29 Dec 2017 - 4 jan 2018 #890

Thinking and acting locally

The Centre is yet to decide where to set up temporary headquarters of state governments, but people in Dharan have already declared their city the capital of Province 1
Om Astha Rai in Dharan

Om Astha Rai
CAPITALISM: A banner draped around the statue of poet Bhanubhakta Acharya in Dharan reads: ‘We Welcome You To The Capital of Province 1’.

The Centre is yet to decide where to set up temporary headquarters of state governments, but people in Dharan have already declared their city the capital of Province 1.

The iconic bust of the 19th century Nepali poet Bhanubhakta Acharya at the centre of this sub-metropolitan city that grew as a pension distribution centre for British-Indian Gurkha soldiers is draped in a banner that reads: ‘We welcome you to the capital of Province 1’.

Nearby, beneath the Dharan clock tower which is a replica of the one in Hong Kong’s Kowloon neighbourhood, a group of cross-party political cadres have been staging a sit-in, demanding that their 120-year-old city be officially declared the seat of the Province 1 government.

Aindra Sundar Begha, who was a Maoist candidate for mayor in June, sits cross-legged, constantly grinning and asking every passer-by to sign up for solidarity. He says: “Dharan is the soul of the identity movement of Janajatis, and the federal government needs to respect it.” Pradip Bhandari, a newly elected State Assembly member, adds: “Sentiment aside, Dharan has all practical reasons to be the provincial headquarters: from geographical advantage to infrastructure needed for state assemblies, Chief Minister and ministers.”

The locals of Dhankuta have been even more aggressive to have their city declared as the Province 1 capital. After carrying out rallies and shutting down the bazaar recently, they sent a delegation to Kathmandu to lobby with leaders.

Umesh Ghimire, President of the Dhankuta Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says: “Federalism will mean nothing to people living in the remote hills of eastern Nepal if Dhankuta is not developed as the provincial capital.”

After Dhankuta was chosen as the regional headquarters of the erstwhile Eastern Development Region during the Panchayat, the government invested billions to build nearly 400 office buildings. Ghimire argues that the investment in infrastructure will be wasted if Dhankuta is not chosen as the provincial capital.

Not to be left behind, political as well as business leaders from Itahari and Biratnagar are also using their political clout to have their own cities declared as the capital of Province 1. Like the selection of the venue for the Olympics, each city has listed its advantages. While Itahari claims to be on the main junction of Province 1, Biratnagar says it is already developed enough to be the provincial capital.

Kedar Karki, a State Assembly member elected from Morang, says: “If Biratnagar becomes the provincial capital, the Centre does not need to spend a single rupee on infrastructure. We have everything that the Province 1 government requires to function smoothly.”

Under the new Constitution, State Assemblies can decide for themselves where to locate their capitals. The Centre is allowed to choose temporary headquarters, where provincial MPs will be sworn in. However, the fact that cities are already trying to outsmart each other to become provincial capitals signals how provincial politics will play out in 2018.

If 2017 was the year of elections (three phases of local and two phases of provincial-parliamentary polls), 2018 is set to be the year of provincial politics where politicians from different parties will be united for common local causes (state headquarters and names) and cadres of a same party will be divided if they come from different cities.

There are already some hints of what is to come. For example, the UML and NC cadres were at each other’s throats in elections earlier this month. Now, they have buried the hatchet and joined hands to have Dhankuta declared as the Province 1 capital.

As Kathmandu looks obsessed about whether UML and Maoists will eventually unite, or who will become the new Prime Minister, people in Province 1 have found their own political drama much more thrilling. In every public sphere, they are discussing who will be their first Chief Minister: Sher Dhan Rai or Bhim Acharya.

Acharya may be a UML stalwart in this region, but party Chair KP Oli values Rai more for saving his party-organisation from falling apart in eastern hills after Ashok Rai formed his own party. And a majority of directly-elected provincial MPs of UML are loyal to Oli, who will not support Acharya, who himself is closer to UML leader Jhal Nath Khanal.

What is now happening in Province 1 is a microcosm of how provincial politics will be played out in the new year multipled by seven. The outcome will define Nepal’s experiment with federalism.

Read also:

'Pokhara gets ready', Yuvaraj Shrestha

'To forget or not to forget', Shreejana Shrestha

The rise of the red

The promised land, Editorial

Justice delayed, justice denied, Editorial

State of impunity, Editorial