Political tensions in the country are simmering. Prime Minister KP Oli seems determined as ever to hang on to power, elections or no elections. His NCP rival faction appears as determined to oust the obdurate prime minister. Meanwhile, the civil society is coalescing against the government. Amid all these developments, the agenda of Hinduism is creeping up political charts.
Until a few months ago the Kamal Thapa-led Rastriya Prajatantra Party was almost alone in openly and strongly campaigning for the restoration of Nepal as a Hindu state.
Now, many others have joined the fray. There was a pro-Hindu state protest in the Far West in January. Mass rallies have been organized by various loose youth forums in all the country’s major urban hubs, again asking for the restoration of monarchy and/or Hindu state.
Seeing a sizable youth involvement in these protests, none of which had a direct connection with the Thapa-led RPP, many senior leaders in major parties are having rethink: did they jettison the seemingly popular Hindu state agenda in haste?
Prime Minister KP Oli is one of them. He has in recent times tried to project himself as a guardian of all the protesting youths dissatisfied with the country’s secular status. His interview with an Indian TV news channel outlining Nepal’s historical and religious connections to Hinduism, his recent worship at Pashupati Temple, his decision to build a Ram temple at Chitwan in his bid to establish it as the birthplace of the mythological god—there seems to be a pattern to what he is doing.
Nepal’s public debate spheres including social media are thus abuzz about whether the communist prime minister is actually thinking of leading a national campaign to restore Hinduism as state religion.
Surendra Pandey, a leader of NCP’s rival Dahal-Nepal faction, has gone so far as to predict that Oli would soon announce restoration of Hindu state as his electoral agenda. (In the mass rally of the NCP Oli faction on Feb 5 Oli kept mum on the agenda.)
Some civil society members who have been demonstrating against House dissolution are also accusing Oli of plotting to reinstate the Hindu state.
Oli’s confidants refute the allegation, saying that Hindu state is a dead agenda. Says Rewati Raman Bhandari, a leader of the NCP Oli faction: “People can assume what they like. But it is not happening. The prime minister’s critics come up with such baseless allegations as they don’t have any other substantial agenda”.
80 percent-Hindu votes?
Oli became not just the first incumbent communist prime minister to worship at Pashupatinath. In the process he also pledged Rs 1 billion from state coffers to install a golden article of worship there.
Many see Oli’s recent tilt to Hinduism as a strategy to draw votes in a country that is 80 percent Hindu. He is doing so as the discredited RPP, they argue, is in no place to cash in on the Hindu agenda.
So Oli has been marketing his decision to avail 101 kg of gold to Pashupatinath. He termed his decision to provide gold to Pashupatinath temple a break in tradition. “My father was not a prime minister, and he used to plow the land. But I became the prime minister. So I am in a place to break with the tradition to do something good,” he said, defending his decision.
Separately, there have been speculations about a tactical alliance between the NCP Oli faction and the RPP and other religious forces. Amid such speculations, Mohan Shrestha, an RPP leader, says he sees Oli’s respect for Hindu sentiments as something positive.
“We welcome his worship at Pashupati. He may have realized that the sentiments of nearly 84 percent Hindus can’t be ignored. Our party sees his new pro-Hindu sentiment as course correction,” he adds.
However, the RPP won’t trust Oli in a rush. “We must wait and watch if his activities are political stunts to draw votes or a long-term strategy to restore the faith of Hindus,” Shrestha adds.
A section of Nepali Congress (NC) leaders has long been campaigning for the restoration of Hindu state. Congress General Secretary Shashank Koirala has in the past asked for a referendum over secularism. As many as 820 of 1,500 NC general convention members had signed a petition demanding a referendum or constitution amendment over the issue two years ago.
One strong Hindu state advocate in Congress party, Laxman Ghimire, says he will back anyone who supports the issue if such support is genuine.
“We will support the cause even if Prachanda jee backs it,” Ghimire says. “And we can only hope that right now Oli jee is genuine about it, or it will spell a disaster for the country.”
Political Scientist Krishna Pokhrel sees Oli’s loyalty to Hinduism purely as a strategy to draw votes. “Oli and his faction are about to leave mainstream politics as the major political forces are already out on the street protesting his House dissolution move. Hinduism seems to be his survival card,” he says.
According to Pokhrel, Oli’s Hindu tilt goes against the political conviction of someone who took oath of office in the name of people instead of god.
“Oli has a track record of cottoning to issues that sell. For instance he accepted federalism even though he was against it,” Pokhrel says. He suspects a big section of Nepali Congress, including its President Sher Bahadur Deuba, could also back the Hindu state agenda if it starts gaining traction.
Nepali communist leaders traditionally don’t adhere to any religion, just like most of their communist brethren abroad. Modnath Prasrit, an ex-CPN-UML leader, is an exception. Prasrit once lobbied for a Hindu state and chose to distance himself from his party when his agenda was ignored.
“Our tradition and culture are based on Hindu system. We cannot be neutral in such a country. That said, religion shouldn’t be mixed with politics,” Prasrit says now.
Guru Khatiwada of Morang, who claims to have voted for the communist alliance in the last election, doubts a religious agenda will get Oli many votes in the upcoming elections.
“If Oli embraces Hinduism, his critics may provoke indigenous people and people from non-Hindu communities to stand against him.” However, he does admit that the agenda of Hinduism may attract some swing voters.
Keshav Jha, Executive Member of the Janata Samajpati Party, Nepal, which has a hold in Province 2, says Oli may benefit from the Hindu agenda if he dares to push ahead with it into the next elections.
“There is a pro-Hindu sentiment all across the country. Even the Kamal Thapa-led party received a good number of votes in the first Constituent Assembly elections. So KP Oli could benefit from the strategy but the country certainly will not,” he says.
Does he have Indian support?
Yogi Adityanath, Chief Minister of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh adjoining Nepal, has said that Nepal “benefits while being a Hindu state. People of India, where over a billion population is Hindu, also want the same,” he had told visiting Nepali journalists in July 2019.
In early January, Professor SD Muni, a close observer of political developments in Nepal, had also hinted of such Indian support for Nepal’s Hindu movement in an article for The Hindustan Times.
“On the sidelines of these developments, India has also fueled and fed Hindutva forces under the leadership of a discarded monarchy, possibly as a ploy in the unfolding realignment of political forces in Nepal,” Muni wrote.
Likewise, retired Indian army major general GD Bakshi, another follower of the Hindu movement in Nepal, tweeted in early December: “Massive massive protest in Nepal for restoration of Hindu rashtra. We must support our brothers and sisters in Nepal. India needs to atone for its sins of supporting the Maoists who have brought that country to ruin”.
Lekhnath Paudel, a Nepali foreign policy expert, thinks the rise of Hindu leaders in neighboring India is certain to influence the Hindu movement in Nepal as well. “The BJP’s political line is to reinstate Hindu state in Nepal. They want to push the agenda by using our political forces,” he says.
Paudel sees Oli’s recent activities as attempts both to appease Indian leadership and to draw votes in future elections.
“KP Oli has made it clear that he would lead the agenda of Hinduism in Nepal. But I don’t think the South has given him any assurance on the issue,” he told APEX.
Political analysts say Oli’s pick of Hinduism as an electoral agenda could lead to a widespread conflict in the absence of a clear roadmap on the issue’s safe-landing.