‘Balen’ cane parties with the walking stick
The name is “Balen”, Balendra Shah, the new mayor of the Metropolitan City of Kathmandu, the country’s largest metropolis and the federal capital.
Shah, 32, who is affectionately nicknamed “Balen”, pulled off the biggest upset of this local election by leaving behind, as an independent candidate, old guards like the Nepalese Congress and the CPN-UML to become the mayor of Kathmandu.
With his lead already greater than the number of votes remaining to be counted on Wednesday, an announcement is no more than a formality.
When he applied for the post of mayor of Kathmandu – he was the first to apply – few people knew him. Some candidates like Keshav Sthapit of the CPN-UML even made fun of it. Balen has “Laure”, the walking stick, as a symbol of his election.
At the start of the campaigns, around five months ago, it emerged that he was a popular figure among young people – millennials and millennials – for his music.
A rapper, he was already a household name among hip hop fans. And he is a structural engineer by profession.
Those who know Balen well say he always believed he had some responsibility to society, which prompted him to run for office.
According to his cousin Prashant Shah, Balen also wanted to run for mayor in 2017.
“From an early age, he was dissatisfied with the way the metropolis was run. He often said that Kathmandu is beautiful and can be developed as a livable city,” Prashant told the Post. “The non-execution of elected officials pushed him to stand for election.”
Balen’s family originated from Ekdara Rural Municipality in Mahottari District. He was however born in Naradevi, Kathmandu on April 27, 1990.
His father, Dr. Ram Narayan Shah, an Ayurvedic physician, was later assigned to Naradevi Ayurvedic Hospital. The family currently lives in Gairigaun, Tinkune, near the airport.
“We are extremely happy,” Ram Narayan told The Post on Wednesday afternoon. “He had been writing poems since childhood. If anything gave him success, it was his dedication, hard work, commitment and humility.
After completing his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in Nepal, he went to Bangalore to pursue his master’s degree in structural engineering.
Bhupa Dev Shah, one of the main members of his team, said that Balen will always bring social issues in his songs as he says he doesn’t want to be a mere spectator of the events.
“Somebody had to come in and clean up the mess,” Bhupa said. “Balen risked an arm. People approved of him and his idea.
According to Bhupa, their team’s election campaign was mostly virtual – various platforms like Facebook groups and WhatsApp. The aspiring mayor believed in face-to-face campaigns and meeting people one-on-one.
“Balen’s journey as an artist has helped him connect a lot with voters,” Bhupa said. “A young member of each family campaigned for him and that became our greatest strength.”
By voting for Balen, the Kathmandu electorate, which has a strange way of surprising, sent the message that it’s not just partisan politics. In Kathmandu, politicians like the late former Prime Minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai and the late Mangaladevi Singh, wife of the late Ganesh Man Singh, were given a taste of defeat in the past by voters.
Balen faced Sthapit, the two-time mayor of Kathmandu, and Congress leader Sirjana Singh, who comes from a family with an impressive political background. She is the wife of Prakash Man Singh, son of Ganesh Man and Mangala Devi.
“To be honest, when we started, we didn’t expect to get the kind of support that we actually got,” Bhupa said. “People have shown enormous trust in us.”
Balen has now turned the apple cart upside down with huge support from Kathmandu voters who were fed up with incumbent Mayor Bidya Sundar Shakya making himself a classic example of how not to be mayor.
However, things are not easy for him in the days to come. As soon as the structural engineer assumes the position of mayor, he will inherit a bunch of problems plaguing the city.
The list of what needs to be done in Kathmandu is endless.
Balen’s family and members of his team say people trusted him because he made deliverable promises that connect to people’s daily lives, unlike other candidates who promised the moon.
In his election manifesto, he listed his commitments under 28 different topics covering education, health, transport, the fight against pollution, digital government and the fight against corruption. Improving the infrastructure of public schools and the quality of education, the audit of private schools, the establishment of health clinics in each district, free screening for breast and cervical cancer and improved public transport are some of its promises.
Bhupa said Balen has a team of experts from different sectors to help him achieve his goals.
“We know there are challenges, but when you’re accommodating and can get everyone together, you can get the job done without too much difficulty,” he said. “Balen has that ability. His best feature is that he is an extremely accommodating personality.
Subash Parajuli, 36, a resident of Tinkune, said he only recently heard of Balen, even though they are neighbours.
“I wasn’t too close to Balen despite being neighbours. I had just known him as a hip-hop artist. During the 2017 local elections, I submitted my candidacy for the presidency of Ward 32 of the Nepalese Bibeksheel party. Later, when the party merged with the Sajha party, I quit.
He started following Balen only after he filed for mayor, he said.
“Actually, I liked his vision. And I decided to campaign for him,” Parajuli told the Post. “Not only young people, others who usually follow party politics also rallied behind him. Having him as the new mayor has given hope that we will see change.
On Wednesday afternoon, when it became certain that Balen would roam it, his mother, Durga Devi, sat on the first floor veranda of her home in Gairigaun.
“I don’t want to speak now, not until the final result is known,” Durga Devi said. “Since childhood, he was sincere. He is going to be mayor of Kathmandu, and for a mother, what time can be happier than this.
The rapper-structural engineer will now run the largest metropolitan city in the country with the highest budget [Rs18.9 billion for the current fiscal year] among the 753 local units.
Some have already begun to speculate whether it will form a political party and whether it can happen when other members of the office – the deputy mayor and neighborhood leaders – are from other parties.
“He contested the election to work for the betterment of Kathmandu Metropolitan City,” said Prashant, the cousin. “He will not form any party or join any existing party.”
Alongside Balen, UML’s Sunita Dangol is set to become deputy mayor of the metropolitan city of Kathmandu.
On Wednesday afternoon, Balen’s team thanked the electorate through a Facebook post, saying voters in the metropolitan city had shown their trust in them and they could take responsibility for the city. They urged everyone to rise above the win-lose mindset. Urging voters and supporters not to take part in any victory rallies, they said they would celebrate together the day the manifesto’s promises come to fruition.
“The road ahead is not easy. The real test of our campaign has just begun,” the post read. “Keeping us vigilant is as important as the suggestions and support we’ve received so far. Please let us know if we lose track.
As Balen is poised to take control of Kathmandu, heralding a new era, at least two other independent candidates have beaten party candidates, in Dharan and Dhangadhi.
In the sub-metropolitan city of Dharan, Harka Sampang Rai won the elections while in Dhangadhi, Gopal Hamal emerged victorious. The two were feuding for a second time after suffering defeats in the 2017 election.
Political analysts say the victory of Balen and other independent candidates is a manifestation of people’s waning faith in parties and their leaders who have consistently failed to deliver.
Rajendra Maharjan, a political commentator, said people supported independent candidates because they believed they would work for the people more sincerely than party candidates.
“It’s also a test for those who were elected as independent candidates,” Maharjan told the Post. “They have to understand that they got the votes because people are frustrated with the parties. If they fail, they will also be eliminated.
(Anup Ojha contributed reporting.)