At a recent breakfast meeting in a hotel he owns, Dhawal Shumsher Rana peels a hard-boiled egg while his mobile rings incessantly.
A Muslim elder is inviting him for an Eid feast, and Rana answers in chaste Awadhi. An activist for labeda suruwal as national dress wants the mayor’s support, he deals with that. There is a call from a hospital where a student wounded in police firing on the anti-rape protests in Mahendranagar is in critical condition, and may need to be helicoptered to Kathmandu. Finally, Dhawal Rana turns his phone face down for an interview with a newspaper for which he was a regular columnist in 2002-2003.
Back then, the war was raging in the mountains of Western Nepal, the army had entered the conflict and casualties were mounting. Local elections had been cancelled, and Rana had just stepped down after his first tenure as mayor when he wrote a seminal op-ed in the 18 April 2003 issue of Nepali Times titled ‘In a federated state’.
‘Nepal must move towards federalism for the sake of inclusive democracy, social justice, greater responsibility, a responsive and streamlined administration, decentralisation and greater peoples’ participation in governance. But this does not mean fragmentation and carving out the country along caste, racial, tribal, religious and linguistic lines.
The answer for Nepal lies in true devolution of power to elected local bodies, with the phasing out of central interference. The local bodies will best accommodate the regional, racial, cultural and social aspirations of the people at the grassroots, and political trickle-up effect will bring this inclusive representation to the national level.’
This was way ahead of the times, because King Gyanendra was consolidating power in a creeping coup to take the country back to absolute monarchy.
“If we had truly devolved power then by decentralising decision-making to north-south states, we would not have polarised the country between hills and plains, between castes and ethnicities,” says Rana, who is fluent in English because of his royal pedigree and education in boarding schools in India. Dhawal’s great grandfather was Dev Shumsher who was banished to India in a purge. His grandfather, Mussorie Shumsher, was allowed to come back to Nepal, but not to Kathmandu, and owned rice mills in Nepalganj. His father was an agriculturist, who worked for a US aid agency, and established a farm where Dhawal Rana now lives.
After studies, Rana returned to Nepal and worked for the Cotton Development Board, but resigned after he found corruption too engrained. He joined the RPP after the 1990 changes, but was thrown out. He fought and lost elections after running as an independent, then joined the UML and was elected mayor in the 1994 elections.
He worked to restore social harmony between Muslims, who form 25% of Nepalganj’s 100,000 population, and the Hindus. He started to improve infrastructure, but the war undid much of it. Soon, local governments were dissolved elections put off, and Dhawal Rana used the time to finish his PhD thesis titled (what else?) ‘Nepali Municipalities: A Mayor’s Dilemma’. Last year he was elected again.
“Nepalganj voted for me because people wanted me to continue what I had started in my first tenure as mayor, they remembered,” Rana tells us.
Detractors say Dhawal Rana is not corrupt because he does not need to be. However, there are not too many other Ranas with old money who have gone into politics to bring change. In these cynical times, he is rare proof that honesty does pay.
Dhawal Rana says wryly: “In my first tenure, the contractors did not believe I was not corrupt. This time, no one believes I am corrupt.”
As Rana drives his Safari SUV through Nepalganj’s main street, locals recognise him and wave or walk over to chat. When powerful local businessmen refused to allow road-widening, he took them to court, won, and bulldozed their shopfronts. His 90km road upgrade is an ADB-supported project, and already Nepalganj’s streets are much better than those in Kathmandu.
Rana says his biggest challenge is that people are impatient, and want overnight improvement. There is no dearth of money, he says, but Kathmandu still controls the purse-strings and that delays projects.
Rana wants to retire after mayorship, but does not rule out joining national politics if the triangular tussle within the RPP leadership is resolved. Asked what he wants most of all, Mayor Rana replies simply: “Less interference from Kathmandu.”