In his latest salvo against India, Nepal’s embattled Prime Minister, KP Sharma Oli, accused New Delhi of cultural appropriation of the Hindu god Rama. Claiming that Lord Rama was from Nepal, Oli said that India had woven a false narrative around Ayodhya.
His assertion created a major stir in India, considering the religious sentiments of millions of Hindus and their affiliation to Lord Rama. For supporters of the BJP, which rode to power on the back of the Ayodhya movement, Oli’s words amounted to sacrilege.
But Oli’s broadside on Rama and Ayodhya has little to do with either India or religion. It is a part of the arsenal he uses against his political opponents who want to oust him. Fighting for survival with his back to the wall, Oli is hoping to raise nationalistic and religious sentiments to fight his critics within the party. Former prime minister Pushpa Kumar Dahal is leading the charge from within the Communist Party of Nepal.
Oli had survived a similar challenge earlier by resorting to Nepalese nationalism. This time around he is making it more potent by mixing it with religion. The unprecedented mandate he received in 2018 has not delivered good governance to Nepal. He has ruffled the feathers of important party leaders and rules with the help of a small group of loyalists. The anger against him within the party has led to old enemies coming together to oust him.
Earlier when Oli was facing a challenge from within his own party, he staved off by using the inauguration of Lipulekh road by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to play the nationalist card. Oli claimed that Delhi was building the road in Nepalese territory. He said Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh were part of Nepal according to the 1815 treaty of Sugauli, signed between Nepal and the East India Company. India claims all three areas as its own.
Whatever the merits of Oli’s argument, he was able to reap the benefits. People forgot about bad governance, his critics within the Communist Party knew the nationalism he had stirred was potent and stopped clamouring for his ouster. The sense of outrage that followed Oli’s claims on India taking over Nepalese territory led to the entire political establishment as well as the nation standing as one behind the Prime Minister. The opposition Nepali Congress also supported the constitutional amendment needed to rework the political map of the country. In the new political map that was issued by Nepal, Kalapani was shown well within Nepalese territory. India protested but the die was cast. Foreign secretary-level talks demanded by Nepal have not yet taken place. However, Oli won round one.
Now by raking up a religious symbol and claiming Lord Rama as Nepali, Oli is hoping to reap political mileage. It is a desperate attempt to stir the pot for his own benefit. But can the same trick be repeated successfully? Many in India will think this is part of Oli’s anti-India rhetoric. But this has little to do with foreign policy, India, or China. It is the attempt of a cornered political leader, faced with a rebellion from inside his party, to remain in power.
Nepalese are by nature religious. In fact, until a few years back it was the only Hindu country in the world. Oli as a Communist had worked hard to change Nepal from a religious state to one with a Republican Constitution. But desperate situations call for desperate measures and the die-hard Communist is now ready to use religion to hang on to power.
Officially India has not reacted to Oli’s claim. But various religious groups have reacted with anger. Kalki Ram Das Maharaj, president, Rama Dal Trust was quoted as saying "I condemn his comment. They used to be a Hindu Rashtra but now they are working on the behalf of China and Pakistan." Such allegations by Indian priests will only strengthen Oli’s case.