Dharan city of Sunsari has been a red fortress that has always elected a communist candidate during era of multiparty politics.
Dharan had elected a communist mayor in Kedar Prasad Khanal even in the local election held after Nepali Congress (NC) swept to two-third majority in the 1959 general election. Candidates of the then CPN-UML had been elected mayor of Dharan, and the party's candidates elected lawmaker from the Sunsari constituency including Dharan in all the elections held after restoration of democracy in 1990.
Dharan was such strong a red fortress that UML chose to field the then chairman Man Mohan Adhikari, a Biratnagar resident, from the safe constituency of Sunsari-1 that includes Dharan in the general election in 1991.
Tilak Rai has brought down the 60-year-old red fortress this time to be elected mayor of Dharan Sub-metropolitan City leaving the ruling CPN for some introspection.
Member of Province 1 committee of CPN and former lawmaker Rewati Raman Bhandari attributed the loss to lack of appropriate management at the local level by the provincial leadership.
"Our fortress of 60 years has gone down due to the arrogance and hubris of leadership, and managerial shortcoming," Bhandari said taking an apparent swipe at Province 1 incharge and standing committee member Bhim Acharya.
Tara Subba of UML had won the last local election securing 20,900 votes to beat NC's Rai (16,100) by almost 4,000 votes. The then CPN (Maoist Center), that had allied with the then Federal Socialist Forum Nepal, had got 11,100.
The party looked over-confident assuming that its candidate needs to just turn up to emerge victorious in the by-election. To win after unification of UML and Maoists would have been a dream for Rai, who had been defeated by UML alone two years ago, as most of the 11,100 votes secured by the Maoists were their own votes as the combined vote of UML and Maoists added up to almost twice the votes he secured last time.
Complacency crept in inside the ruling CPN that has yet to be homogeneously unified across the country while NC was solidly behind its candidate Rai.
"Committees remained inactive for a long time after party unification. We had to focus on forming organizational structure instead of campaigning for the by-election," Chairman of CPN's Dharan unit Narayan Subedi said. "Many friends are without responsibility after unification and are in pain. There was uneasiness about who the party will pick as the candidate as well. The opponents capitalized on that."
He reasoned that there was no party structure to monitor performance of the elected local representatives after unification, and the party could not address grievances of hike in local taxes after adopting federal structure.
The votes secured by the party in its stronghold wards show the level of disenchantment among the party voters. CPN had assumed that it will build a lead of around three-four thousands from wards 15, 17 and 20 but it could lead only by around 400 votes this time.
The then Maoists had won ward 17 in the last election securing 1,899 votes. UML was second with 1,395 while NC was third at 1,032. But CPN could get just 2,265 votes in the ward this time while NC got 2,225.
NC started to dream about an improbable win only after counting in ward 17 was completed, and the dream improved to a realistic possibility after CPN could not get a big lead even in ward 15. NC had won wards 1, 2, 5 and 14 in the last election while it was competitive in other wards.
"The process of candidate selection was not transparent and the cadres could not feel ownership of the candidate. We could not provide proper alternatives to management of squatter problem, explain the reasons for raising tax, and pay attention to the possibility that urban voters may look for an alternative," Bhandari summed up the reasons for the loss.
A local leader confided with Setopati that personal weaknesses of candidate Prakash Rai, a gold entrepreneur and district committee member, were also to blame for the loss. The leader stated that while Rai is a hard-working and honest party cadre, he could not deliver passionate speech and influence the people.
"We needed a candidate who could assure the people and take the party cadres into confidence. Prakash Rai, no doubt, is a hard-working party cadre but he was a kind of person who has always stayed in low profile," the leader explained.
CPN, no doubt, will dig deep in introspection while the blame game for the loss will also continue for some time. But nothing can undo the wrecked history.
Tilak Rai has delivered a gold medal, to borrow the term from the ongoing South Asian Games in Kathmandu, for the main opposition party. NC will now point to the win in Dharan and provincial assembly seat of Bhaktapur, and claim that it has won the by-election.
The loss in Dharan will rankle long for the ruling CPN despite winning the majority of the 52 posts that went for by-election on Saturday.