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The Indian contesting Thai elections!

By Rahul Jacob
Last updated on: March 08, 2019 10:39 IST
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'It's a dream, but will I give it up? No bloody way,' Umesh Pandey, the former Bangkok Post editor turned Opposition candidate, tells Rahul Jacob.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

The evening before our breakfast, Umesh Pandey, the Thai Indian journalist turned first-time parliamentary candidate, asks to speak to me.

The party he is a member of, Thai Raksa Chart, might soon be disqualified (the party was, in fact, dissolved on March 6). Would I still want an interview? Everyone I have met in Bangkok on the weekend is talking about little else.

Indeed, the first election in Thailand since the military coup in 2014 has been turned upside down by Thai Raksa Chart's nomination of the king's elder sister, Ubolratana Rajakanya, as its prime ministerial candidate.

Thailand has had a constitutional monarchy since the 1930s, but the royalty is regarded with reverence by the population and has a greater say in the government than in the UK.

The shock waves subsided somewhat when the king issued a statement saying the nomination of his sister was 'highly inappropriate', which prompted her to withdraw.

The king's censure was followed by the election commission recommending to the constitutional court on February 14 that Thai Raksa Chart be dissolved.


For Pandey, this political crisis is also an existential crisis, a recurring theme in our conversation.

When we spoke by phone, Pandey mused aloud about whether he should have accepted a recent job offer to be a private banker instead.

The next morning, we are at the Sukhothai hotel's buffet at 7 am before the eggs counter has even warmed up its pans.

An array of Western, Japanese, Thai and Chinese breakfast options stretch out before us as if in an obstacle course, but all Pandey wants is a chilli omelette and orange juice.

"I am addicted to chilli," says the youthful 46 year old whose late grandfather moved to Thailand several decades ago from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh.

We skip pleasantries and discuss the prospects for the party as it awaits the court decision.

"There is no precedent for how this (ruling) should be made," he says.

The party, allied to the exiled former prime minister and billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, has discontinued campaign rallies.

"Some people would view (rallies) as being obnoxious. It's just not the Thai way."

That is an understatement.

In the view of many royalists and pro-military wealthy and middle class in Bangkok, the nomination was an affront to king and country.

We are handicapped by Thailand's laws about what one can write about the king that are more liberal than Saudi Arabia's, but require a lot be left unsaid.

"Officially, we have been saying that the princess approached us because of her intention to reconcile the country. She has said this herself on her Instagram account."

The time travel freighted in that response requires a minute to digest: A 67-year-old princess, part of a royal family that dates back to 1782, withdrew her candidacy using Instagram.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Pandey had said a member of the executive committee approached the princess, but the subject is now even more sensitive; he won't be drawn further.

In reality, the Thai Raksa Chart party is closely allied with Thaksin, who has finished first in every election since 2001.

With Thaksin and his sister Yingluck forced into exile by the military government, Princess Ubolratana's nomination was a high-stakes gamble.

Since 2006, rural supporters of Thaksin and his urban opponents have sometimes turned violent and brought Bangkok to a standstill every couple of years since 2006 until the coup in 2014.

Whether Thaksin intended the nomination as an olive branch to the king, and whether the princess informed the king in advance is the subject of much speculation.

Now even more than ever, Thailand is a riddle wrapped in an enigma, cocooned in a hundred conspiracy theories.

What is clear is that the telecom billionaire's bet has backfired spectacularly.

The current military dictator, Prayut Chan-o-cha, head of the National Council of Peace and Order, who is the prime ministerial candidate for a party aligned with the army, is the beneficiary.

The king, too, seems more magisterial than before.

Pandey's party is almost certain to be disqualified.

For Pandey, who says he met with the leaders of four parties before settling on what now seems a terrible choice, the election may be over.

Pandey, who has a resemblance to the actor Jeetendra, laughs at this irony: "That's life then. I never expected to be in this situation."

I assume he means he never intended to be in politics.

He corrects me; politics has been "my dream... in seventh grade in Bishop Cotton, Shimla, I told my best friend, 'I want to be in politics in my country.' He said, 'You will never make it'."

Within days of being fired at the Bangkok Post last May after 22 months as editor, Pandey was approached by the leader of a major party and discussed joining them for three hours in the bakery of the hotel.

A large table nearby has been taken over by men in uniform, but they merely make repeated trips to the buffet.

Not much intimidates Pandey, whose hard-hitting coverage when he was editor-in-chief of the Bangkok Post prompted repeated calls from the military spokesman: "I was even told 'Your head will be chopped off if you run this story'."

He replied that every call to his Samsung was recorded and such conversations were passed on to two of his friends.

Matters came to a head when the Post covered the Malaysian election last May that led to the surprise rout of Malaysian strongman Najib Razak, drawing repeated parallels to the army's control of Thailand and promise of elections.

Pandey says the owner said, 'How many times have I asked you to control yourself? I will have to use my position to control you.'

The Post, which says he was fired for 'mismanagement', on some days seems noticeably tamer, but is still critical of the government.

Was he ever scared, I ask.

Pandey laughs. "I don't have a family, but yes, I have mom and dad."

Pandey was sent to Bishop Cotton for four years because his father, a textile engineer, was keen he learn Hindi.

Now, this natural story-teller reaches for a Bollywood line Jeetendra might have winced at: "Abhi tak nahi marein, abh kya marenge? (I haven't died so far, why would I die noe)."

Then he turns emotional and gets slightly choked up while making the point that many Thai Indians, a Diaspora of about 350,000, have had family in Thailand dating back 200 years yet "keep their head under the table".

His run for parliament was intended to change that.

If his party is disqualified, he intends to run in the next election in four years.

Still, with Thaksin -- who Pandey calls "a visionary" -- weakened by the decision to nominate the princess and the careful stitching up of the electoral process by the military which controls the entire Upper House, Pandey's dream of being the first Thai Indian in parliament may never happen.

This is a man who laughs often yet chokes up with emotion a couple of times in our two-and-a-half hour conversation.

Pandey appears to have multiple personalities: Idealist, huckster, management theorist, sentimental son.

At one point, he comes over to my side of the table to show me screenshots from a few years ago of negotiations with the Post's then editor, asking for a timeline to be promoted to be his successor.

The story segues to how he would get up early to take a public bus from his home near a slum to his posh international school in Bangkok.

His eyes go moist when he says first-generation immigrants deserve a chance to be prime minister.

He wants to work towards passing that law.

Thinking of Jakarta where the ethnically Chinese governor not only lost the election a couple of years ago but was jailed for blasphemy, I say this is impossible.

Southeast Asia, for all its surface hospitality towards tourists, is not a welcoming place for immigrants.

"It's a dream, but will I give it up? No bloody way," Pandey says, "Agar aaj nahi hoga..."

His party may look doomed, but Pandey will eventually get back on that campaign bus.

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