Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, Nepal’s politicians are engaged in political one-upmanship as they pack people into public spaces, particularly the streets of Kathmandu and other cities in shows of strength.
There is ‘my crowd is bigger than yours’ contest between factions of the Nepal Communist Party, one led by Prime Minister K P Oli and the other by Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal. This is also a contest for who can display more control over the public space in terms of significance and size.
Prime Minister Oli’s mass assembly venue on 5 February, a closed-off Darbar Marg, was symbolic because of the gentrified public space with a backdrop of palace-turned-museum. The message seemed to be clear: ‘we have control of both the sadan (Parliament) and the sadak (street).
Lest we forget, Darbar Marg is not just any street. Whether during the Panchayat, the Maoist insurgency, the states of emergency, or countless political shutdowns, Darbar Marg has always remained the most protected street in the capital. Addressing ‘the people’ from this particular venue was synonymous to Oli stepping into the buffer zone, or what anthropologists would call a ‘liminal space’.
The prime minister was speaking from an ambiguous space that belongs neither here nor there, which can be interpreted as a dress rehearsal, as though he had traversed a rite of passage for what is about to happen next.
And, amid the shows of force by the rival Communist factions, the next action may be marked by control of more public spaces, not just in Kathmandu, but across the country. So, the obvious question is: What does the control of public spaces by those in power, especially the government, mean?