15 MIN READ
A specter is haunting Kathmandu — the specter of Balen Shah. A 32-year-old structural engineer who came to fame as a rapper is now the mayor of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital and its most consequential city. Shah, who ran as an independent, comprehensively beat out a crowded field of contestants that included the Nepali Congress’ Sirjana Singh and CPN-UML’s Keshav Sthapit, a former Kathmandu mayor.
Even before the results were announced, large swaths of supporters had already started rallying in the streets, celebrating what they saw as the ushering in of a new, progressive era for Kathmandu with the promise of neutering the damage inflicted by generations of failed exercises in governance. The momentum of his win has seemingly boosted the credibility of independent candidates nationwide, with many across the country already beginning to organize as alliances to combat the big party oligopoly in the upcoming general elections.
But does Shah, going beyond the mere fact of his win as an independent, really carry a progressive agenda? What does Shah, a supposed ‘outsider’ in mainstream politics, represent? In this piece, I aim to situate and contextualize his policy proposals, as well as the construction of his public image, within the relevant historical, sociocultural, and politico-legal landscape of Kathmandu and Nepal. In doing so, I hope to deconstruct Shah’s ‘brand’ by examining the cultural interpretations and assumptions that framed his campaign while exploring some of the larger societal implications.
Balen’s political posturing
In order to understand Balen Shah the mayor, it is necessary to first try and understand Kathmandu’s sociopolitical makeup and the contemporary role of political parties.
Kathmandu, though the capital and the most privileged beneficiary of the nation’s decentralized, uneven development and urbanization, is by no means exempt from the disfunction and political malaise that has seized the nation ever since the promise of a ‘new Nepal’ was enshrined in a new constitution in 2015. Kathmandu is home to growing economic inequality, ever-increasing inflation and unemployment, air pollution levels that often see the city ranked amongst the most polluted in the world, and the presence, or lack thereof, of public infrastructure that is at best passable and at worst completely dysfunctional.
Post-Covid-19 Kathmandu stands at a chaotic intersection of looming economic, public health, and political crises. There is a persistent fear that the city is slowly becoming unlivable, with public trust in institutions shrinking. As such, proposals on how to mitigate monsoon flooding and industrial pollution and implement effective water supply and waste management while increasing access to and improving the organization of public transport and primary healthcare systems took center stage at debates, interviews, and campaign addresses election time.
Election season is often a battleground for representatives of different political parties, each trying to make the case for why they are the best candidate in what should fundamentally be an exercise in pitching policy. Central to Shah’s ‘branding’ in this regard was the construction of his image as an agent of change and his policies as being emblematic of a new ‘alternative’ brand of politics. The symbolic and functional significance of him running as an ‘independent’ candidate cannot be understated in this regard.
Historically, running on the ticket of an established party has proven itself the surer strategy, as it brings with it access to vast networks of cadres, funding, lobbying, and political capital. But it is also susceptible to the party’s ideals, its hierarchy, and its polyarchy. This was not lost on Shah, who, in the handful of interviews and addresses he participated in leading up to the elections, frequently critiqued the partisan route by contending that it is predicated around constructing indebtedness and deference to the party. Candidates’ loyalties thus lie not with their constituents but with the party and the various interests they represent.
Shah argued that as an ‘independent’ candidate, he would not be beholden to any party whip, granting him a level of autonomy and impartiality that the candidates running on the tickets of the major political parties could not afford to replicate. Shah also proclaimed that his independent status behooved him because it meant that he would not inherit the consequences of any possible pre-existing conflicts and bad blood across party lines, thus presenting himself as an ideal and efficient intermediary.
Shah’s status as an independent candidate allowed him to play into the social fatigue stemming from negative perceptions around mainstream politics while presenting himself as the antithesis and remedy to the archetype of the corrupt careerist politician. Shah consistently evoked the word “asal” — commonly translated as ‘honest’ — as a self-descriptor. He positioned the mainstream political parties as exploiting democracy for the preservation of their own power while casting himself as the concerned, disillusioned citizen who had reluctantly come to the realization that he had to run for office, if for no other reason than, if not him, then who?
Despite technically now being a ‘politician’, Shah successfully inculcated an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ binary, where he, as the ‘asal’ agent of change, would serve the real interests of ‘we’ the masses.
An enlightenment man
Shah is a structural and civil engineer by training and has argued on the Sanjay Silwal Gupta podcast that the breadth of his expertise means that he is uniquely qualified for the position of mayor as “70 percent” of the budget is based on “infrastructure and civil engineering terms”. Given that so many of Kathmandu’s problems lie in failures of physical infrastructure, it is on some level a persuasive argument that someone well versed in the technicalities of planned urbanization would be a good candidate to assuage the city of its grievances.
Shah posited that the specificities of being a civil engineer have imbued in him an understanding of “everything”, listing his experience of having worked in engineering projects ranging from earthquake mitigation and reconstruction, water resources, finance economics, water supply, waste management, and schools.
Shah has also capitalized on the tremendous amount of sociocultural capital that the engineering profession still carries in Nepali society. Doctors and engineers are still largely seen as pinnacles of the successful, hard-working, hyper-educated, and industrious. Shah played this up numerous times, citing the money he stood to make from his engineering projects, alongside his income from music and public speaking, to justify that he had no financial incentive to run for mayor.
But some of Shah’s claims to credibility do lie in a set of selective and sometimes exaggerated claims regarding the scope of “civil engineering”. He extends his knowledge of the material and physical construction of structures to the realm of social relations that underpin and inform infrastructure. Having technical knowledge in one realm does not necessarily guarantee expertise in the other. By this logic, a sociologist too could argue that they are ‘experts’ in infrastructure for the ‘technical’ dimensions of construction are invariably socially constructed.
For Shah, many of Kathmandu’s grievances can be attributed to a lack of structured planning backed up by meticulous research and data collection. Though centralized databases have often proven to be effective tools for efficient public service delivery, they have historically also shown to promote a culture of mass surveillance and be vulnerable to misuse. Shah is in favor of increased public surveillance, disregarding or unaware of its effects on privacy and profiling of marginalized groups.
But Shah’s claims of expertise must be placed in the context of how society and culture were central to his proposed policies. Shah was running for mayor in a city where the Newa community makes up almost a third of the population. While Newa architecture, food, festivals, and art are often tokenized to showcase Nepal’s diversity, the Newa community has long seen the displacement and erasure of its culture at the hands of the state-instituted monolinguistic, cultural and political hegemonies of hill Brahmins and Chhetris. Their cultural practice and language have been so marginalized that they have one of the fastest-growing rates of language death in Nepal.
It was thus unsurprising that every candidate running for mayor in Kathmandu made it a central premise to address the concerns of the Newa populace. Mentions of Newa culture and heritage figured prominently in Shah’s election manifesto. He pledged to have an “introduction” to Nepal Bhasa, Ranjana Lipi, and Nepal Sambat integrated into school curriculums between grade 1-8, and allocate more state resources to the promotion of Newa culture. Shah on numerous occasions also championed the reconstruction and revitalization of traditional dhunge dharas, rajkulos and Newa Chhen type buildings, arguing that they are scientifically superior to ‘modern’ iterations.
Though Shah’s success in winning large parts of the Newa ‘core’ areas in Kathmandu suggests that his rhetoric might have paid off, there are also valid critiques to be made regarding some of the limitations of what he’s proposing as well as how they undermine, and sometimes even reiterate, the logic of some of the fundamental historical, socio-cultural, and political dynamics that have led to the erasure of Newa culture.
His emphasis on promoting and ‘branding’ the public practice and consumption of Newa culture still appears tokenistic in that it conflates commodification of culture with preservation. This focus on ‘culture’ overlooks the erasure of Newas from formal avenues of civil and political society, as exemplified in the institutionalization of the Nepali language to the detriment of Nepal Bhasa.
One could argue that Shah’s proposal to introduce Newa language, culture, and history into school curriculums does symbolize an effort to go beyond tokenism and institutionally promote culture, but experts in the field of Newa linguistics have shown how curriculums that contain even more comprehensive integrations of Nepal Bhasa still have not been able to meaningfully overturn its displacement.
The mere inclusion of Nepal Bhasa as a language of instruction has historically proven insufficient to challenge the hegemonies imposed by Khas Nepali. Even though Mahendra’s monolingualism might have been done away with, along with the Panchayat, fluency in dominant languages still carries more cultural and economic capital. Newas must assimilate into Nepali and English while Nepal Bhasa is relegated to the status of a tertiary, ‘bonus’ language.
Shah has been reluctant to speak about the specificities of this sociopolitical context, even though the issues he’s discussing are deeply political in nature. From a strategic perspective, this refusal to discuss the history of material and cultural violence on the Newa community might have been adopted to avoid alienating those who would be demarcated as ‘oppressors’, but it also renders tacit support for a nationalism and belongingness that is largely built on Khas Arya hegemonic ideals.
Balen’s public persona
In Shah’s own words, one of the jobs of the mayor is to envision and ensure the ‘branding’ of the culture of his city and constituency. But in order to understand Shah’s vision for Kathmandu’s brand, it is necessary to first examine the branding of Balen Shah himself.
Though it would most make sense that eyewear and tailoring companies would be the first to co-opt Shah’s omnipresent sunglasses, which he claims he wears for “convenience and consistency”, as well as his propensity for fitted suits, the proliferation of Shah’s image has transcended to fields that have little to do with him directly. Restaurants and gyms, some of which are not even located within his constituency, have crafted ad campaigns and discount schemes around his campaign and eventual victory.
This incorporation of Shah’s public image as a viable advertising tool into the public consciousness attests to his attainment of what scholar Ondrej Roubal, who has theorized conceptions of branding around advertising and nation-building, calls an “iconic brand” status which primarily functions around the brand’s ability to “build and strengthen the bonds of trust with customers based on emotionality, sensual perception, initiation of authentic projections, ideas and fantasies and provision of meaningful (even though only temporary) sources of identity”.
Political campaigning is especially ripe for the practice and study of ‘branding’ since it operates under a set of logical premises similar to traditional advertising. Shah’s brand implies credibility and corporate entities see the ideals he claims to embody as an attractive totem to align themselves with.
The success of Balen’s brand, however, is the culmination of a well-thought-out, intentional, and ultimately successful PR campaign that understood very well the significance of constructing a public image that could at once be distinctive, inclusive, and malleable enough to appeal to a wide range of interests.
Shah was positioned from the very beginning as an underdog in the mayoral race. Though older generations might not have known him by name, he was a well-known celebrity among the youth. While many independent candidates have to spend extra time on the ground in grassroots organizing and advertising, Shah’s name recognition and large social media following allowed him a direct line of communication with thousands of media-savvy young people. Shah also benefited from a nexus of young celebrities, influencers, and influential meme pages that put the weight of their followings behind his campaign.
Alongside, Shah and his team also carefully crafted a persona as a nonchalant, well-informed, no-nonsense orator in dark sunglasses. The imagery of Shah’s omnipresent sunglasses took on a life of its own through various memes and TikTok trends that saw people uploading pictures and videos of themselves in tinted glasses. Even ‘meme culture’ proved a prominent avenue for political organization, despite being rooted in principles of absurdism and non sequitur.
Much of Balen’s success can also be located within problematic tendencies of celebrity and ‘influencer’ culture that idealize individuals by constructing a cult of personality around them, foregoing critical examinations of their ideas and principles. This is especially dangerous when it comes to politicians, as it distracts from a serious engagement with policies while fixating on the persona of individuals.
Shah’s public persona, however, did raise questions about identity and belongingness. In an interview, when Rishi Dhamala asked Shah how someone who is not Newa could truly represent the interests of the Newa community, he answered that the consumption of and participation in any avenue of Newa culture makes one Newa, and how prior to the Shah dynasty, Newa denoted all the residents of the Nepal valley. While research might support his assertion of medieval conceptions of who a Newa was, the Newa community is today a clearly defined ethnolinguistic group.
Dhamala went to ask Shah if he was born in Kathmandu and if his father and grandfather were both from Kathmandu. The underlying implication of Dhamala’s questions is deeply embedded within notions of belongingness. Dhamala’s prodding underscored the perception that Shah, even though he was born in Kathmandu, was still an outsider, by virtue of not being Newa and further for being Madhesi.
In a speech on the campaign trail, the UML’s Keshav Sthapit called Shah an “international thag (ठग)”, alleging that Shah was misrepresenting himself as a Thakuri Shah while being a Madhesi Shah. Sthapit’s rhetoric implied that if Shah was truly a Thakuri Shah, he would somehow be a more deserving candidate.
But it is interesting to note that Shah has seemed to resist publicly acknowledging his Madhesi identity or making an effort to clarify assumptions that he’s not a Thakuri Shah. Multiple times on the campaign trail, he would either evade or dismiss questions about his ethnic background as being casteist. Given the perceptions of Madhesis in the public consciousness, he might have decided that openly discussing his identity would play against him. But it is also plausible that Shah sincerely believed that his identity wasn’t relevant to his campaign, not entirely incompatible with some of the ‘post-ethnic’ musings he’s made on the trail.
To what extent would the election results have been different if his Madhesi identity had been more central to the construction of his public persona? Though Shah’s victory will undoubtedly be championed as an illustration of Kathmandu’s multiculturalism and how Madhesis aren’t discriminated against anymore, the discussions around Shah’s Madhesi identity show that we are far from a point where the differences in our identities do not matter.
Though it is only through the privilege of hindsight that we will truly be able to gauge Shah’s success, what can’t be denied is that this is a time of great promise for Kathmandu. In Shah, we currently have a politician in office, who at least on paper, embodies many of the popular attributes people look for in a leader. But shrewd political branding does not equal efficient and effective political action. Shah must not be exempt from the lens of accountability we assess all politicians through. Given that at least some of his success can be attributed to the construction of a cult of personality and the fruits of celebrity culture, it is all the more important to maintain an air of healthy skepticism.
Shah’s campaign and tenure will make for interesting case studies, providing plenty of material for discourse around the changing role of digital and social media in political campaigning as well as the relationships, intersections, and contradictions between notions of infrastructure, identity, culture, and politics in Kathmandu. The answer as to whether or not Balen Shah will be able to live up to the hype that has been built around his brand is one that only time can answer. The degree to which Shah will be able to back up his rhetoric with solid policy and implementation will determine his legacy and the future of Kathmandu.
Pragyan Thapa Ghimire Pragyan Thapa Ghimire is from Kathmandu and interested in exploring the intersection between notions of governance, society, culture, and art.
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