Maelstrom of collective narcissismThe task of tackling the challenges of governance seldom goes with neo-nationalism; Oli has found another issue to distract from his poor record.
Amidst widespread fears of the pandemic, and increasing frustrations of the prolonged lockdown, a fresh wave of jingoism has once again begun to sweep through Kathmandu. In a gush of xenophobia and chauvinism eerily reminiscent of paroxysms of paranoia experienced in the aftermath of the Gorkha Earthquakes and the promulgation of a controversial constitution when #BackOffIndia had begun to trend worldwide, warriors with handheld devices are setting the cyberspace afire with anti-Indian hysteria.
The bone of contention, however, isn’t new. A strip of land on the north-west tip of Nepal bordering Indian territory in the state of Uttarakhand and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China has remained under complete Indian control since at least the 1960s, if not earlier. Nepal retains its claim and considers the Indian position as an encroachment. The dispute stayed under wraps until the early-1990s and appeared in the public sphere when the then Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala signed a memorandum of understanding during his New Delhi visit about the Tanakpur Barrage. The ultra-nationalists in the ranks of Marxist-Leninist, Maoists and monarchists termed the understanding a sell-out and the arrangement stayed put for almost half-a-decade.
In 1996, a treaty larger in scope than the understanding over Tanakpur Barrage was ratified by the lower house of Parliament with an over two-thirds majority. However, the agreement also sowed seeds of discontentment in the main opposition party—the Communist Party of Nepal (UML). A breakaway faction began to oppose the accord. It’s possible to argue that the ideological and organisational support base of ‘nationalist communists’ provided the ballast for what became the armed insurgency of the Maoists soon afterwards. The anti-India rhetoric of the Panchayat era (1960-1990) started to gain traction again.
A few remnants of the ancien régime emerged overnight as custodians of the country. A retired surveyor became an expert on international borders. An administrator of yesteryears transformed himself into a water resource analyst. Another retired bureaucrat found a new life as the protector of public morality. A Naxal apparatchik deputed from Jhapa district in the east to the Mahakali region in the west for political proselytisation found a new purpose as a promoter of national interest. Together, they have kept touchy issues of Indo-Nepal relation simmering for nearly a quarter of a century.
It seems that the Chinese tacitly recognised the Indian position over Lipulekh again through a trade treaty in 2015 and the Border Roads Organisation under the Indian Ministry of Defence expedited its activity to link the region with Mansarovar Lake, which is a sacred site of Hindu pilgrimage that lies across the border in Tibet. Somewhat intriguingly, however, the ‘nearly complete’ section of the road was remotely inaugurated by the Minister of Defence Rajnath Singh. The Chinese have maintained a meaningful silence despite their complicity in the strengthening of the Indian position.
The Lipulekh controversy couldn’t have been better timed. It has succeeded spectacularly in diverting the national attention away from failures of Supremo KP Oli on every front of governance. The lockdown is hugely mismanaged. Woes of displaced labour coming back home from India and trapped in no man’s land have failed to move the masters of their fate in the distant capital. Plutocratic connections of Supremo Oli have been forgotten. Excesses in the procurement of medical supplies have been forgiven. All that matters, for now, is the ownership of a strip of land over which Kathmandu had exercised little, if any, control for quite a while.
The longstanding imbroglio has pushed discussions over the alarming state of the economy to the background in the budget session of the parliament. Perhaps in deference to Chinese sensibilities in its client countries, Pakistan and Nepal have been kept out of the ambit of Indian Army’s rapid response team to control the spread of Covid-19 pandemic in South Asia. Meanwhile, Beijing is focusing its attention on countries of Europe that really matter on the global chessboard.
Being the predominant power of South Asia, the United Kingdom became the guarantor of Nepal’s internal sovereignty after the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816. The responsibility of being protector and promoter of the strategically located country began to shift towards the United States, where it remained throughout the Cold War. Since the 2015 earthquakes, when Nepal rebuffed part of the UK’s offer of support by sending its helicopters on a humanitarian mission back, the bilateral relationship has been cordial rather than warm. Protracted vacillation over the MCC Compact, which requires parliamentary approval, is unlikely to have made US strategists very happy. Oli has been looking for a lifeline more reliable than that of the Chinese interlocutor and the Indian establishment has served him one on a silver platter—the ignition of neo-nationalism to restart the engine of collective narcissism.
Nationalism has several connotations. It is a powerful energy to throw away the yoke of colonialism and gain independence. When it succeeds in raising patriotic feeling, nationalism becomes the locomotive of self-reliance. In its extreme form, however, nationalism transforms itself into the force of hatred. The fascists, the Nazis, the religious zealots such as that of the Taliban, and the communists of Khmer Rouge variety—these nationalists hated others more than they loved their own. Neo-nationalism is a mutant form of xenophobic jingoism.
Neo-nationalism evolves when demagogues incite the masses with slogans of collective narcissism. A concept formulated first in the 1930s, it has become a powerful force of international politics over the last few years. Pathologies of collective narcissism are impossible to miss. Demagogues drill an unrealistic belief in the greatness of one’s group. Supposed glories of an invented past are endlessly reiterated until it becomes sacrilegious to question them.
Conspiracy theories are circulated to show that ‘certain’ countries are constantly working to undermine the sovereignty of the proud nation. A deep sense of victimhood is constantly cultivated to prove that if it were not for some nefarious designs, their country wouldn’t have remained poor for over two-and-half centuries. Do these telltale signs ring a bell? Supremo Oli is the personification of collective narcissism of the ABCD (Aryan, Bahun, Chhetri and Dashnami) Nepalis.
Like in a pandemic, the virus of collective narcissism infects ethnonational groups irrespective of their status, as Germans found out when it was too late. It’s possible to argue that neo-nationalism can go together with the task of tackling day-to-day challenges of governance. It seldom works that way—collective narcissism is an all-consuming epidemic that spreads faster than the voice of reason can counter. The rise of visceral Hindutva in India is a case in point.
Inculcation of constructive patriotism with higher tolerance for dissent, the celebration of diversities and understanding of other nationalities could be the shield to protect oneself from the pathogen of neo-nationalism.
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