Even when Nepal-China relations were supposedly at their warmest following the UML-Maoist merger, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli understood the limits of his engagement with the northern neighbor. However much he admired Chinese President Xi Jinping, he had little to learn from the leader of the biggest single-party system in the world. They presided over two completely different polities, and Oli could never dream of amassing in Nepal even a fraction of Xi’s untrammeled powers in China. So, he looked south for inspiration.
Narendra Modi had risen from the rock bottom of the Indian society to become perhaps its strongest elected leader ever. He had in the process displayed the extreme effectiveness of cold-blooded majoritarian politics. In budding sub-continental democracies, the secret to getting and staying in power, he had shown, was to consistently stoke the egos of their religious or ethnic majorities. A strong external enemy always came in handy as well. For Modi, it has always been Pakistan; for blockade-time Oli, India was the perfect foil against which to accentuate his nationalist credentials.
Oli keenly watched Modi subvert state institutions and accrue power for the PMO, and followed suit. Meanwhile, in Nepal, the Chinese were getting unhappy with the Nepali prime minister who was stalling on BRI projects and cozying up to the yanks. As his distance with Beijing increased, and he found himself cornered by the pro-China faction in his own party, Oli realized only India could now salvage his political career and started sending overtures to New Delhi.
To prove his earnestness, the supposedly communist head of government visited temples and toyed with the idea of a greater political alliance with the royalists. The goal was also to consolidate the Hindu vote bank. There was another uncanny similarity between the Indian and Nepali leaders. Both sought to downplay the Covid-19 pandemic and to peddle bogus cures. Similar political calculations drove Oli and Modi.
If the Covid-19 was not a big deal, the Indian prime minister could train his focus on winning West Bengal, the big price that had eluded the BJP. Oli, too, after assuring his brethren that corona could be cured by no more than guava leaf-gargle, set about preserving his chair by playing fast and loose with the constitution.
The BJP leadership started paying heed as there seemed to be no other way of doing away with the ‘pro-China’ communist government. Oli also offered them a possibility, if somewhat remote, of the restoration of the Hindu state. But there was little it could do about it so long as the communist unity remained intact. Oli offered it a convenient backdoor.
Thank god Nepal is not India where Modi has successfully cowed civil society and silenced mainstream media. The sheer diversity of the Nepali society protects against that as does, paradoxically, the geopolitical rivalry here between India and China: If one set of political and social actors are close to India, another set is invariably closer to China. Nor is Hinduism as big a binding force in Nepal as it is in India.
Modi received an unprecedented mandate to unify India and set it on the path of sustained economic development. As did Oli. Both wasted their chance. In Nepal, the legitimacy of the new constitution is under question. Constitutional organs have been hollowed out. The bar of morality in politics has been set so low that even goondas can canter through. Again, as with Modi’s India, so with Oli’s Nepal.