out of a total 38 Dalit lawmakers, only two were elected under FPTP and the remaining 36 under PR.
If a 13 percent Dalit participation rule is implemented while electing a parliament, Dalits will get 15 seats. As those elected under FPTP are almost all male, the parties need to elect a maximum number of women under PR.
Many, however, say the position of Dalit women could be weakened if the elected Dalit women cannot live up to expectations.
"Since the parties have no alternative but to ensure proportional representation for Dalits in parliament, they will have to pick mostly women Dalit leaders. The absence of capable women leaders may mean the expected outcomes for the Dalit community might not materialize," said Ganesh BK of Mukti Samaj.