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Ujwal Bahadur Thapa (44), an influential social activist and the founder of Bibeksheel Nepali Dal campaign turned party – Nepal’s first value-based and youth-led political party – passed away on 1 June 2021 at Mediciti Hospital, Kathmandu from Covid 19 induced complications. Let’s look at his journey from a maverick to becoming the face of alternative politics.
Thapa was born into a middle-class family in Syangja, central Nepal, and completed his secondary education at Budhanilkantha School in Kathmandu. He gained the nickname Maverick after outscoring most of his classmates in his O-level English literature final test by drawing sketches and cartoons. At the age of 19, he earned a full scholarship to study Astrophysics at Bennington College in Vermont. When he returned to Nepal from the United States, he was a web designer. He established a one-man company named Digital Max Solutions (DMS), a website design and development organization. He spent the following five years building a successful company and gradually built a 35-person strong company. Thirty employees in his company have turned themselves into entrepreneurs. Thapa never hankered after being a leader himself, preferring to breed leaders instead.
In 2008 he was invited by a friend of his to a coffee shop, to a gathering of an amazing group of Nepalese students who had studied in some of the world's best colleges. They started talking about “Why is there no forum for Nepali like us with ideas that we want to carry out in Nepal?” Someone blurted out, “Well, why don’t we just start one? It shouldn’t be too hard. We could just meet in a café, go over problems and solutions over a few cups of tea or coffee?” This “chiya guff” was intended to be forgotten, but 3 of them took it seriously and met for the first time at a cafe. This is how “Entrepreneurs for Nepal”, a strong forum (growing by 100 a day) was born. Building on this experience, he became conscious that Nepal's progress and prosperity depend on how strong they can build similar networks of ‘hope’ where positive Nepali can come together to create opportunities for others.
Nepal was mired in continuous political squabbling in 2010. The game of musical chairs was in full swing. The country was heading towards the Constituent Assembly election. General strikes, or Nepal banda, were the order of the day. Such bandas by Nepali political parties were organized as a pressure tactic, but they caused a great deal of inconvenience to the general public, especially the working class and those who relied on their daily income. Thapa felt humiliated by the fact that some thugs shut down the nation while thousands of police and millions of civilians stared at it helplessly. Just because they were thugs of a vicious syndicate of the dominant political parties, they could only remain silent. Thapa decided to gather a group of like-minded people, mostly youths, to launch a campaign against Nepal banda. A large number of youths were frustrated against the same old political faces at the helm, delivering nothing. They sensed an opportunity to confront them. As the group got bigger, the members named this the “Bibeksheel Nepali” movement. The goal was to call out all those in power who were not doing their duties, who were corrupt, who were behind causing inconvenience to the general public.
Thapa quickly realized that if politics was to be changed, he had to be a part of the same politics. In 2011, the youths under the umbrella of Nepal Unites launched a campaign to pressure the members of the first Constituent Assembly to deliver the constitution. They organized sit-ins near Baneshwar's Constituent Assembly building. Their signs read, “You took your full salary, now deliver us the constitution,”. When the country held the Second Constituent Assembly elections in 2013, Thapa and his allies decided to transform their movement into a party.
Thapa believed that Nepal was in dire need of alternative politics. In 2012, the youths founded Bibeksheel Nepali Dal, meaning “a party of conscientious Nepalis”. Thapa was appointed as the group's coordinator. According to the party, youths need to get involved in politics to improve the country's political culture. Two things distinctly stood out—Thapa donning a Nepali topi embroidered with the Nepali flag and a black and white smiley. Thapa in November 2013 said that they wanted to become an alternative to the existing traditional parties. Thapa, and three others, contested the second Constituent Assembly elections as independent candidates. The party’s election symbol was a dog, a canine emblem the party chose to make a point—that they wanted to play the role of a watchdog. “We decided to go with the dog because we want to change the perception,” he said. “We want to think our leaders should be like dogs—but loyal like dogs, honest like dogs and protectors like dogs.” The party’s foray into politics was a disaster. In a society that is largely dominated by age-old political parties and where politics survives on client-patron relationship, Thapa’s party had nothing to offer except hope and promise of reforms. But politics does not function on hopes and promises. “Unlike the leaders of the traditional political parties, he always promoted new leadership in the party.” Those who knew Thapa well say he was a rather different type of politician unlike today's breed of politicians. According to them, his politics concentrated on social service, battling corruption, and eliminating all sorts of injustice. He was a leader of Bibeksheel Sajha Party after the re-merger of Bibeksheel Nepali and Sajha Party last year. Despite the party's low result in the 2017 general elections, Thapa remained optimistic that people would one day prefer an alternate force over a traditional one.
After testing positive for coronavirus, Thapa was admitted to HAMS Hospital in Dhumbarahi on May 16. He was then moved to Grande Hospital. As his condition further deteriorated, he was taken to Mediciti Hospital on May 24 where he was kept on Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) and ventilator support. To undergo the ECMO, Thapa’s family needed a lot of money. They called for help in the country and abroad. In less than 24 hours, donations of over Rs 5 million came in. As he battled for his life, the outpouring of wishes for his recovery was immense, as Nepalis took to social media, saying Nepal needed a leader like Thapa who ignited the fire of alternative politics, encouraged youths to join politics, and who inspired hope among millions of youths. Despite not making it to any powerful position, Thapa earned huge respect and tributes kept pouring in through social media, which is a reflection that there is still a hunger for an alternative force in Nepal and the frustration with the old guards among Nepalis continues. Thapa’s death also comes at a time when Nepal has plunged into the same vicious cycle of dirty politics, which he wanted to clean up.
“Thapa used to say we cannot bring the change that we want by cursing the system. We need to take initiatives and become the agent of the change that we want to see,” said his allies. While not everyone agrees on how successful he was in developing an alternative force, there is no arguing that Thapa laid the groundwork for it.
People, especially the urban youth, are irritated when they hear the term politics. They abhor existing politicians. Thapa, on the other hand, was adored by the youth because he represented them. Although Ujwal Thapa passed away, his legacy will live on in the hearts of Nepal's urban youth. Thapa's thought evolved from a single person into an idea, a mindset that many hope will live on in perpetuity. He may have passed away, but the foundation he established for Nepal will endure for many years.
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