Probably for the first time in Nepal's history millions of people were praying for a politician's recovery from illness—in solidarity. Unfortunately, their prayer went unanswered as Ujwal succumbed to Covid-19 on June 1, after valiantly fighting it for nearly a month.
He was not a humongously famous big leader of a big political party. The Bibeksheel Sajha Party has only three members elected from proportional representation votes in the Bagmati provincial assembly. It’s a small party by all measures. But when the news that he had to be supported with the very expensive Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) became public, a spontaneous fund-raising campaign was initiated by some youths, which exceeded the target within 24 hours. Almost Rs 5 million was raised spontaneously, and enquiries were still pouring in. The exuberance exhibited by Nepalis from all over Nepal and abroad was insightful. It’s evident that Ujwal was the rare politician of our time who had earned genuine public respect through his virtues.
Ashutosh Tiwari, a fellow party member and a friend of Ujwal, wrote on social media, “There are people who have authority and power. And there are people like Ujwal who have courage and influence. I see the enormous heartfelt outpouring of public support, affection, love and concerns for him in this light.”
Ujwal, who was known to be a miser with words in conversations, had many firsts to his name. At a time youths of this country were frustrated with the never-ending political crisis, Ujwal dared to lead the change. With many patriotic slogans as the basis of his messaging—‘Nepal is open’ in response to the culture of closures that were employed by all political parties, and ‘Nepal is our home, not a rented room’ to invigorate a feeling of commitment towards public matters from the youth—Ujwal had always been a maverick, the daring one.
There was clear evidence of some level of support for Ujwal Thapa and for his brand of alternative politics since the beginning. It was manifest in the followership, the votes that some of the candidates received and on social media. That this support hasn't been enough to sweep the old forces away or to triumph over other parties has been one of the most perplexing dichotomies and disappointments of present-day Nepal. In that context, the spontaneous outpouring of support for him was a happy surprise.
In fact, Rabindra Mishra, the current president of Sajha Bibeksheel Party, which was formed by merging the Sajha Party he founded with the Bibeksheel Nepali Dal that Ujwal co-founded, wrote in social media in the sense that 'had the kind of support and concern that's pouring in at the moment been shown by voters in the two elections that Ujwal faced, the situation would have been much different'. He later withdrew the statement as it drew a lot of flak for being insensitive.
Although it was inappropriate and tactless of him to say such a thing when Ujwal was fighting for every breath, it had some truth to it. And Mishra himself had lost the election to the Congress stalwart Prakash Man Singh by a close margin in Kathmandu 1 constituency; and it is an open secret that the Congress had collaborated with the UML at that time to defeat the most probable winner of the alternative party. Mishra has all the reasons for bitterness as the movement to build an alternative political force in Nepal hasn't gathered enough momentum; and when compared with the movement that Arvind Kejriwal led in Delhi, the Sajha Bibeksheel Party stands nowhere.
Reading too much into the response Thapa's critical health condition had created will be unwise. The reality is that the criminal-political nexus that is hardwired into Nepali society will fight tooth and nail not to let any alternative emerge; and combined with the flock of disinterested youths and degraded moral values and inefficient work culture in the society, the nexus grows ever stronger. There is a lot that the dark forces can feed on, and the rare ray of hope that virtuous leaders like Ujwal Thapa bring is the only weapon against them. The fight is steep, and the youths have to buckle up, learn fast from the failures and fight it hard. At a dark time when politics has failed the people miserably, Ujwal has brought hope in the injured conscience of the society, and hope can move mountains. And that will be his enduring legacy.