Nepali Times
State Of The State
An observer observing observers


The act of observation is inherently intrusive. The observer has a direct effect on the object being observed. As reports of Maoist excesses continue to dominate the media, it's time we took notice of the class, community and caste biases of the observers themselves.

Just as a completely free, fair and credible election is an ideal, the mythical neutral observer is a convenient construct, a model. Nothing like that exists in real life.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, election observation isn't limited to pre-poll monitoring of code of conduct for elections or post-poll assessment of government machinery. It also includes the task of understanding social processes at work. The impact of structural inequalities upon the outcome of an election is well-known but so little understood that most observers choose to ignore it.

Poll observers of the media, civil society and international monitoring missions tend to ignore the most basic element of any election: the voter. It is less of a hassle and much more glamorous to observe those with power: political parties, armed groups, extremists, and election officers.

The poor rarely have representation. Modern elections are elaborate and expensive affairs. Physical resources apart, those who have to work for a living can't devote the time required to be able to be considered as a probable candidate, let alone contest. For the vast majority of the electorate, participation in a poll is thus limited to speaking frankly and voting freely. Unless these two primary conditions are created, an election runs the risk of becoming a farce.

A voter, however, is seldom free to speak and the risk of retaliation from armed groups, including Maoists, is often last on the list of his fears. The most primal fear of the poor is inability to find a job or the risk of losing it if he happens to have one. The unorganised sector, including households with domestics, is the single largest employer of the poor in Nepal.

People running cycle and tyre repair shops, roadside eateries, back alley boarding schools, impromptu food packagers, family-run NGOs and improvised fabricators of shop-shutters and window grills belong to the UML. Small-time entrepreneurs form the backbone of the UML's financial muscle. Their influence had been somewhat curtailed by the rise of militant Maoist unionism.

Emboldened by the poll prospects of their political front, employers now routinely threaten their flock with dire consequences if election results were to show employee's infidelity. You hear it talked about on every street corner, but it doesn't get reported for reasons not difficult to fathom. Class bias certainly, but UML cadres that dominate the media are trained not to publicise anything that harms the party.

With just a few days to go for long-awaited and twice-postponed elections, a section of the ruling elite hasn't stopped spreading doubts about the impossibility or futility of polls. These are the people who 'man' almost all formal election observation committees.

Nepali observers have political affiliation and most internationals are here on electoral tourism junkets.

Let's face facts: with a war-weary insurgent group fearful of electoral drubbing in the fray, the elections will be far from free. Establishmentarian forces closing ranks imply that the competition will probably be less than fair. Then there are the faux-commies crying wolf.

Nothing new there, no election is either completely free or truly fair. We will have to accept the polls if it meets minimum acceptability criterion set by the Election Commission and endorsed by UNMIN. Meanwhile, let the observers observe. They're at best harmless, at worst, irritants.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)