Going through the Indian press over the past few weeks, it would appear Nepali Prime Minister KP Oli has no bigger friend than Xi Jinping and no bigger foe than Narendra Modi. But it is Modi that Oli looks up to. The similarities between them are uncanny. Both committed themselves to politics early, with seemingly little regard for personal life; and now, both are without progeny. Both like to project themselves as self-assured, not reliant on others for decisions big and small, which goes naturally with their illiberal impulses. Both have aced majoritarian politics, largely by vilifying the minorities and appealing to the majority’s baser instincts.
Xi presides over a top-down one-party system that offers few if any useful lessons for Nepali or Indian politicians, who must, perforce, heed public opinion. But there are ‘democratic’ ways to persuade people. Oli and Modi are masters at whipping up nationalism by demonizing a particular pesky neighbor and using the resulting anger to cement their hold on power. Oli returned as prime minister with an overwhelming majority on the back of his dogged stand against India during the 2015-16 blockade. Modi, for his part, rode home to victory in the 2019 general elections on Pakistan-bound bombers.
Both seem adept at cartographic mischief as well. At the end of 2019, with the Indian economy growing at its slowest in six years, Modi changed the national charter to claim all of Jammu & Kashmir (which is partly responsible for the ongoing India-China tensions). This year, after an uproar in Nepal over Indian defense minister’s inauguration of a road in Lipulekh, Oli too amended the constitution to expand the Nepali map. Separately, pre-pandemic, another way the two prime ministers tried to resurrect their flagging domestic images was by going on self-promoting foreign trips.
Oli, like Modi, is aware that voters are emotional beings. They might vilify Oli for his failure to control corona, to stop corruption, and to lead the country towards prosperity. Yet Oli knows the anti-India nationalism card, played at the right time, will wash most of his sins away: Which upstanding Nepali will oppose measures to stop the big brother’s land grabs in Nepal?
Modi has a similar modus operandi. Before the last general elections, he bombed Pakistan. On the eve of the next one, he might once again successfully project himself as a stout defender of Indian territories—perhaps against China this time. Again, thanks largely to his hard line on Pakistan, in the latest CVoter’s State of the Nation survey, Modi enjoys 65 percent personal approval, with nearly 60 percent people reporting satisfaction with his government.
But unlike Modi, Oli is losing grip on his own party. His efforts to project himself as China’s most trusted man in Nepal, and hence high in the estimation of the nationalist Nepalis, are now being hijacked by Pushpa Kamal Dahal. To prove his loyalty, the former Maoist supremo has emerged as the most vocal critic of the American MCC compact, even as Oli seems to be in its support, much to Chinese consternation.
Due to the many pressures he faces at home, it will be hard for Oli to budge on the new map. Modi too will hold fast on to the changed J&K map. All the more strange that there is no love lost between them.