Oli’s nationalism, Prachanda’s insecurity and the Hindu politics of India, Nepal

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Ranjit Rae served as India’s ambassador to Nepal during a crucial time, when the country witnessed a devastating earthquake and promulgated its Constitution in 2015. He also served as joint secretary, in charge of Nepal, at the ministry of external affairs, playing a key role in the beginnings of the peace process which saw parliamentary parties and Maoists come together against an autocratic monarchy in 2005. He was, in some senses, present as an actor both at the origins and culmination of Nepal’s political transition.

In his just released book, Kathmandu Dilemma: Resetting India-Nepal ties, Rae brings his lived experience as well as a deep grasp of structural realities that shape the relationship. HT Premium offers exclusive extracts from the book, as Rae describes Nepal’s most prominent communist leaders, KP Oli and Prachanda, and answers a question that has been a source of key puzzle — does India want Nepal to turn into a Hindu State again?

The evolution of KP Oli

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During my stay in Kathmandu, I got to know (KP) Oli well, both when he was in power and in the opposition. He is a remarkable, wily leader. He has not allowed his illnesses, two kidney transplants, complications thereafter, trips in and out of hospital, and frequent intake of fistfuls of medicines, steroids and immuno-suppressants, to cramp his no-holds-barred style: acerbic, crisp and cutting. His nephew through the wife’s side, Rajesh Bajracharya, is the keeper of Oli’s health and much else besides.

Oli is garrulous and every meeting lasts for a long time. Consequently, his atrocious time-management leaves his personal staff in a quandary, constantly apologizing to visitors. On occasion, I have had to wait for a long time for him to complete some other meeting! But sometimes this had a plus side. Once, Pradeep Gyawali, then a close aide of Oli and till recently the foreign minister, had to fill in till Oli arrived and I learnt a lot on the origins and history of the CPN (UML) from him.

Oli is a shrewd politician, possibly the shrewdest in Nepal. Since he spent fourteen years in the king’s jails following his role in the Jhapa uprising of the early 1970s, similar to the Naxal movement in Siliguri of 1972, Oli is largely self-educated. Though he is fluent in English, conversations were in Hindi, which was his preferred language of communication with me. Unlike some of the other leaders, Oli speaks his mind on issues and there is no double talk. You know where he stands.

Though he is a communist, he is conservative in his outlook and against affirmative action and inclusion. He was contemptuous of Madhesi leaders and could not understand why India was supporting them. He said that they could not do anything for India, only he could. Oli disliked his projection in Indian media as a China camp follower and said that he could never go against India; that everything — culture, civilization, language and climate — binds Nepal with India; Chinese culture is alien. Since he was not personally involved in the peace process — it was Madhav Nepal, general secretary of the CPN (UML) at the time — Oli appears less committed to it. He was scornful of some of his colleagues, both within his party as well as the Maoists.

Oli is a shrewd politician, possibly the shrewdest in Nepal. Since he spent fourteen years in the king’s jails following his role in the Jhapa uprising of the early 1970s, similar to the Naxal movement in Siliguri of 1972, Oli is largely self-educated (AFP)

At one time, Oli was India’s great friend. It was during his time as home minister in the early 1990s that close cooperation between our respective intelligence and police services was established. He played an important role in the approval of the Mahakali Treaty of 1996 in the Nepalese Parliament, even at the cost of a split in his party, when the Bam Dev Gautam faction separated.

Oli is a close personal friend of President Bidya Devi Bhandari, widow of the charismatic Madan Bhandari, general secretary of the CPN (UML) who died in a car accident in May 1993. She has a deep influence on him and is perhaps the one politician that he trusts implicitly.

Oli also loves to entertain. I have enjoyed his hospitality on several occasions, including at his home, with his wife Radhika Shakya playing the gracious host. He had once invited me to a lunch together with Bidya Bhandari at a Nepalese restaurant at Baber Mahal Revisited, a more charming version of our own Santushti Complex in what were the stables of General Babar S.J.B. Rana’s palace and an oasis in the dust and din of Kathmandu; he was fretting and fuming that Bidya Bhandari was late, but was quiet as a mouse and full of charm as soon as she arrived; not a word of censure escaped his lips. When I told him that I was vegetarian, he shook his head in mock horror and said that he was a carnivore. He could not do without his daily quota of meat!

Even at the height of our disagreements, we always kept our channels of communication open. Since he would not want to be seen receiving me at his residence and he would not come to India House, we would meet at the house of a businessman in Kathmandu! He had to live up to his nationalist credentials as the only political leader in Nepal who could stand up to India. In the past, when he was a rising star, all his medical treatments, including the kidney transplant, were arranged in India. After he developed this image of being a great nationalist, he never visited India for treatment; he would go to Bangkok and Singapore. And the second kidney transplant he arranged for in Nepal, at a time when most politicians went abroad. This won him great accolades from the public.

Our relations with Oli during his ten-month rule were marked by considerable distrust. Though he had accommodated Madhesi demands to an extent and paid an official visit to India in February 2016 after the Madhesi ‘blockade’ had ended — India pulled out all stops to welcome him; he was housed in Rashtrapati Bhavan, arrived to a spectacular reception in Bhuj, where he went to see the earthquake reconstruction activities, and thereafter visited the Tehri Dam; we provided new trade and transit points, including the port of Visakhapatnam — no joint communique was issued due to differences on a reference to the new Constitution. India was keen that a commitment of Nepal to address remaining issues in a time-bound manner be included; the Nepalese merely wanted India to welcome the Constitution.

Further, Oli’s strategy to play the anti-India nationalism card and his overtures to China did not sit well with India.

Thereafter, in May 2016 he abruptly cancelled the state visit of the President of Nepal to India. I had dined with the President and her charming daughters just two days before the visit was cancelled. Separately, there were insinuations that the Nepalese ambassador in India, Deep Kumar Upadhyaya, was conspiring against the Oli government with the Indian ambassador in Kathmandu and they were both meeting secretly somewhere in western Nepal — we had planned to go there to promote tourism opportunities in what was a relatively less developed region. Indeed, the Oli government decided to recall Upadhyaya.

During the same month some Indian TV channels ran a story that Prime Minister Oli was considering expelling the Indian ambassador by declaring him persona non grata. I was completely oblivious of this till Foreign Secretary Jaishankar called me to ask whether there was any truth to it; he also told me that I had the solid backing of the Government of India and that I should convey to the Nepalese side that taking any such step would have consequences. I immediately spoke to Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa on the phone, and he expressed complete ignorance about any such proposal; he promptly issued a tweet denying that the Government of Nepal was contemplating any such step. I found out later through journalist friends in Delhi that the story had originated from a highly placed source in Kathmandu. Clearly, since the foreign minister was not aware of it and Oli’s press officer had been a Kantipur correspondent in New Delhi with good contacts in Delhi media circles, the needle of suspicion pointed to the Prime Minister’s Office.

The insecurity of Prachanda

Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who likes to be known by his nom de guerre, Prachanda, the fierce one, is an engaging personality in Nepalese politics. It is difficult to comprehend that he led a movement that was responsible for the death of 17,000 Nepalis. Within the CPN Maoists, he and Baburam Bhattarai were like yin and yang. Baburam was cerebral, highly educated, a national topper in school, an architect from Chandigarh and a PhD from JNU. He was the intellectual, the ideologue, the brains behind the movement. Prachanda was the charismatic leader, a superb orator who could arouse public emotions at will, a tactician who would sup with the devil to advance his own cause.

At a function commemorating the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi organized by the Mahendra Narayan Nidhi Foundation in Kathmandu, when asked how he felt while bowing before the apostle of non-violence, he said without guile that he was like Emperor Asoka who transformed his life philosophy after seeing the death and despair on the battlefield of Kalinga and pursued the path of the Buddha. He was fond of referring to the ‘Yudh to Budh’ and ‘Shastra to Shashtra’ remarks of PM Modi during his address to the Constituent Assembly in 2014!

Prachanda is warm and friendly, says what you want to hear, makes you feel happy and then goes and does what he wants. Dependability is not his strongest point. For several months he had been telling me that he was a progressive leader and that his alliance would be with the democratic forces, namely, the Congress and the Madhesis, and then he decided to link up with the CPN (UML), led by Oli, a diehard conservative!

He has a relatively simple lifestyle: wakes up very early in the morning, plays a good game of table tennis with his security personnel and is ready for meetings by 7 a.m. In my early days as ambassador, he would invite me to meet him at unearthly morning hours till I conveyed to him through a mutual friend that the earliest that was convenient for me was 8 a.m. He always kept this in mind for the rest of my tenure. On most occasions, I would meet him in his residential office near Lainchaur, but there were some occasions when I dined with him in his family quarters. When the weather was good, especially in winter, we would meet on his terrace and bask in the sun.

Prachanda is warm and friendly, says what you want to hear, makes you feel happy and then goes and does what he wants. Dependability is not his strongest point (AP)
Prachanda is warm and friendly, says what you want to hear, makes you feel happy and then goes and does what he wants. Dependability is not his strongest point (AP)

I recall a meeting between Sushma Swaraj and Prachanda, probably at his Parliament office, during one of her visits to Kathmandu. She said to him in Hindi, ‘Aap to hamare Kamal Pushpa hain’, playing on his name Lotus Flower, which was the symbol of her party, the BJP, in India. Prachanda was delighted, grinning from ear to ear.

Prachanda has not allowed the personal tragedies in his life to affect his political role. He lost a daughter to cancer; his son, Prakash, also his personal secretary, died tragically at a young age. Prachanda’s wife Sita Dahal has been ailing from a neurological disease that apparently has no cure.

For a man who led such a violent insurgent movement, Prachanda, shockingly for me, displayed a sense of insecurity in some of our conversations. Once, over the course of several weeks, I noticed that Prachanda was tense and worried in my meetings. When pressed, he eventually said that the Indian intelligence agencies were gunning for him. When I told him this was laughable and asked for proof, he gave me a piece of paper purportedly written on our agency letterhead that appeared to corroborate his fears. I had the matter examined and demonstrated to Prachanda that the paper was a forgery with a false watermark. It is possible that someone who wanted to create a misunderstanding between Prachanda and the Indian establishment was playing mischief. Eventually, Prachanda accepted this.

Does India want a Hindu State in Nepal?

There has been considerable speculation both in Nepal and in India that one of the reasons why India was unhappy with Nepal was that the new Constitution did not declare Nepal to be a Hindu state.

This is a complex issue. It is true that India had a BJP government with a strong belief in Hindutva, but there was a subtle distinction between the BJP party, the Sangh Parivar and the government.

I recall that early on in her tenure in July 2014, EAM Sushma Swaraj had paid a bilateral visit to Nepal prior to Prime Minister Modi’s visit. She participated in a programme organized by the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh of Nepal that she had accepted on her own; this was not a programme proposed by the embassy. At the programme, some speakers started waxing eloquent on Nepal as a Hindu Rashtra; also that now that the BJP was in power in Delhi, India too would become a Hindu Rashtra. Sushma Swaraj was very angry at this event and publicly stated at the forum that she had sworn an oath to the Constitution of India and could not associate herself with the remarks of some of the speakers and walked out in a huff.

Later that year in September, Home Minister Rajnath Singh was in Kathmandu for a SAARC Home Ministers’ meeting. At a press interaction he was reminded that as BJP president he had been a strong advocate of Nepal being a Hindu Rashtra and whether he thought that the new Constitution should declare this. I was worried about how he would react to this question, but his response was perfect. He said that as the representative of the Government of India, he did not have any view on the matter, and it was for the leaders and people of Nepal to decide whether Nepal should or should not be a Hindu state. Of course, there were organizations and individuals in India that would like to see Nepal as a Hindu state, but as far as the Government of India was concerned, we did not have any view on the matter. I used this formulation for my entire tenure in Nepal.

I should also state that this issue was never discussed in any of our formal bilateral meetings with Nepal. Nor, as ambassador, was I ever requested by anyone in the Government of India to work for Nepal as a Hindu state. I am told by some friends from Nepal that the matter did come up in one-on-one meetings of Nepalese leaders with some of our leaders; also that the RSS affiliates in Nepal as well as gurus like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar were advocating the concept of Hindu Rashtra.

The only time that a related issue came up was in a briefing in Delhi where I had mentioned that Nepal was going to be a secular country and there was some discussion on whether secularism would be defined as Sarva Dharma Sambhava or Sarva Pantha Sambhava, but nothing more.

Kathmandu Dilemma: Resetting India-Nepal ties
Kathmandu Dilemma: Resetting India-Nepal ties

That this was a sensitive issue in Nepal was clear. The communists did not want a Hindu state. In Nepal, this had connotations connecting it to the monarchy. Indeed, it was only in 1962 that King Mahendra declared Nepal to be a Hindu Rashtra and claimed that since he was an avatar of Vishnu, he had a divine right to rule. As a dear friend, the renowned journalist Vijay Pandey, once told me, in Nepal the last bogey of the Hindu Rashtra train carries the king; the monarchy was inseparable from the concept of Hindu Rashtra and it was not possible to have one without the other. When this was explained to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, he started campaigning for a Hindu republic.

Even though the public discussion on the first draft of the Constitution had shown that an overwhelming majority of Nepalese, especially from the Terai, were keen to retain Hinduism as the state religion in Nepal, this was strongly opposed by the Janjati communities. I recall a huge procession by the Janjatis in Kathmandu in 2015 during the drafting of the Constitution, demanding that Nepal be a secular state. International NGOs, not only from some Western countries, but also South Korea, and evangelical organizations were active in undertaking proselytization activities and large groups, mainly of Janjatis such as Tamangs, had converted to Christianity. I have seen for myself how churches have mushroomed in Kathmandu in ordinary houses in several neighbourhoods. The idea of secularism was also supported by Western countries, especially the US. I recall meetings at UN House of the diplomatic corps, and one of the main issues that the US ambassador would raise was freedom of religion and secularism.

Eventually, Nepal went with secularism, but they adopted an interesting definition, a sort of halfway house: Article 4 of the Constitution provides for ‘religious and cultural freedom, along with the protection of religion and customs practised from ancient times’. This is a reference to ‘sanatana dharma’. The Constitution also imposed penalties for proselytization activities and declared the cow as the national animal.

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