By Dr. D.K. Giri
In a desperate bid to stoke the passion of cultural nationalism, Nepal Prime Minister K.P.S. Oli has kicked off another controversy with India. He has claimed, ‘Lord Ram was born in Nepal, in Thori in west Birgunj. The real Ayodhya lies in Nepal, not in India where a temple is being built after years of political and legal wrangling.’ Oli’s statement has not been made on the spur of the moment or in passing. As the Prime Minister he is consciously seeking to bring another dimension in joining issue with India.
Most obviously Oli is under pressure both at home from his party, and from abroad by the Chinese leadership. The China hand is visible in its ambassador in Kathmandu brokering rapprochement between Oli and former Prime Minister Prachanda.
Oli’s anti-India rhetoric and posturing cannot be attributed only to generation of nationalist fervor, which may prop him up in power by temporarily overshadowing the cracks within the party. He has a conscious and consistent anti-India approach at the behest of China. He pulled out the old and stale issue of Limpiyadhura, Lipuletk and Kalapani belonging to Nepal. The historical and cartographic facts have been widely discussed since Nepal re-made its territorial map with legislation in Parliament. I shall deist here from going deeper into it.
The second anti-India ranting from Oli came vis-à-vis the territorial claim. He said “the virus coming from India is more harmful than the virus from China and Italy.” Challenged by his own party on his non-inclusive style of functioning and anti-India posturing, he came up with the third tirade against India. He said “his government was being disassembled by the vested interest conspiring with Delhi”. That brought the roof down on his own party. His detractors demanded proof of his wild allegation or resign.
The Standing Committee meeting of the ruling Nepal Communist Party was called to force Oli to resign from the post of Prime Minister, or give up the position of co-chair of the party in favor of ‘one person, one post’ principle. The meeting has been postponed thrice and now sine die, apparently, to bring about reconciliation.
The sensational statement on Lord Ram may have been prompted by at least three strategic drivers. One, having realised that his territorial nationalism neither took off in a big way nor did it divert attention away from his unpopular leadership, he decided to throw a religious stick to the political cauldron. He perhaps calculates that this might stoke the fire.
Second, the ruling BJP in India has become the main adversary of both Chinese, and Nepal Communists at least the Oli faction. In India too, BJP faces Communists and the Congress as the main Opposition. The ruling BJP’s rise in electoral politics in the last 20 years has been due to their rigorous and persistent campaign for building temple for Lord Ram in Ayodhya in place of the old one desecrated by Mughal invader Babur. The temple was to acknowledge Hindu faith, and to restore their cultural pride. Oli is trying to undermine BJP’s political capital with the controversy.
Third, Oli may be trying to puncture the ‘special relationship’ between India and Nepal based on cultural and religious similarities and interactions from time immemorial. By driving a wedge into the cultural sameness of the two countries, Oli wants to break the historical friendship and affinity.
We know the story of Nepal unfolding since it switched from monarchy to democracy. The increasing interference of China through projects and loans, to turn Nepal against India is no secret. In the past, China was content to keep an eye on the activities of Tibetan refugees. But with the phenomenal growth of their economy, the Chinese Communists harboured ambitions for world leadership. This is the legacy of Lenin’s slogan “Workers of the world unite”. The Soviets tried to unite them by militarily invading Eastern Europe and other countries. China is doing so with its new-found economic might and flexing its military muscle. Chinese are investing heavily in co-opting into their sphere of influence, political leaders, the top-brass in the army, and buying off lobbyists. Nepal, given its need for resources, has fallen an easy prey to Chinese predatory expansionism.
How does New Delhi plan to counter it? How can it regain an old and trusted friend like Nepal? In fact, New Delhi has let Kathmandu slip out of its friendship. In order to fix the problem and reset the ties, New Delhi must reflect on the recent past that has led to the current hiatus.
It all started in 2015, when Nepal was writing its Constitution. A year before in 2014, Modi had won the hearts of Nepalese with a tremendously successful visit. As Madhesis were protesting their marginalisation in the new Constitution, they imposed a blocked on the Indian border. New Delhi implicitly supported their demand and the blockade. That was bad diplomacy. India should have dealt with Kathmandu, not just one segment, Madhesis. It was their internal matter. New Delhi could have offered to help in mediation or reconciliation if asked, not support a section of people, even if they were of Indian origin.
Secondly, New Delhi had been non-aligned between two super powers USA and USSR, tilting more towards the latter. Small countries perhaps would like to keep good relations with big powers. But if a country has to make a choice for a preferred partner, it must do so. India did not, until today. It was adopting the same tactic between the US and China. The Chinese dictator is forcing a choice on New Delhi, which, interestingly, in the longer run, would be good for India. New Delhi showed deferential attitude to China, certainly in the two informal summits, the second one at Mahabalipuram. New Delhi’s attempt to placate China sent wrong signals to Kathmandu. They thought, if New Delhi plays up to China, why not we! From Mahabalipuram Xi Jinping flew to Kathmandu to sign some 20 agreements.
Thirdly, when Oli was raving and ranting against New Delhi, redrew the Nepal’s territorial map, New Delhi did not respond. It has not, till date. On the contrary, the Chief of the Army made a rather insensitive statement that Kathmandu was making territorial claims at the behest of Beijing. He should not have said it even though that was the case. Indian Army chief is Honorary General of the Army of Nepal and vice versa. It may be a good strategy not to react and let the Nepal domestic politics sort things out vis-à-vis India. But to ignore a country’s demand or grievances may hurt their sensitivities.
New Delhi must take fresh initiatives in re-setting the ties with Nepal. The first step is to make it abundantly clear than Kathmandu has to make a strategic choice between India and China. The rift between Beijing and New Delhi is wide open and irreparable until ‘Chinese Empire’ breaks up or the Chinese communist autocracy mutates into a multiparty democracy. The second step is to regain the emotional bond with Nepalese dispelling any perception than New Delhi is a bully or a Big Brother. The third step is to let Kathmandu know that even in terms of national interest, its core interests lie with India, the biggest democracy not China the biggest autocracy in the world. The GDP will grow and fall, but its institutions that sustain society, politics and civilizations.
The author is Prof. International Politics, JMI