Why Prime Minister K P Oli decided to use the birth anniversary of Nepali poet Bhanubhakta Acharya on Monday to get embroiled in what he should have known would create a huge backlash in India is not known. We can only speculate.
Oli put forth the wild theory that the mythical Hindu god Ram was born in Nepal, and that the kingdom of Ayodhya where his family ruled was actually in present day Chitwan district near the Indian border. Never mind that neither Nepal nor India existed at that time.
The prime minister may have unintentionally blurted it out because he had a sympathetic physically-distanced and mask-wearing audience that was laughing at all his previous repartees. After all, it was a function celebrating the Nepali language as one of the unifying pillars of nationhood.
Either that or the reference to Ayodhya was a trial balloon and an attempt to fall back on ultra-nationalism. This has always been his default button whenever he faces a domestic political crisis, or challenge to his authority from rivals within his own Nepal Communist Party (NCP).
Either way, the remarks have been greeted with understandable outrage in India which is governed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-right BJP that has itself politicised the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi temple at Lord Ram’s nativity site.
In Nepal also, the utterance backfired on the prime minister who has been ridiculed non-stop on social media. Even Oli’s own supporters have called the remarks ill-timed and detrimental in getting Nepal-India relations back on track.
If it was a calculated move on Oli’s part, it could have been an attempt to get back at Indian television news channels which have been demonising him ever since he confronted India over a sliver of territory on Nepal’s remote northwestern corner that is occupied by India.
Faced with brewing mutiny led by co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal in May, Oli used the anger in Nepal against the Indian move and defied New Delhi by getting all parties to amend the constitution and use the new map in Nepal’s national emblem.
That bought him some time, but faced with another challenge in the party’s Standing Committee last month, he accused New Delhi of trying to unseat him, and threatened to split away from the party by re-registering the old UML at the Election Commission.
Chinese Ambassador in Nepal Hou Yanqi then became active, and started a slew of meetings with Nepal’s President Bidya Devi Bhandari, Dahal and NCP comrades opposed to Oli. She carried a message from Chinese President Xi Jinping saying that splitting the part would be a bad idea. Such open involvement by a Chinese ambassador in an internal party power struggle used to be unheard of.
Indian tv channels and troll factories on social media then launched an all-out war directed solely at Oli, and calling openly for his ouster. Some tv channels went as far as to insinuate that Prime Minister Oli was dating Ambassador Hou, with graphics showing Valentine’s Day hearts. Nepal’s direct-to-home tv operators then pulled the plug on all Indian news channels.
Oli’s off-the-cuff remark about Ayodhya therefore came at a time when Nepal-India relations was already at its worst since the five-month Indian border blockade of Nepal in 2015. It will not help get relations back to an even keel.
What has so far been an escalating government-to-government spat has the potential to now turn many Indians against Nepal at the people’s level. Intentional or not, Oli should have known better than to drag an explosive mixture of religion and politics into an already volatile relationship.
Oli might have been thinking that Indians do not have a monopoly on arrogance and threatening language, but he seems to have forgotten that size matters. However, Nepal cannot choose its neighbours, we are stuck with the two we have. And they together represent one-third of humanity.
Over the past two-and-half centuries, Nepal’s survival strategy has been to keep both neighbours at arms length by maintaining a stable and balanced relationship with them. Oli is upsetting the cart.
Remarks supposed to stoke ultra-nationalist (read: anti-Indian) fervour have worked for him before, and he might have thought it will work again. This time, it will take a lot to undo the damage those ill-chosen words have done. And by making people bring up the issue of side-effects from medications, it may have also raised questions about whether he should step down on health grounds.
The Ayodhya reference also came during a tense ceasefire between Oli and Dahal as a result of Ambassador Hou’s meetings last week. Loyalists on both sides now say they do not want to split the party, but the real issue has always been what will be the give-and-take between Oli and Dahal that will keep the party united.
At the heart of the dispute is Dahal’s impatience to head the government and/or party. He had banked on Oli’s health deteriorating to such an extent that he would automatically take over. He did not expect it to drag on for so long, and Oli seems to have come out physically stronger after his second kidney transplant in March.
It is not in Nepal’s national interest to allow an ego-clash and power struggle at the top of the ruling party to impact any more on core concerns like the MCC, COVID-19 response, or the country’s geo-strategic survival.