Has Oli killed two birds with one stone—or two interviews for that matterHe has earned brownie points for taking a nationalist stance, but some say he managed to distract Nepalis from his failures and the ongoing crisis while sending a message to Delhi he is ready to play along.
Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, whose contempt for the Nepali media has been no secret, on Monday evening appeared on two Indian news channels, giving extensive interviews.
The WION (World is One News) channel anchor, during an introductory remark, said that Oli had agreed for a 30-minute interview but “spoke for 100”.
The same evening, Oli spoke with Zee News—in Hindi—for about 45 minutes.
Both news channels are under the Zee Group.
The grandstanding, in both interviews, from Oli was in full display. Nepalis on social media on Tuesday morning were quick to react, pointing at the confidence Oli exuded and how he responded in a befitting manner to the channels—and for that matter India.
“The year 2021 will be a year when we can declare that between Nepal and India, there are no problems at all,” said Oli.
Oli minced no words in saying that Kalapani, Lipulkekh and Limpiyadhura belong to Nepal and that “that’s the only small problem” between Nepal and India.
He said that Nepal and India ties are “very good”.
“Far better than before,” said Oli.
To the question “before when?”, Oli was prompt to say: “always.”
Asked about his statement that the Indian embassy was trying to unseat him, Oli said that he did not say so and that he was referring to some Indian elements and quarters.
In response to a question regarding his statement that “Indian virus was more lethal than the Chinese one”, Oli said he was referring to the open border between Nepal and India, which allowed the coronavirus more easily into Nepal.
Responding to the Chinese activism in Nepal recently and after the split in his Nepal Communist Party, Oli said that “'we love our independence… freedom... we do not follow instructions by others… we independently decide on our matters”.
In his interview with Zee News, Oli was even more candid, going at length to talk about history, religion and colonialism, while asserting that in today’s world order “no one is a big brother”.
Oli did override the anchor’s condescending style to put forth his points, earning praise from many Nepalis for his preparation for the interview.
Some described Oli’s fluency in Hindi as “waxing eloquent”, while others said even though they do not agree with many of his policies, his firm stand on nationalism deserved praise.
Oli, who has been under attack for his move of dissolving the House of Representatives, suddenly on Tuesday emerged as a true nationalist leader who can “stand up to India” and present his views explicitly “even if it comes to India”.
The interviews received more attention also because relations with India during Oli’s tenure had hit a rock bottom. After a flurry of visits from Delhi—of the foreign spy chief, the Indian army chief and foreign secretary, ties seem to be back on track.
Oli returned to power in 2018 riding on a nationalistic plank. His Nepal Communist Party’s unprecedented engagements with the Communist Party of China were not hidden to Delhi. When his Nepal Communist Party faced a crisis, Beijing had overtly tried to fix things up. But Oli caught Beijing by surprise by dissolving the House on December 20, resulting in the split in the Nepal Communist Party.
Many say Beijing felt betrayed, as Oli started making overtures to Delhi.
So did Oli really take on Delhi in both of his interviews with the Indian channels?
Insiders from the Oli faction say that the interviews were part of his strategic move and he managed to hit two birds with one stone.
While he managed to pander to a section of the domestic population by ratcheting up his old nationalistic rheotric, Oli also subtly passed a message that he is keen to work with Delhi and that he does not have issues with India.
“It’s part of a well-thought-out strategy to bring ties with India back on track,” said a central committee member from Oli’s faction of Nepal Communist Party who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It went rather smoothly and quickly, as for quite some time some Indian news channels had shown interest to do an interview with the prime minister.”
According to the central committee member, parts of what Oli said were for domestic consumption—for the Nepali audience—and some answers were a clear indication that he was with Delhi and he needed the support as he has declared elections.
After dissolving the House, Oli has called for snap polls on April 30 and May 10.
Oli, his loyalists and his ministers have not given two hoots about the fact that his House dissolution move is sub judice in the Supreme Court. If the court restores the House, there won’t be elections, but the Oli camp seems to be in a poll campaign mode.
Some were quick to call Oli’s interviews a bid to detract the public from his failures and misadventures.
“…. takeaways from Oli's interview: This is an attempt to distract the public from governance failures and NCP internal crisis,” wrote a Twitter user. “[Oli is] publicly clarifying to India, addressing their suspicion around Chinese influence. Having lost China to PKD+MKN, Oli needs Delhi's backing.”
After months of hostility, Oli’s rapprochement with Delhi began on August 15—when India observes its Independence Day.
Officials and leaders familiar with the development had told the Post then that multiple backchannels had been used to materialise a phone conversation between Oli and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The official release said Oli congratulated Modi, India and its people on their Independence Day.
According to multiple sources, both sides had activated various channels to establish informal dialogue. Talks at the formal level began in October when Samant Goel, the chief of India’s Research & Analysis Wing, made a dash for Kathmandu and held a meeting with Oli. In November, Indian Army chief MM Naravane and Indian Foreign Secretary Harsha Vardhan Shringla visited Kathmandu, raising concerns among the Chinese.
Two days after Shringla’ visit, Beijing sent its Defence Minister Wei Fenghe. Before that, it had sent an advance team to Kathmandu.
But when Beijing rushed a delegation led by a vice minister in the Chinese Communist Party on December 27 , it was already late. Oli had already dissolved the House and the Nepal Communist Party had split.
“In general, I liked the interview because he tried to justify our ties with India from all aspects,” said Lokraj Baral, a former Nepali ambassador to India. “Some of the points he made are valid. Oli asked [India] to abandon the old school of thought when it comes to their Nepal policy.”
Baral, however, also sees the message that Oli obliquely conveyed that most of Nepal’s engagements are with India due to close geographical, civilisational and cultural reasons.
“So Oli’s message is clear that both Nepal and India need each other,” Baral told the Post.
On most of the occasions, Oli parried questions on China.
Oli’s interviews on Monday night came also at a very crucial time.
Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali is travelling to Delhi on Thursday. This is the first high-level visit from Kathmandu since November 2019, when India published its map placing Kalapani within Indian borders leading the bilateral ties to sour. The visit holds much significance, as it is taking place immediately after Oli’s House dissolution move.
Officials so far have said procuring Covid-19 vaccines will be high on the agenda. Gyawali is likely to hold dialogue with the political leadership in Delhi and try to see how they view the political developments in Nepal.
New Delhi so far has just one statement on Oli’s House dissolution move, that it is an “internal matter” of Nepal.”
Four days after Oli dissolved the House, Anurag Srivastava, spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, said that “we have noted the recent political developments in Nepal”.
“These are internal matters for Nepal to decide as per its democratic processes,” added Srivastava. “As a neighbour and well-wisher, India will continue to support Nepal and its people in moving forward on the path of peace, prosperity and development.”
Oli’s interviews attracted huge attention in Nepal, and there was more praise than criticism, if social media responses were anything to go by.
“PM Oli gave quite befitting answers to the “prejudiced” questions asked by Zee TV journalist,” Surya Raj Acharya, an infrastructure expert and former leader of Bibeksheel Sajha Party, wrote on Twitter. “PM’s unmatched presentation is highly praiseworthy because he clearly highlighted our non-aligned foreign policy, Nepal’s dignity and our goodwill for both our neighbors.”
“On the whole, @kpsharmaoli presented himself & Nepal well in this interview,” wrote Kul Chandra Gautam, a former UN assistant secretary general, on Twitter. “His self-confidence and self-righteousness were impressive if we disregard his tendency to occasionally mix up some facts with fiction!”
During his interview with Zee News, Oli talked at length about history and religion, taking time to explain the discovery of gravity and burning of Nalanda scriptures.
His reference to the leader of “the other religion” saying he ordered to burn down the scriptures because he feared “his religion” would not be able to advance when such advanced learning ground at Nalanda existed came as just what the anchor, Sudhir Chaudhary, wanted to hear. Chaudhary, the editor-in-chief of Zee News, is known for his pro-Modi and pro-Hindu tilt in his news reports, earning him the sobriquet of the ring leader of Godi media, a name given to the cabal of Indian media for being servile to Modi.
On one occasion, Chaudhary said there should be a debate on historical issues and that Oli should participate.
“Maybe JNU can organise,” said Oli, as Chaudhary, who has in his various reports shown much contempt for the university, listened.
Hari Roka, a Jawaharlal University product who has closely followed Nepal’s politics, especially the leftist politics, said it looks like the Indian news channels came to Nepal to rescue Oli.
“Nepal’s mainstream media, political parties and civil society have been quite critical of Oli’s unconstitutional and undemocratic move,” Roka told the Post. “The interviews come at a time when Oli is sending his foreign minister to Delhi. It’s Oli’s image makeover bid.”