Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli is back to his old tricks, or, to be more precise, two inter-related tricks of jingoistic anti-Indian nationalism and internal anti-Madhesi chauvinism. The first tool in his playbook is building up resentment against India, ramping up nationalistic fervour, and projecting himself as the saviour of the Nepali nation which India is out to target. The passage of an amendment to ratify a new Nepali map with territory claimed and controlled by India was one recent step in this direction. His claim on Sunday that India is out to topple his government — with no evidence — is another step.
Two, Mr Oli also taps into a mindset which sees the Madhesis — Nepali citizens of the southern plains, the Tarai — who share extensive kinship ties with people across the border in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, as a “fifth column”, more loyal to India than to Nepal. This is why he ensured that the Constitution did not have equitable power-sharing arrangements. And that is why Nepali ultra-nationalists portray extensive cross-border marriages as somewhat dangerous to Nepal and its current demography — conspiracy theories of Nepal’s “Fiji-isation” and eventual “Sikkim-isation” are conjured up. A current bill in Nepal’s parliament, which would make it more difficult for those who have married Nepali citizens from obtaining citizenship is a step in this direction and will deal a blow to the close people-to-people ties between the two countries.
These two tricks are essential for Mr Oli to overcome his real political challenges. His government has been an abysmal failure in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. He faces challenges from within his own party. Despite a strong mandate, he has done little to deliver on his promise of economic development. And he presides over one of the most corrupt governments in Nepal in recent years, with crony capitalism at its peak. He also gets away because of the backing of the one external power that is today micro-managing Nepali politics, and saved his government by mediating between internal communist party factions just two months ago: China. If Mr Oli is truly a nationalist, he should worry about the Chinese penetration in every sphere of the Nepali polity. But that won’t happen. India needs to keep a careful watch on developments in Nepal, recognise the threat Mr Oli poses, quietly work with its friends and allies in Kathmandu to build a more inclusive polity, let the communist government collapse under the weight of its contradictions, and make it clear that with his actions and statements, PM Oli has left little scope for meaningful engagement
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