Dhawal Shumsher Rana of RPP and Mohammad Ishtiyaq Rai of Janata Samajwadi Party are neck and neck in the race for House of Representatives (HoR) constituency of Banke-2.
Common coalition candidate from Nepali Congress (NC) Sudeep Narsingh Rana seems set to come a distant third in what effectively looks like a two-horse race with the main opposition CPN-UML backing RPP's Rana.
Rana from the monarchist RPP party is referred to as 'King' while Rai, who was minister in the federal Cabinet until Prime Minister (PM) Sher Bahadur Deuba dismissed JSP ministers after the party decided to quit the ruling coalition over differences in sharing of seats and ally with the main opposition CPN-UML, is called 'Minister'.
And the people in the constituency are likely to elect either the king or the minister in the upcoming election.
The constituency includes Duduwa Rural Municipality and all but ward numbers 16 and 17 of Nepalgunj Sub-metropolitan City that has 23 wards.
The constituency with a total of 97,809 voters has around 74,000 Hindu voters and around 23,000 Muslim ones.
NC is the strongest party in the constituency based on the result in the recent local election while the parties in the current ruling coalition together had a total of 24,928 votes at the ward level. But that strength does not seem to be translated in the HoR election and there does not seem to be much attraction toward the ruling coalition.
Setopati reached almost all the places in the constituency and talked with a total of 171 voters about the upcoming election, their preferred parties/candidates, the reasons for their preference, and the most important issues for them among other things.
Fifty-six (32.74%) of them said that they would vote for RPP's Rana, 55 (32.16%) of them said that they would vote for Rai, just 10 (5.84%) said that they would vote for NC’s Rana, nine for Rastriya Swatantra Party led by Rabi Lamichhane, and six for independent candidate Irfan Ahmed Sheikh. Four said that they would vote for other different candidates.
Most of those who said that they would vote for Lamichhane's patry interestingly could not even name the party's candidate in the constituency Binod Agrahari.
Thirty-one voters including 14 who had voted for NC in 2017 said that they had yet to decide who they would vote for.
The election dynamics is pretty different in this constituency from others across the country with RPP's Rana, who was elected mayor of Nepalgunj in 2017 having also served as mayor 20 years before that, being supported by UML despite the main opposition party allying with JSP in many constituencies across the plains.
Rai, who was elected from the constituency in 2017 and also the First Constituent Assembly Election in 2008, looked set to be the undisputed candidate from the ruling coalition until days before filing of nominations. But JSP quit the ruling coalition and decided to ally with UML in the eleventh hour. He will still have to fight against UML though as the main opposition party had already decided to ally with RPP and give up a constituency in Jhapa to RPP Chairman Rajendra Lingden, in Rupandehi to RPP leader Deepak Bohara and Banke-2 to Rana.
Rai, who had secured 21,575 votes to comfortably beat Pashupati Dayal Mishra (15,951) of the then alliance of UML and CPN (Maoist Center), consequently does not look likely to secure such an easy win this time around.
The voters who revealed that they would vote for Rana are not regular voters of the party. Only seven of the 56, who said that they would vote for Rana, had voted for RPP in 2017. Fourteen of the 56 had voted for UML five years back and are voting for Rana due to the electoral alliance between the two parties. But surprisingly 14, who had voted for NC in 2017, said that they would vote for RPP’s Rana this time.
Eleven of those pledging to vote for Rana are new voters while five said that they don’t remember who they had voted for in 2017. Five voters who had voted for Rai in 2017 also said that they would vote for Rai.
Thirty of the 55 who said that they would vote for Rai, on the other hand, had voted for him even in 2017. Eleven are new voters while two voters who had voted for NC and another two who opted for UML in 2017 also said that they would vote for Rai. Ten of the 55 voters said that they don’t remember who they had voted for in 2017.
Rai would have counted on an easy victory if there were a three-way competition even after JSP left the ruling coalition and the party allied with UML that had already decided to ally with RPP in Banke-2 as he seems to have held on to almost all the voters who voted for him five years back. But NC’s poor performance looks set to give him problems.
Banke chief of the youth wing of NC Birendra Shah told Setopati that NC did not get to prepare as it looked set to leave the constituency to Rai of JSP while sharing seats. “It was estimated that Rai would be the common coalition candidate until the time of announcing candidate. There were talks about his candidacy here. JSP left the ruling coalition in the last hour and NC candidate did not get time for preparation.”
The polarization of votes along religious lines also seems to be working for Rana whose party RPP is campaigning on the agenda of Hindu state. Only two of the 56 voters who said that they would vote for Rana are Muslims including one who said he rents a space at Rana’s house for a shop.
But Rana would not worry and he would benefit from such religious polarization due to the fact that the number of Hindu voters is almost three times more than that of Muslim ones.