The country is being battered by a coronavirus surge and hospitals are running out of beds for the seriously sick. The economic fallout of the lockdown is going to be catastrophic. Yet, Nepal’s Prime Minister K P Oli is obsessed about Lord Ram.
He stirred a hornet’s nest last month by claiming that Ram was born not in Ayodhya, which is in India, but in Ayodhyapuri, which is in Chitwan’s Madi Municipality.
Nepal’s prime minister is adept at political calculus, and he has made it a habit of distracting attention from the real woes of Nepalis with ultra-nationalism, which in Nepal means constant India-baiting. It got him elected in 2017, and because of New Delhi’s mis-steps, it has worked pretty well.
However, this time Oli is concocting an explosive experiment by mixing religion with nationalism. And the irony seems to be lost on the prime Communist proponent of secularism to make a mythical god his main agenda.
On 7 August, the Ward chair of Madi Municipality Shivahari Subedi got a call on his mobile from Kathmandu. It was the Prime Minister. Subedi was asked to urgently head up to Kathmandu with his mayor.
At the meeting in Baluwatar, the prime minister instructed them to plan a shrine at Ayodhyapuri to honour Ram, Laxman and Sita. They were told to have it ready for him to lay the foundation stone on Ram Nawami in April next year. He reportedly told them: “Don’t worry about money, just get it done.”
It is significant that Oli’s call to Madi happened the day after just 150km away in Ayodhya, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid a 40kg foundation stone made of silver for a temple dedicated to Lord Ram at the base of a 16th century mosque razed by Hindu extremists in 1992. It set off religious violence in India that claimed 2,000 lives, and have been hugely divisive since.
Nepal’s prime minister is trying to do a Modi in Madi. But why would he want to tread on that religious and political minefield?
Depending who you speak to, Oli is either a master tactician or a dangerously delusional leader. In May, when a mutiny was brewing led by party co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal, a lucky diversion created by India’s inauguration of the Lipu Lekh road saved Oli. The prime minister prolonged that crisis, and got multi-partisan support for a Constitution amendment to alter Nepal’s own official map. Later, when party rivals once more ganged up, he accused them publicly of being puppets of Indian spooks. And now, when he faces another threat in the party secretariat, he invokes Ram.
In one stroke, Oli extended his confrontation with the Indian state to also antagonise many Indians. Within Nepal, too, he faced criticism and ridicule for his Ayodhya comments. Many said he had gone too far, and for a while it looked like Oli was listening. But by expediting plans to build a shrine in Ayodhyapuri, we know he is dead serious.
Oli is trying to blunt the challenge from within his fractious NCP. Madi is also a stronghold of party rival Dahal, and Oli may be castling on the political chessboard. He may also have his sights on the 2022 election, and by trying to be more Hindu than the Shankaracharya, he could be trying to take the wind out of the sails of the royalist RPP, or even the Nepali Congress, who are both using religion. This could be why criticism of Oli’s Ram move is muted within the NCP.
For now, the goal seems to be to distract attention away from the failure to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as its economic fallout. The farce is that a supposedly communist leader and avowed secularist is weaponising the Ramayana for political ends.