Rajesh Man Singh of Janata Samajwadi Party (JSP) seems to be front-runner in the election for mayor of Birgunj Metropolitan City.
Singh, who is the common candidate of five-party ruling coalition also including Nepali Congress (NC) and CPN (Maoist Center), seems to be ahead of incumbent mayor and CPN-UML candidate Bijay Sarawagi according to field reporting by Setopati and analysis of the vote tally of the last local election, and demography of Birgunj.
RPP candidate Girish Giri, a career journalist who has worked for different media houses including Setopati in the past, seems likely to come a distant third.
Setopati talked with 170 voters of 27 out of 32 wards in Birgunj. Seventy-seven of the 170 respondents (45 percent) said that they will vote for Singh who had come third on a Rastriya Janata Party (RJP) ticket behind Sarawagi who won on the ticket of the then Federal Socialist Forum Nepal (now JSP), and Ajay Kumar Dwivedi of NC in the last local election.
Thirty-six said they will vote for Sarawagi and 14 for Giri. Forty-three of the respondents—including 14 NC supporters and two UML ones—did not want to reveal their preference while seven first-time voters did not want to speak about the matter.
Ten out of the 77 who said they will vote for Singh this time had voted for him even in the last local election. Twenty-seven said they had voted for Sarawagi, who had represented Federal Socialist Forum Nepal, in the last election but will vote for the party’s candidate Singh now.
Twenty-three said they are NC voters and will vote for the coalition candidate Singh. Eight of the respondents who said they will vote for Singh are first-timers. Four said they are Maoist voters and will vote for coalition candidate Singh while one pledged to vote for him despite being a UML supporter.
A few of those who said they will vote for Singh did not want to reveal who they voted for in the last local election.
Fifteen out of the 36 who said they will vote for Sarawagi this time said they had voted for UML even in the last election. Five said they are NC supporters but will vote for Sarawagi as the party has not fielded candidate for mayor this time. One of those five said Sarawagi needs to be elected also to disabuse the leaders who believe that NC voters will automatically vote for whichever candidate the party allies with.
Five of those who said they will vote for Sarawagi are first-timers, four are supporters of Loktantrik Samajwadi Party (LSP) that has allied with UML in Birgunj, and three said they will vote for Sarawagi as they had also voted for him in the last election.
Five of the 14 who said they will vote for Giri are NC voters.
The winner looks set to be decided by the voters of NC that has not fielded mayoral candidate and has backed Singh as part of the electoral alliance within the ruling coalition.
NC’s candidates for ward chairs had secured the highest number of votes (19,982) in the last election while the grand old party’s candidate for mayor had finished second behind Sarawagi (19,393). Dwivedi (17,197) would have been elected mayor ahead of Sarawagi had he got all the votes received by NC’s candidates for ward chairs.
Response of NC voters shows that all of them will not necessarily vote for Singh this time. Forty-seven of the 170 voters Setopati talked with said they had voted for NC in the last election. Twenty-three of them pledged to vote for Singh, five for Giri and five for Sarawagi this time.
Singh, who had contested on ticket of the then RJP (LSP now), had come third with 12,165 votes securing significantly more votes than the party’s candidates for ward chairs had got (8,576). Sarawagi, meanwhile, had got just around 300 more votes than the party’s candidates for ward chairs (19,096) in the last election. This shows that Singh has greater pulling power as an individual.
Bimal Srivastav, who had contested the last election from Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (Democratic) that has merged with NC now, had secured 8,701 votes which was around 1,200 more than the party’s candidates for ward chairs got. He was elected federal lawmaker on the ticket of the then Federal Socialist Forum from the constituency including Birgunj less than a year later and is now with LSP which split from JSP last year.
Basuruddin Ansari, who had joined UML just before the local election, had secured 8,688 votes while the party’s candidates for ward chairs had got 11,270. Maoist candidate Rahabar Ansari had got 8,305 votes that was significantly more than 3,722 received by the party’s candidates for ward chairs.
The votes secured by the main parties in the last local election and the two main contenders for the post of mayor now also shows that Singh should be favorite for the post now.
NC and JSP were the two largest parties far ahead of UML then, and Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (Democratic) has merged with NC in the intervening period. Singh is also supported by Maoist Center this time as part of the ruling coalition.
UML has become stronger now than it was in the last local election. It has attracted many who were elected ward chair in the last election or finished runner-up or below from other parties and fielded newcomers as candidates for ward chair in 20 out of the 32 wards this time. But its growth in the intervening period and alliance with LSP, which seems weaker than RJP was five years back, may fail to offset the advantage of the ruling coalition for Singh.
Sarawagi also looks set to suffer from anti-incumbency as most of the voters apart from the businessmen feel he failed to deliver during the five years. Businessmen say Sarawagi created a business friendly environment in Birgunj but most of the others, especially those from the lower income groups, consider businessman Sarawagi represents only the interest of the business circle and did not work to address the problems faced by the commoners.
The ethnic composition of voters also seem to favor Singh. Over 25,000 of the 124,000 voters in Birgunj are from Muslim community. The coalition has fielded Imtiyaz Alam of NC as the candidate for deputy mayor which may help Singh get votes from the community. JSP and Maoist Center also have a good hold among the Muslim voters.
Around 12,000 of the voters are Yadavs who generally tend to vote more for JSP led by Upendra Yadav than LSP which is considered to be a party of high-caste and affluent Madhesis. Around 12,000 of the voters are of hill origin and a similar number are from Bania (merchant) community of the plains and around 5,000 are Marwaris.
Supporters of Sarawagi claim that he will sweep the Marwari vote bank but that may not be able to offset the advantage of Singh among Muslim and Yadav voters as the hill-origin and Bania voters are more or less evenly split.
Singh is considered to be a baahubali politician—depending on brute muscle—but he is a bona fide politician who has been in politics for a long time despite never winning any public office after being elected ward member representing NC 25 years back.
Sarawagi, on the other hand, is considered to be a businessman and not a politician by the majority of the electorate.
Both Sarawagi and Giri are trying to woo the decisive NC voters as the party does not have its own candidate for mayor. But Sarawagi doesn’t look likely to attract a higher proportion of NC voters than Singh while Giri seems to have announced his candidacy too late to significantly attract those voters.
Both Sarawagi and Singh have jumped ship multiple times but Singh has outdone Sarawagi even on this front. He has joined RPP, Rastriya Madhes Samajwadi Party, RJP, JSP, and LSP during the intervening period before returning to JSP.
He was reportedly trying to contest this election on a UML ticket but that could not materialize as Sarawagi joined UML with assurance of mayoral ticket.
Singh looks likely to attract enough of NC voters despite his knack for party-hopping to win the election.
An NC voter joked Singh may even return to NC—the party he won a public office with for the first and the only time—after being elected mayor with support of NC voters. “He had won on an NC ticket while contesting for the smallest post (ward member). He may return to NC after winning the highest office.”