Nepal’s former prime minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli is flirting with ‘Hindutva’.
This is to gain an edge over his political rivals in the provincial and federal elections in the Himalayan nation slated for 20 November.
He heads the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) or CPN(UML).
Oli, who has testy ties with India but is a close friend of China, is facing the ruling five-party alliance headed by the Nepali Congress and which includes his rival communist party — the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) or CPN(MC).
Oli’s hunt for allies to take on the powerful five-party alliance in the polls has led him to the doors of the Hindu-nationalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) and the Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal (RPPN).
He is set to forge alliances with the two parties which advocate Nepal’s return to the status of a ‘Hindu state’ and a ‘constitutional monarchy’.
Political experts in Nepal say that Oli’s decision to forge electoral ties with the two pro-monarchy and Hindu nationalist parties is significant.
“There will be some agreement between the parties on an agenda if they come to power. And the agenda will definitely include some issues that the RPP and the RPPN are very keen on,” said Bimal Kumar Shrestha, a professor of political science at Kathmandu University.
The issues on top of the agendas of the RPP and the RPPN are scrapping of the term ‘secular’ from Nepal’s Constitution and making the country a ‘Hindu state’ once again.
Nepal was proclaimed as a secular state in the country’s interim constitution drawn up in 2006, and this was ratified in the final Constitution drawn up in 2015.
While Oli is unlikely to agree to the demands of his prospective allies to make the nation a Hindu state, he may concede to passing laws (if he becomes the PM again) making conversions of Hindus (to Islam or Christianity illegal).
This is one of the major issues in the agendas of the RPP and RPPN.
Nepal has seen massive conversions of Hindus to Christianity since the April 2015 earthquake that devastated the country.
Christian missionaries and aid organisations gained unrestricted entry into the country in the name of providing relief and promptly engaged in converting poor Hindus, especially in the rural areas.
Hardline Muslim organisations have also been converting Hindus, reportedly by force and allurements, in some pockets in Madhes (the Terai belt of Nepal straddling the border with India).
Christian evangelists have been taking advantage of Nepal’s ‘secular’ status to ‘harvest souls’.
The two parties have been protesting the largescale conversions and demanding enactment of laws to make religious conversions illegal.
Oli’s flirtations with soft Hindutva date back to the end of his tenure as prime minister. In 2021, he created a sensation by claiming that Ram was born in Chitwan district of Nepal, and not Ayodhya.
He asked the district authorities to build a grand temple at what he claimed was Ram’s birthplace.
Oli also sanctioned a large sum of money for the proposed temple, a move that drew a lot of flak at a time the country was facing the Covid 19-induced pandemic.
Though many felt that Oli’s claim was meant to irk India, sources close to him told Swarajya that the assertion by the CPN(UML) chief was primarily aimed at bolstering his waning popularity and wooing Hindus.
“Oli had been trying for quite some time to create a ‘Hindutva’ constituency. Early last year, he disbursed Nepali Rupees 300 million to gold-plate the roof of the Pashupatinath mandir (the most important Hindu shrine in the country) and replace the silver receptacle in the mandir’s garbha griha with a golden one. No prime minister before him had ever done that,” said political analyst Kul Bahadur Chettri.
Oli’s arch communist rival Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who heads the CPN(MC), says that Oli had been trying for some time to leverage religion for his political benefits.
“Oli has injected Hindutva into Nepal’s politics,” Dahal said.
Many others agree.
“Oli has been a failure as a prime minister. He had been criticised strongly for being whimsical and authoritarian, and his public standing and approval had gone down a lot. So he thought that adopting a pro-Hindu posture would help him regain lost ground,” said Chettri.
What is supremely ironic is that Oli also claims to be a diehard communist and an atheist. He is also very close to China’s communist bosses.
It was Oli who, despite appeals from Hindu organisations and the RPP, refused to delete the ‘secular’ term from Nepal’s final Constitution in 2015 when he was the prime minister of the country. Oli had piloted the 2015 Constitution.
Incidentally, it was his stewardship of the new Constitution that brought Oli into a direct confrontation with New Delhi.
The new Constitution triggered intense protests by Madhesis (inhabitants of Madhes) who alleged that their political rights had been affected.
India had backed the Madhesis, who share kinship ties with people of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Since then, Oli has taken a strident anti-India stance on many issues and has been very friendly with China. Oli allowed China to increase its footprints in Nepal. Thanks to Oli, China has a lopsided presence in and influence over Nepal today.
But Oli’s latest flirtations with Hindutva have brought him closer to the Indian establishment. After losing power in July last year, he started mending fences with India and has even reached out to Bharatiya Janata Party top leadership.
Oli, say political analysts in Nepal, feels that if he can create the perception that he is close to the ruling party in India, his support among Nepal’s Hindus will rise.
While it remains to be seen if Oli’s Hindutva gamble will pay off, what is interesting is Nepal’s foremost communist leader turning to religion to return to power.
Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.
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