‘Rastriyata’ and the abuse of emotionsUnyielding nationalism is not realistic in today’s world, and it is time we started rethinking ours.
Rastriyata— nationalism—is probably the most emotive word in Nepal's political discourse. Politicians invoke "threat-to-our-rastriyata" to oppose public policies, malign their opponents, divert public attention from their incompetence and misconduct, and contest elections by claiming to be the standard bearer of nationalism.
In the 1960s, King Mahendra scorned opponents of his authoritarian regime as arastriya tatva—anti-national elements or foreign stooges. In the run up to the elections for federal Parliament five years ago, KP Sharma Oli projected himself as a rastrabadi who alone stood up to the Indian blockade; communist and rightwing parties objected to the United States Government's Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant and State Partnership Program, claiming that these programs threaten Nepal's sovereignty. The list could go on. The "threat-to-rastriyata'' rhetoric will intensify as the campaign for the coming election picks up.
What does rastriyata specifically mean to them? I asked a medical doctor, a group of engineers, a retired banker and a practising journalist to define the word. None had a coherent answer. It is deeply distressing that we naively get caught in the emotional trap the politicians spread to further their interests.
In developed countries, nationalism does not have the appeal that it has in developing countries. Its interpretation is also vastly different. To the majority of voters in developed countries, nationalism invokes authoritarianism, hatred and criminality associated with Adolf Hitler's "national socialism'' and Mussolini's fascism. The only exceptions are countries where rightwing populism is rising or dictators rule. The term does not find any currency in political discourse. Its use is frowned upon.
Nationalism, an idea driven by insecurity, is at the centre of almost all political discussions in developing countries. Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore considered nationalism to be the subject of the anxieties of ideology, especially insecurity about the nation. Such nationalism includes love of the country, extreme sensitivity to the intent of foreign interest in the nation's affairs, dislike of foreigners, and mistrust in the bonafide of fellow citizens of different ethnicities.
Bisheshwar Prasad Koirala also used the term frequently. Unlike the current slate of leaders, he had a different take on it. To him, rastriyata meant a collective commitment of the people towards the rastra—nation—and its public institutions. He firmly believed in the loyalty of all of Nepal's ethnic groups to the country. He argued that the job of a government was to create conditions to strengthen this commitment, to make the citizens proud of their country and assure them of a full and fulfilling life. He did not deny occasional nefarious foreign interests in the country, but he believed this should be managed with dignity and confidence. This, he thought, could be done if the country was strong. He was against belittling foreign governments and culture in the name of rastriyata.
BP's version of rastriyata would make our contemporary leaders arastriya tatva. Under their leadership, the ethnic divide in the country has deepened, our public institutions have been dismantled, and thousands of young men and women, who have lost hope, are leaving the country. The country is becoming increasingly weak.
In a country like ours—economically backward, ever insecure, and sensitive about self-identity—a threat to rastriyata generates high emotions. Politicians capitalise on these emotions to further their personal or partisan interests. This is what Prime Minister Oli did when he created an anti-Indian hysteria on the Kalapani-Limpuwadhura dispute. Parliament redrew the map of Nepal at his behest, although the revised map has failed to garner international recognition. Had there been an honest debate about the dispute, perhaps the map would not have been redrawn in such haste, and a less aggressive approach to dispute resolution would have been sought.
The bill to amend the Citizenship Act that President Bidya Devi Bhandari refused to sign is another example. The bill's turncoat critics, CPN-UML, now argue the bill would compromise our rastriyata. Leaving the question of the unconstitutionality of Bhandari's refusal aside, in 2021, Bhandari had authenticated an almost identical bill and promulgated it as an ordinance. Oli, the then Prime Minister and Bhandari's close colleague in the UML, was the architect of the ordinance. For the UML, the face of rastriyata changed when it lost the government. Other political parties are hardly different.
UML's about-face notwithstanding, the bill is far from perfect. By framing the bill as a "rastriya" issue instead of a policy issue and the haste with which the government moved the bill in Parliament, public discussion on the bill was minimal. Had there been such discussion, perhaps the government could have come up with a bill acceptable to all.
Nationalism without compromise
Economic, political, and military alliances are common in a world where countries are increasingly interdependent. The members of the alliance surrender some of their sovereign rights to the authority of the alliance. Canada, the US, and many European countries are members of NATO. Canada and the US are parts of a bilateral military command called North American Aerospace Defense Command. Nepali rastrabadis would argue that the countries in these alliances have compromised their rastriyata. As a signatory to several international treaties and laws, we, too, have surrendered many of our sovereign rights to agencies outside our direct control.
We must recognise that uncompromising rastriyata is not realistic in today's interdependent world. Ukraine would not have been able to fight the Russians if it had stuck to the ideals of uncompromising rastriyata. It is critically important that we remain vigilant of charlatans, politicians, and television show experts who evoke rastriyata as a tool to manipulate our emotions. We need to know what is good for us and must not be hung up on the rastriyata rhetoric politicians will expound as the election campaign intensifies.