Having sprung a surprise by bringing down the red fort in the by-election for mayor two and a half years back Dharan may provide an even bigger surprise in the upcoming local election by electing an independent candidate as mayor.
CPN-UML had won all the elections in Dharan since the restoration of democracy in 1990 until Tilak Rai of Nepali Congress (NC) was elected mayor of Sub-metropolitan City in the by-election in December 2019.
The then CPN-UML chairman Man Mohan Adhikari had contested the first general election from this safe constituency in the first general election in 1991. UML had won all the subsequent local elections held in Dharan since 1990. UML won all the general elections except the first Constituent Assembly from the constituency including Dharan during the period. But the then CPN, formed after unification of UML and CPN (Maoist Center), lost Dharan in 2019.
Buoyed by that victory against the behemoth of a communist party in the by-election NC hopes that its mayoral candidate Kishore Rai will easily win bagging the 11,000 votes of CPN (Maoist Center) in the last local election, and a few votes of other coalition partners Janata Sanajwadi party (JSP) and CPN (Unified Socialist) formed after split of UML.
UML, meanwhile, believes that the by-election was just an aberration and normal service will resume in the erstwhile red fort and Manju Bhandari, who was elected deputy mayor in the last local election, will be elected mayor this time.
NC and UML may disagree about the result but they concur that the competition will be between the two big parties.
But field reporting by Setopati has found that independent candidate Harka Sampang, who had secured just 422 votes in the by-election, may well upset the apple cart.
Sampang, who is a graduate in political science and has worked as a migrant worker in Iraq ad Afghanistan in the past, is taken lightly by the two big parties which believe that he may get a couple of thousands votes at most but the voters seem to have taken him very seriously.
Setopati found unbelievable attraction toward 40-year-old Sampang who is contesting with stick as the election symbol like independent candidate Balen Shah in Kathmandu.
Setopati reached all 20 wards in Dharan and talked with around 100 voters. Almost 36 percent of respondents including those who will be voting for the first time to those aged around 70, who have voted to both UML and NC in the past, told Setopati that they will vote for Sampang this time. Around one-fifth of the 36 percent who said they will vote for Sampang are first-timers.
Around 22 percent said that they will vote for NC, 18 percent for UML, some said they have yet to decide while others refused to divulge their preference.
There are three major reasons for such attraction toward Sampang. The first one is the problem of drinking water. Dharan, which could get by in the past with water brought from Sardu and Seuti rivers that flow nearby, have struggled with explosion of population in recent years.
An agreement was signed in 2012 with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) for a deep boring project at the jungle to the south of Dharan. The erstwhile water supply corporation was dissolved and a new Dharan Water Supply Management Board was formed. All assets and infrastructure of the corporation were transferred to the board.
The ADB provided grant and soft loan of over Rs 2 billion but the water problem was not resolved even after the project was completed at the end of 2019.
Sampang was against formation of the board right from the beginning and has promised to resolve the problem by bringing water from the Koshi river 19 kilometers away. He says he will leave Dharan if he fails to resolve the problem.
The second reason for attraction toward Sampang is his image of a social campaigner. The soft-spoken Sampang is available round the clock to listen to the problems of locals, and aggressively lobbies with the bodies concerned for resolution of those problems.
The third reason is frustration with the big parties. The locals feel that the two parties that have remained in the government for almost the entirety of the past three decades have done nothing in the country in general and Dharan in particular.
The people of Dharan who elected UML in all the elections since 1990 apart from the first CA election took chance with the NC candidate in the by-election for mayor in 2019. They say NC's mayor also failed to deliver in the past couple of years.
They want to try Sampang this time pointing there is nothing to lose even if he doesn't deliver as those elected in the past have all failed to deliver.
The big parties with their well-managed and strong organization and access to the state resources built over a long period have not taken Sampang seriously.
Trade union leader of UML from Dharan Rabindra Adhikari was almost dismissive of Sampang's chances. "Harka Sampang may get 3,000-4,000 votes," he quipped. "He will get most of even those votes from NC because our votes are organized. There is not much chance of them being stolen."
But Setopati's field reporting shows that Sampang will get votes not just from erstwhile NC voters but even from UML voters. Around 33 percent of the respondents who said they will vote for Sampang had voted for NC in the by-election and 22 percent had voted for UML.
The attraction of the young first-time voters toward Sampang is also significant.
The election is over a week away and the mood of voters may well swing during the period but our field reporting shows that Sampang may well be elected Dharan mayor to spring yet another surprise even though our sample size is very small considering that there are over 100,000 voters in the city.
Even if he fails to win the election, he looks set to get votes in such a huge numbers that will surprise even those outside Dharan.