Nepali Times
Taking to the streets


With reference to the editorial on street-wise politicians (#41), I believe it is important to view our experience from a global perspective to get some road sense. From Downing Street to Wall Street, power, pelf and privilege pervade the pavement. This concentration of authority and prosperity in political and corporate pockets was bound to provoke a backlash. Accordingly, anti-globalisation activists have now worked out an annual calendar of street shows to accompany every conference they believe only advance the interests of the world's capitalist roaders.

Our continental cousins have been particularly adept in using the street for political purposes. In 1986 and this year, Filipinos showed the collective muscle people can flex when they decide it's time to hit the road. Supporters of ousted president Joseph Estrada failed to pull off a People Power III last month, but that work is in progress. In Indonesia, supporters and opponents of President Abdurrahman Wahid have not lost any bit of the passion that united them to force strongman Suharto to step down in favour of his vice-president, paving the way for the current phase of democratisation. Even today, talk of impeaching the president heats up or cools down depending on who's shouting which slogans on Jakarta's main thoroughfares.

Closer to home, the battle of the begums has established the roadworthiness of Bangladesh's democracy. Former military ruler Hussein Mohammed Ershad is the prime ally of the party that is fresh out of power. Like our own Rastriya Prajatantra Party, Ershad's Jatiya Party brings a blast from the past and is driven by factionalism. Nevertheless, it is always happy to play the role of the facilitator. Sheikh Hasina Wajed and Begum Khalida Zia never seem to tire of wooing the general either by threatening to haul him in jail or by promising to secure his release as the case might be.

Nepal's streets are paved with politics. The country's modern political history begins with the tale of a street in front of Singha Darbar. The humiliation induced by the exclusion of the common people from that hallowed stretch provided the spark that spread isolated stirrings of anti-Rana sentiments into a full-blown struggle for equality. That's the genesis of our deep and abiding faith in streetocracy. Nepalis were soon familiarised with how governments could be set up and disbanded in accordance with the frequency and intensity of sit-ins and shutdowns. National reconciliation actually predates BP Koirala's touchdown at Tribhuvan Airport in 1976. The way Dharma, Ganga and Sukra Paths have all converged on the steps to the statue of Juddha Sumshere already offered a powerful expression of our inherent capacity for peaceful coexistence.

As we stand at one of those crucial political crossroads that approach every 10 years, some introspection would be in order. Would our own vision of democracy have been complete without the mass demonstrations triggered by the state's intolerance for public protests against the execution of a prime minister of another country in 1979? Could the contours of political change have etched themselves in the public imagination without the pitched battles fought on the Sundhara-New Road alley on the opening day of the People's Movement of 1990? Moreover, when roughly 40 percent of the voting population stays home on election day, we need to guarantee their right to vote with their feet, don't we?

The street has become such an accepted agent of change that politicians and their student proteges no longer monopolise the macadam. The business community rails against the government's tax policies, semi-skilled workers holler slogans against the government and business owners. So much so that remarks a foreign movie star said he never made-and nobody could recall hearing him make-left a fiery trail of destruction. Rebels with a cause are capable of lethal effect and it's hard to keep track of the cost. Perhaps we shouldn't even bother to put a monetary value on these perennial road shows. Burning tyres, broken bricks, shards of glass and the smouldering remains of public and private vehicles all serve to embellish the potency of today's street potentates. With avenues of employment being constricted by the day, the streets offer the best forum for the urban youth to show their shot put and public-speaking .

skills every time a burning political issue is involved. Many draw inspiration from the way leaders who only a decade ago were walking the streets of the capital have succeeded in raising super shelters on tracts of prime property.
Revolutionaries, reactionaries and their fellow travellers have become street smart after all these years on the road. Every movement from the Maoists' Prachanda Path to the King-save-the country clamour tests its credibility on the streets of Kathmandu. The route is clear. No matter where the procession starts or ends, it must pass through New Road, Indrachowk, Bhotahity and Ratna Park to gain full effect.

In acknowledging the historic People's Movement as the source of the current political system, the constitution, too, enshrines the sanctity of street power. The foot soldiers of the People's War and their corps commanders are confident that the preamble to the supreme law of the land conforms to their philosophy of permanent revolution. At the moment, mainstream leftist parties are demonstrating their firm conviction that, when it comes to voicing your concerns, the street is in no way inferior to the chambers they helped stall for the entire winter session. In view of the evolution and nature of Nepali politics, the sadan and sadak cannot be regarded as mutually exclusive organs of state. Especially not when a majority government has developed the habit of trying to bulldoze legislation through parliament over the objections of opposition parties representing both ends of the political spectrum.

A special request to our opposition MPs: Even if you decide to take your seats in the upcoming budget session of parliament, please try not to take away the excitement from the streets.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)