Oli bids to couple his nationalist rhetoric with Hindu constituencyObservers say the third plank the UML leader is likely to use is the incumbent government’s shenanigans.
CPN-UML chair and former prime minister KP Sharma Oli on Monday evening visited Pashupatinath Temple and observed the “aarati”. Mondays in the Nepali month of Shrawan are considered auspicious by Hindus and devotees throng Shiva temples.
The communist leader sat among the crowd as he observed the aarati, a ritual involving offering of incense and light to gods.
Oli joined the communist movement in the 1970s as a “secular” politician. By virtue of being a “communist,” he was not considered a religious leader, least a Hindu leader.
Observers and experts say Oli is already on a campaign mode for the upcoming elections, and his visit to Pashupati on Monday evening does carry some underlying meanings. He is definitely trying to cash in on the Hindu votes, according to them.
Even in January 2021, Oli’s Pashupati visit had attracted some sharp reactions.
On Monday, before visiting the Pashupatinath temple, Oli said that his government first was toppled after he signed the transit and transportation agreement with China in 2016 and later he was removed from the post in 2021 after his government unveiled a new political map of Nepal incorporating Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura.
“I knew I would have to step down when we were releasing the new map by incorporating our territory. There was no dispute that Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura belong to us,” said Oli while releasing a book written by former water resources secretary Dwarika Nath Dhungel. “We also knew that after releasing the map, there would be an uproar and my position would be at stake. Accordingly I was removed from the post of prime minister.”
The map was unanimously endorsed by Parliament through a constitutional amendment. It led to frosty relations with India, but the issue remains outstanding.
According to observers, Oli, like in 2017, is likely to raise the nationalistic issue and combine it with Hindutva and the current Sher Bahadur Deuba government’s shenanigans for his election agenda.
“No doubt, Oli is trying to use the Hindu sentiment,” said former foreign minister Ramesh Nath Pandey. “He wants to ride on the religious and nationalistic plank.”
Oli won the 2017 elections by ratcheting up nationalistic rhetoric, chiding India over its 2015 border blockade following the promulgation of the constitution.
The 2015 constitution guaranteed Nepal as a secular federal republic. But there are still some forces that are demanding Nepal’s return to a Hindu kingdom. Lately, some sections have made their voice louder against the decision to declare Nepal a secular federal republic. Though Oli’s party has not officially discussed a reversal to the system, one of his close allies once in July, 2021 had registered a proposal seeking to review federalism.
And Oli is well aware of a chorus on the streets also by some sections about Hindu state.
During his second stint as prime minister, the communist leader had declared that Lord Ram was born in Nepal instead of Ayodhya in India. He even formed a team to build a Ram temple in Thori, Chitwan in January 2021.
Some of his party members say there’s not much to read into the chairman’s visits to the temples.
“If the Hindutva thing were to be the case, there are parties that have been openly pitching it,” said a senior UML leader. “Did they receive a considerable number of votes… in 2017 and in recent local elections?”
According to the leaders, Oli is the party chairman but he is an independent thinker as well so his religious inclination does not necessarily mean the UML is going to give up the secular agenda.
“If the chairman’s religious visits do attract the Hindu vote base, then so be it,” said the leader who wished to remain anonymous. “We are well aware of the fact that quitting the secularism agenda will be counterproductive for the party.”
Oli’s renewed push to cash in on Hindutva also seems to have been prompted by some recent developments since he was ousted in July last year.
In April this year, Prime Minister Deuba flew to India on his official foreign visit after assuming office. Besides formal engagements, Deuba took out time to visit the headquarters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Arzu Rana Deuba, the prime minister’s spouse, performed an elaborate puja at Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi. She had in August last year tied a “rakhi” on the wrist of BJP foreign department chief Vijaya Chauthaiwale, an episode that has become famous as “rakhi diplomacy”. In Nepal and India, sisters tie rakhi [a protective wristband] on their brothers’ hands on Raksha Bandhan festival, which falls in August.
Earlier this month, CPN (Maoist Centre) chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal, a key coalition partner of the Deuba government, visited India at the invitation of BJP President JP Nadda. The BJP and the Maoist Centre, two parties that are like chalk and cheese, agreed to establish “party-to-party” ties.
According to observers, Oli might have felt Deuba and Dahal too are trying to cash in on Hindu sentiments, which the UML chief has long been trying to play with.
CP Mainali, who has known Oli for decades, said Oli’s visit to Pashupatinath temple is his election tactic and he wants to woo the Hindu electorate.
“Oli is already on an election campaign and he will play all the cards he can,” said Mainali, general secretary of the CPN (ML). “We are a diverse country... we are a secular country. We have to respect all religions. Oli’s move is simply aimed at elections. He knows how to play to the gallery.”
Senior UML leader Subas Chandra Nembang, however, dismissed Oli's Pashupati visit as having anything to do with elections.
“In a secular country, one can participate in any religious function. And such religious functions should be encouraged. Since Nepal has a Hindu majority, naturally they organise many functions compared to others,” Nembang told the Post. Since the month of Shrawan is special for Hindus, so on this occasion, he visited the Pashupatinath temple. There’s no need to read much into it.”
Observers say politicians and parties have all the right to make efforts to win elections but they need to stay away from certain issues.
“No doubt, leaders should give priority to elections but they should refrain from making religion an election agenda,” said Pandey, the former foreign minister. “Winning an election is not enough. See what is happening in Sri Lanka where the government was democratically elected. Politicians should make the country and people’s needs their election agenda, not religious sentiments.”