Beijing’s long game in KathmanduIdeological convictions mean little in Kathmandu, but money never fails to get fast results.
It is not easy to be the ethnonational supremo of a dominant majority with a minority complex. Collective narcissism has to be nurtured with wishful references to nostalgia based on narratives from an imagined past. The demonisation of an invented 'other' has to be done through jingoistic exhortations.
The putative supremo has to keep repeating that only he—such a pretender is rarely of a different gender—knows how to maintain ethnonational supremacy through geopolitical balance. Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, the chairperson of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and the primarily acknowledged chieftain of the Khas-Arya community, excels in all such qualities.
What are often perceived as symptoms of his faut naif, if not the foot-in-the-mouth disease in the class of "misunderestimated" of Bushism or the "covfefe" of Trumpism, may be meant to convey a subliminal message to his primary constituency—the lumpenbourgeoisie that aid and abet what Gus Hall, general secretary of the Communist Party USA, described as petty-bourgeois radicalism.
The radicalism of the petite bourgeoisie is born out of frustration and nationalism when "hothouse schemes of instant revolution meet reality" and "burst like balloons". The CPN-UML consists mainly of the Jhapali Naxals—the original Maoists of the 1970s in Nepal—and has maintained its hold over the masses by mobilising the lumpenbourgeoisie and radicalising the petite bourgeoisie.
Composed primarily of prosperous professionals, executives of the flourishing donor-funded NGOs and fixers of all varieties, the lumpenbourgeoisie privately smirk while publicly applauding supremo Sharma Oli's hymns of humbug such as the claim that "Ved Vyas was from Tanahun", the assertion that "the real Ayodhya lies at Thori in the west of Birgunj" or the balderdash that "Gaidas are gaidas, not rhinos”.
The xenophobic uproar of the petite bourgeoisie was hard to ignore when he alleged that he was removed from office after publishing "a new map of Nepal that included Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh as its territories". With a transformed Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) coveting the same ethnonational space, outbursts of supremo Sharma Oli are getting strident in tone and chauvinistic tenor.
On a written request of the chairperson of Varagung Muktikshetra Rural Municipality, the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu had sought the approval of the Foreign Ministry for assisting in the establishment of a Buddhist seminary in Mustang. Supremo Sharma Oli seized the opportunity of throwing incendiary accusations at imaginary enemies, including his own country's government.
At his party's programme, he thundered: "Establishing a Buddhist college in Mustang to placate foreigners is an assault on our nationality and betrayal of China, which is our friendly nation." A routine affair was thus sought to be transformed into an India-China controversy under the looming shadow of the United States of America. The Chinese establishment was busy with the National People's Congress, the Indian politicos were politicking for upcoming elections, and the American strategists were bemoaning Nepal’s weak security system. Supremo Sharma Oli's song was lost in the wilderness.
Believed to have been derived from the ancient Indian game of Moksha Patam and also known as Snakes and Ladders, Ludo is a board game of movable pieces and dice. Pieces are moved on the board with the throw of the dice, but it is virtue and vice that decides whether a player gets to climb up a ladder or be dislodged below through the tail of a snake. No prizes for guessing the holder of the ladder and the charmer of the snake for the Indian player in Nepali affairs.
In the 1950s, America’s Cold War considerations largely converged with India’s security interests in Nepal. As a resident envoy in New Delhi and accredited to Nepal in the late-1950s, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker (1894-1984) believed in synchronising his government's policies towards all countries south of the Himalayas. But when he arrived in Kathmandu for the second time in the mid-1960s, the Vietnam war had intensified. He had married resident US ambassador in Nepal Carol C Laise and was the ambassador-at-large overseeing his country's war from afar. The USA had become the patron of the royal regime and an independent player in the kingdom's internal affairs by the early-1970s.
After the signing of the "Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation", the Fall of Dhaka and the subsequent independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the Nixon-Mao Summit in 1972, Indira Gandhi’s emergency and annexation of Sikkim through stealth into the Indian Union in 1975, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, American policies in South Asia began to converge with those of the Chinese. Washington no longer looked at Kathmandu through New Delhi’s eyes.
With the US ladder gone in the 1960s and the Chinese dragon breathing fire in the 1970s, Indian diplomacy in Kathmandu was relegated to the bottom by the early-1980s. MK Rasgotra, Indian envoy in Kathmandu between 1973 and 1976, recollects in his memoir A Life in Diplomacy that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told him unequivocally: "Nepal’s rulers cannot be trusted. They say one thing and do the opposite. I do not like that. They are not our friends".
Many things have changed on the diplomatic ground in Kathmandu since the 1990s, especially after the country was named a federal democratic republic. However, Indian interlocutors—be they spooks, diplomats, self-styled gurus such as Ramdev or Jaggi Vasudev, politicos or sundry do-gooders—continue to throw dice while the Americans play chess with their main adversary in the Cold War-style that can end in a draw of détente or lead towards checkmate. The Chinese, however, patiently move their stones on the board of wei qi.
Though popularised by Henry A Kissinger's ruminative book On China, it was Professor David Lai of the Army War College who first came up with the formulation in 2004 that wei qi was the key to understanding how the Chinese thought and calibrated their moves holistically on the global stage. Supremo Sharma Oli's folly of enticing the Chinese into the Himalayan quagmire by alluding to the Khampa rebellion of the 1960s is unlikely to win friends in Beijing, influence strategists in Washington or alarm defence tacticians in New Delhi.
The Chinese recognise that Indians will continue to exercise cultural hegemony in Nepal. Busloads of pilgrims embark upon the Chardham Yatra every season from all important cities of Nepal annually. Beijing also knows that Nepalis have to implore the Chinese should New Delhi attempt to convert its cultural capital into diplomatic or political currency.
In any case, the Chinese don't consider Indians their geostrategic or geopolitical adversary. President Xi Jinping's quick hop to Kathmandu in 2019 was a reward for Nepal's continued loyalty to Beijing rather than recognising its importance in the incipient Cold War II.
With over six decades of dominance, American strategists have learnt that ideological convictions don't mean much in Kathmandu and coercion is counterproductive in any peripheral country, but money never fails to get fast results. But should dollars begin to gush, the yuan will not be far behind. Ironically, the lumpenbourgeoisie of the UML kind benefit most from the competitive cash flow.