Why Nepal needs to mind the gap

Manjeev S Puri

Article

Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli recently declared the real Ayodhya to be in Thori, a village in Nepal near the India border, adding that Nepal was a victim of cultural encroachment. He rationalised that the distance between Ayodhya in India and Janakpur in Nepal would have been far too great for a prince to traverse in ancient times, even for his bride! Based on this analytic heft, reports suggest the Nepal Archaeological Department may soon start excavations at Thori.

This latest revisionism comes soon after PM Oli’s attempt at territorial grab, by including in the map of Nepal around 325 sq. km of Indian territory in Uttarakhand. A constitutional amendment reflects this in the Coat of Arms of Nepal, which includes an outlined map of Nepal. The areas incorporated are traditionally used by yatris from India for the Kailash Mansarovar pilgrimage.
The cartographic aggression is untenable, making problematic even receipt of official correspondence from Nepal with its national emblem on it. Those directly responsible must be frozen while stepping up engagement with the dominant political class in Nepal. Above all, it demands that people-to-people links are strengthened and intensified. Oli’s assertions about Ayodhya, on the other hand, should not even be dignified with pointed official responses from India.

But setting aside what India does or not, it is worth assessing Oli’s strategy: is he acting in Nepal’s own interest?
His actions reflect a leader cornered, exhausted, and reaching even for the kitchen sink. Since leading the Nepal Communist Party to a major electoral victory in 2017, his leadership has come under pressure. Within his party, his tenuous power-sharing agreements are beginning to unravel, and outside his party, he faces public opprobrium for inaction on the Coronavirus pandemic.
To save his chair, Oli has doubled down on building an uber-nationalist legacy for himself that now includes trying to co-opt Ram for Nepal (after Buddha, who, Nepalis will constantly remind you, was born in Nepal). He may be encouraged by China, whose ambassador’s perambulations in the political circles of Kathmandu have been most visible. However, Oli’s actions have been ineffective and could prove to be extremely risky for Nepal.

Drumming up an anti-India nationalism is par for the course for Nepali political leaders. However, attempts to pitch and position Nepal as the fountainhead of Hinduism have floundered in the past, even though Nepal does have more Hindus in percent terms than any other country, including India. In 2009, Oli’s present-day rival and then a diehard Maoist revolutionary, Prachanda, was forced to go back on his attempts to find Nepali replacements for Indian priests in the inner sanctum of the Pashupatinath temple.

On the Ayodhya issue, leaders from across the political spectrum in Nepal, including his own party, have decried Oli’s articulation and people have organised demonstrations across the country. The foreign ministry felt compelled to issue a formal statement to tone down the rhetoric, saying that PM Oli’s remarks were “not meant to debase the significance of Ayodhya and the cultural value it bears”.

This strategy of pugnacious religious nationalism is not only ineffective but possibly perilous for Nepal. Nearly 30 per cent of Nepal’s GDP is made up of remittances and the country is one of the most dependent in the world on its migrant workers overseas. Covid-19 could see these inflows dry up significantly and large numbers return to Nepal.

In these times, the open access India offers Nepalis, including access to employment in India, is likely to be an economic cushion for Nepal. This is, therefore, hardly the time to have diplomatic snafus or inflame people-to-people relations with India.

These actions by PM Oli also risk provoking the bear among Indians. An anti-India nationalist media is a well-known fact in Nepal. This was, however, not the case in India where Nepal has traditionally been viewed as a friendly ally in the neighbourhood. But this may change with firebrand television anchors running features like “Nepal: Dost ya Dushman” (Nepal: Friend or Foe) to drive viewership.

Political leaders in Nepal should realise that brash politics risks alienating Nepal’s strongest ally, the people of India.

(Manjeev Singh Puri is a former ambassador of India to Nepal)

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