Balen Shah: A youth icon, and a ray of hope amid politics of despair

Balen Shah has emerged as a symbol of hope for change, an icon for those who are deeply dissatisfied with established political parties to look up to in Kathmandu.

Photo courtesy: Binay Shakya

Nishan Khatiwada

  • Read Time 4 min.

Kathmandu: In the 2017 local-level elections, Ranju Darshana, a 21-year-old mayoral candidate of the Kathmandu Metropolis, became the youngest candidate to contest the position, striking a chord with youths in the capital. An unfledged candidate, Darshana garnered 23,439 votes–almost 12 percent of the total votes cast in Kathmandu.

Likewise, former government secretary Kishor Thapa, who contested the election from the Sajha Party for the post of Kathmandu mayor, garnered 18,496 votes. Darshana and Thapa together garnered  21 percent of the votes. Although both the candidates lost the elections, Kathmanduites gave a strong statement: We want alternatives in Kathmandu, we want people with honesty and vision to become the mayors of Kathmandu. 

Given the stronghold of the established and large political parties in Kathmandu, the election outcome was disappointing for the candidates like Darshana and Thapa. But it also made it clear that voters in Kathmandu are not happy with the ‘old and established’ parties which have repeatedly failed to live up to their promises and deliver on development. 

This time too, a young face is vying for the mayoral position in Kathmandu. But unlike in the last elections, Balen Shah, a rapper and a structural engineer, is contesting the elections independently with an election symbol ‘lauro’, a stick.

Balen stands out in many ways from his competitors. Unlike the candidates of major political parties, Balen Shah doesn’t criticize his opponents. Shah clearly presents his vision and a roadmap for the development of the Kathmandu Valley and has succeeded to become a symbol of hope in the eyes of many Kathmanduites.

A huge chunk of youths–especially those who want a change and are fed up with conventional politics and politicians–have expressed their support for Shah. Not only youths, some patrons of the old political parties are also speaking for Balen.

When Shah announced the candidacy, he was mocked by many, saying, “Not Kathmandu, but social media will vote for Shah.” But lately, after Shah’s media appearances, interviews, and coherent presentation of his vision, people have started to note and support him.

His rivals from major political parties appear to have taken Shah as a big challenge to their political ambitions.

Insulting remarks or discouraging comments, Shah stands undeterred, and the public support for him continues unabated.

As Shah’s popularity rose, the candidates from the already-established political parties started to make indecent comments against him. He has been targeted by cadres and leaders of established political parties, including CPN-UML and Nepali Congress.

Last week, UML’s mayor candidate Keshav Sthapit made indecent remarks against Shah, dubbing him as an ‘international thug’. Sthapit said that Shah was from Madhes and he was hiding his identity.  Sthapit was heavily criticized by the youths for saying so.

Insulting remarks or discouraging comments, Shah stands undeterred, and the public support for him continues unabated.  

In Nepal, it is not easy for someone with a non-political background to compete for a coveted public position like a mayor. Shah comes from an engineering and musical background but he is still gaining massive public support.

Ray of hope

The people who are fed up and frustrated with the old and conventional politics, repeated betrayal and lack of accountability by the political leaders are actively supporting Shah this time. 

Poor delivery, lack of development and bad governance by the leaders of the established political parties have frustrated people in Kathmandu, compelling them to seek alternatives. Balen Shah, in the meantime, has emerged as a symbol of hope for change, an icon for those who are deeply dissatisfied with established political parties to look up to in Kathmandu. 

Shah has succeeded in capturing the public sentiments this time. 

Photo courtesy: Binay Shakya

The most probable rationale behind the massive follower base and support for Shah is that his manifesto and vision outline clear ways and procedures for the development of Kathmandu. To be more precise, his manifesto is more focused on ‘how we do’ while other candidates are primarily focused on ‘what we do’. 

Which is probably why he has followers and supporters from different age groups–from the youths to college students to senior citizens in Kathmandu. 

Things to learn

Balen Shah may win or lose the battle for the post of the mayor of the capital city. But the amount of support that he has secured, or will secure, for himself will be a huge political capital for him to build on for the future. The experience that he gains from this election can be used for the future. His candidacy will also inspire and encourage many other independent youths to vie for the public position and try to make a difference in the way politics is done in Nepal.

Without doubt, he has emerged as the icon of hope. 

In the past, Ranju Darshana and Kishor Thapa created hype, and also hope. But this faded away in no time. During the early days, Bibeksheel Sajha had emerged as a ray of hope. It appeared as a credible alternative force, carrier of alternative agendas for reforms, development and good governance–the reason why it had found support from a large section of the youths across the country. Apparently, that craze has fizzled out now. 

Balen Shah’s manifesto is more focused on ‘how we do’ while other candidates are primarily focused on ‘what we do’. 

Shah has definitely something to learn from this episode at home.  Besides, the rise and success of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in India is also full of lessons for Nepali youths who want to come into politics.

With the landslide victory in Punjab assembly polls back in March, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) led by Arbind Kejriwal has emerged as an alternative force in Indian national politics. 

With extraordinary performance in New Delhi, AAP has changed the face of the Indian capital. The success has become possible and the dream has turned into a reality because the AAP and its leaders never gave up and kept on struggling, kept on putting their efforts, despite all odds, with solid vision and commitment for better politics. 

AAP’s success story is definitely something for Shah to learn from as well. 

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