BUTWAL, Nov 28: During the second Constituent Assembly election four years ago, Baburam Bhattarai, who was a candidate from the CPN (Maoist Center) from Rupandehi - 4, had focused on garnering the support of the squatter community voters. As part of the strategy, he made pledges and promised that he will definitely materialize them. He even dined and slept in a squatter’s house in Buddhanagar as part of the election campaign.
Such a strategy had placed his rival, CPN-UML candidate Bishnu Poudel, in a tight spot. Consequently, he too visited this squatter’s community and gave bigger assurances then Bhattarai. These promises included drinking water, roads, electricity and the most crucial thing for them - land ownership certificate. He promised to provide them all.
Consequently, Poudel won the election. Though both the candidates had made tall promises before the poor people, Poudel’s fiercer commitment had won him the squatter’s support.
Voters of this community are considered decisive. As Bhattarai had come from Gorkha, he could not take the people of the squatter community in his hand. They choose Poudel over him, analysts believe.
During the recent local level elections too, this community was gripped by the election fervor. There were flags and pamphlets everywhere. Colorful pamphlets of several political parties were on their walls and doors. Every party was claiming itself to be their true refuge. Loudspeakers kept blaring day and night while the community members kept feasting at different political party’s camps.
For the upcoming parliamentary and provincial elections, the same atmosphere is visible here. Every political party is in the race to get closer to these people and win over their support. From dawn to dusk, party cadres remain busy in wooing the community members for their voters. Such ‘festive’ air is rarely seen in the community at other times.
“Our locality is never festive as much as it becomes during the elections. Even during Dashain or Tihar, you won’t see such festivities here,” said Khagisari Thapa, 72 of Buddhanagar. “Candidates have promised that they would do everything for us. Like, they will avail drinking water, electricity, land ownership paper and dam,” she added.
While elaborating on the promises made by the candidates, Thapa is aware that they are political promises made for wooing the voters and that once the elections are over, the leaders will turn their back on them. “We know election candidates will not make keep their promises or visit us after the elections are over, but we still have to hope that they will.”
There are about 18,000 voters from the squatter’s community in and around Buddhanagar. Since most of this population is not loyal to any particular political party, they are considered swing voters. They vote for candidates, whom they feel will keep the election pledges.
For the upcoming elections, Bishnu Paudel is again contesting the election against Yuvaraj Giri of Nepali Congress. Earlier, Poudel had won Bhattarai by about 8,000 votes.
While Poudel is an experienced player when it comes to taking the squatters into confidence, Giri is also doing everything possible to win them over. Both of them are in fierce competition to assure the squatters believe that their victory would be the victory of all the disadvantaged people. Giri has additional promises to cite before them.
“I will make a constitutional body in order to solve the problem of landless people. Unless this is done, we are far from changing our fate,” he says. “I will ensure that all of us here get the citizenship certificate,” he has promised.
Besides these two contenders, other contestants are also trying their best to win over the voter’s confidence. According to the elderly woman Thapa, all of them sound very true when they speak. As long as they are speaking over the loudspeaker before the public, if feels like they will do everything they are promising.
“They try to assure us with all their heart. While listening to their pledges, we feel that our days of poverty are over. But we know after elections, they will forget all those promises,” she lamented.
The squatters have bitter experiences of being used repeatedly for their votes. Yet, they simply can’t give up hope, they say. According to Thapa, the government had initiated the process to provide land ownership certificates to them but many were deprived of it. In 1993, the government provided such certificates to some of the squatters. However, since then their numbers have continued to grow.
Thapa laments that lack of basic facilities has made life very hard for them. “We live in huts and have no means to income. As we can afford to provide care for our children, they will also remain poor,” she said.
Jeev Narayan Adhikari, chief of Sociology Department of Butuwal Multiple Campus expressed doubts on the political party’s willingness to resolve the issue of land ownership certificate. “The issues of land ownership certificate and citizenship are two of major needs of the squatter’s and these have been used politicians in every election. They will not resolve them so that they can be used in next elections as well,” he said sarcastically.