The limits of rhetoricOli and his followers have no choice but to negotiate hard with the govt and the Madhesi and Janajati leaders
Along with the US and Britain, Nepal also seems to have entered the era of post-truth, and its winter is heating up fast with excitement. The CPN-UML led by its demagogue leader KP Oli is once again spreading its populist propaganda by invoking the evergreen slogan—nationality in danger, nationality in danger, foreign conspiracy, foreign conspiracy! Oli and his disciples think that this would help block the forward movement of the marginalised groups in Nepal. With the success of white nationalism—said to be another name for white supremacy—in the US and with Britain pitting itself against white liberals and people of non-white minority, Oli has once again roused Nepali nationalism, an euphemism for Khas nationalism, against change-seeking, progressive and liberal Nepali- and non-Nepali-speaking people of the hills and the plains alike. We have to see if he succeeds.
The world over, democracies have been witnessing the rise of populism of the dominant population against minorities, immigrants and other marginalised groups. Thus, in the US, a majority of college-educated white men and women as well as rural whites voted for Trump ignoring his numerous personal flaws. In Britain, the Brexiteers were mostly white folks of the rural counties, who rejected their European identity and tried to safeguard their British identity. But is it not natural for whites to vote overwhelmingly for candidates who champion the cause of the whites, who think of the welfare of fellow whites and who believe in the “White Lives Matter” slogan? If the blacks organise around black people and create slogans such as “Black Lives Matter,” what’s wrong if a white pick-up truck driver in rural Ohio has a “White Lives Matter” sticker pasted on the back of his truck? What’s wrong if the whites of Britain’s rural counties vote to bar immigration from European countries and organise themselves to protect their interests?
Capturing public imagination
In a similar vein, what’s wrong if Hindus in India champion Hindus’ welfare and Muslims propagate Muslims’ welfare in Muslim countries? Or in Nepal, the UML and Oli, ignoring the demands of the Madhesis, Janajatis, Dalits and women for equal rights of language and culture, invoke the rights of the hill people and incite them to oppose the constitutional amendment? In other words, within any nation-state’s boundaries, if the minorities and the marginalised organise themselves around identity politics, why should the majority or the dominant population not organise itself to safeguard its rights and privileges in the name of safeguarding the national interest?
A specific group or a party of the majority or the dominant group, in each of the above cases, captures successfully the public imagination through mainstream and social media by appealing to the emotions of the members of the fellow racial or ethnic groups—and by repeatedly and loudly employing such slogans as “Make America Great Again”, “Better in Britain, Stay in Britain”, or “Where will Nepalis be if there’s no Nepal”. In addition, they also include conspiracy theories about real or imagined threats against the nation by immigrants and minorities. It is Chinese conspiracy against America, or European (disguised as threats from Muslim refugees) against Britain, or Indian against Nepal. In each case, the national core identity is always in danger, always at risk of dissolution, and the unfolding geopolitics is complex and requires serious analysis. But the emotional appeal overrides any critical and complex analysis by reliable sources.
Thus, immediately after Donald Trump’s victory, a white nationalist group organised a conference in Washington DC, where its leader called for safeguarding America’s white identity by banning immigration of non-whites for at least 50 years. In Britain, the Brexiteers expressed concern about the dilution of a pure English identity by the influx of east Europeans, with the fear of Syrian refugees always lurking in the background if Britain stayed in the European Union. In the same way, in Nepal KP Oli and his populist ilk—this includes the extreme right and the extreme left—keep words like “Sikkimisation” or “Fijification” always alive and ready on their lips in the Nepali-speaking public imagination.
But hands are tied
The dominant group within any nation-state cannot organise itself like the marginalised groups for reasons of numbers, dominant power and a history of oppression, marginalisation and domination over minority groups. Thus, the whites in the US cannot organise themselves explicitly in the name of whiteness and demand their privileges as the blacks, Asians, sexual minorities and other groups have done. This is so because whites—a concocted official racial category—are over 80 percent of the population. They have been dominant in all aspects of national life since the beginning of the country’s history. And, most importantly, America has a history of racial discrimination—legal or otherwise—against non-white groups, especially blacks. The country has been struggling with its racial history since its founding in the early 17th century.
It is no wonder then that as soon as the white nationalists got together in America’s capital, their leader began shouting, not about white marginalisation but white dominance and supremacy, keeping others out and invoking the spirit of Nazi Germany of the 1930s. The white Brexiteers can vote out of the EU, can invoke English culture and history, but they cannot organise in the name of the majority white identity and remain free from racism, which has a history of several centuries. Much water has flown in the Thames, and wisdom has prevailed, since then.
Similarly, Oli and his followers can invoke the nation or nationality, and organise themselves as a political party based on left, right or centre ideologies. But they cannot do so explicitly as Khas nationality, like the Madhesis, the Janajatis or the Dalits. This is so because the moment they do so, they get out of control emotionally and begin shouting the names of Prithvi Narayan Shah, Gorkhali glory and bravery, and lots of other euphemisms—all purporting Nepali-speaking upper caste dominance over the rest of the population. This is also similar to the way upper caste Indians, even though they are numerically a minority in India, cannot organise themselves explicitly like the Indian Dalits and the OBCs in the name of caste. Marginalised group status provides moral right; dominance takes it away. Hence the need for socialism, communism and so on as an organising principle.
That is why Oli and his followers have no choice but to come to the table and negotiate hard with the government and the Madhesi and Janajati leaders to find a mutually acceptable way out—just like Donald Trump or the Brexiteers have no choice but to tone down their rhetoric and face the ground reality of economics and governance. Nationalist sloganeering and conspiracy theories can take you only so far.