Modi and Maoists: a tale of illiberal politics that spans two countries

Harsh Mander was in Kathmandu this week. He has been a strong critic of Narendra Modi’s policies in Gujarat, and also about the role played by the state during the events there in 2002. After election results were announced last week, Modi is the prime-minister of India. This has inspired a variety of reactions and emotions from across India and the neighborhood. I had the opportunity to have a brief interaction with Harsh. I would like to summarize and expand upon it here.

A post-colonial nationalism

I have expanded this topic into a separate blog, which can be found here. I describe the significance of Modi’s victory to Nepal and the neighborhood. One can observe that the Indian electorate needed a strong figure who could champion the cause of “supreme India.” This sort of nationalist fervor and assertive foreign policy has been a hallmark of emerging powers like India, China, Russia, and Turkey. Emerging powers have demonstrated an aggressive approach in their neighborhoods. They do not shy away from advancing their supremacist attitude and claiming shared heritages. Not all of this is territorial though. What is more common is a claim of cultural and historical superiority, with a show of vindication regarding their rising statures.

It is not by chance that India, with such a backdrop, has long exhibited the tendencies that made the rise of Narendra Modi inevitable. The Indian mainstream thought has been fiercely loyal to the army and intelligence agencies. The nationalistic feeling has helped the Indian state maintain a firm position vis-a-vis its relationships with countries like Pakistan and China, which whom they have fought wars before. It has also helped the state with its dealings with Indian minorities (in Kashmir and North Eastern India) and dictate other countries in the neighborhood. On the one hand, the bureaucratic tradition continued from the colonial era has helped maintain the authority of the Indian state. On the other hand, mixed with belligerent nationalistic tendencies and a loyal electorate, the actions of the Indian state have veered on the side of illiberality. This can be seen in the dealings of the state both inside and outside India.

I argue that Indian election results are more a reflection of these tendencies than of a support for “Hindutva” politics. For more, I’d like to refer the interested reader to my blog on the subject.

Nepal: Spot the difference

I find this in contrast to the view here in Nepal, where the mistrust and disobedience of authority is widespread. It has resulted in such unstable and volatile situation, it is often said that the state’s capacity to manage the country is diminishing everyday, resulting in anarchy. However, there is a strong sense of nationalism here too. The mistrust is precisely because of the observation that the state is not nationalist enough, or strong enough to protect Nepali nationalism.

Nepalese rulers and people of past were able to defend the country from a direct colonial rule, resulting not only in a limited experience with modern bureaucracy, but also in a population that prides in being free and brave enough to fight any aggression. This combination could have worked well, but has instead resulted in a very weak state capacity, long period of political instability, and frequent regime changes.

Any present government or political system in Nepal can be accused of, and often with evidence, of being inclined to or installed by the shady Indian intelligence agencies operating with almost a free hand in Nepal. Because of a strong Indian state and the focus of the Indian civil society on Pakistan and China, the intelligence agencies and bureaucracy are rarely questioned for their excesses in Nepal. It is also not difficult to accuse any Nepalese government, which already lacks authority, a bureaucracy that can deliver, and support from the media and civil society, of being unable to serve the interests of all groups equally well. Nepal is a country of many ethnic, linguistic, cultural, geographic and economic diversities and disparities.

In spite of many similarities, India and Nepal had very different experiences of the colonial and post-colonial era. In the post-colonial times, while India was a democratic republic, Nepal oscillated between absolute monarchy and a democratic monarchy before becoming a republic in 2006 (whose defining constitution is still not drafted).

This historical context has strengthened an anti-establishment position in Nepal. The situation has chanced significantly in recent years. The ultra-left Maoist communist party led the political discourse for most of the past decade. The traditional political establishment has been replaced. The traditional establishment neither had strong authority nor did it win the loyalty and trust of the population. Although we had fewer elections, the mainstream thought in Nepal has mostly been observed as leftist, including the presence of a powerful ultra-left force.

A ultra-left illiberal nationalism

One would think that Modi and the new Nepalese mainstream would be at loggerheads with each other. Modi advocates a “Hindutva” brand of politics, while the new Nepalese establishment advocates secularism. The champions of this establishment until half an year ago (when elections tilted the balance of powers in favor of centrist parties) advocate dictatorship of the proletariat. One would expect them to be the ones disagreeing with Modi the most.

The irony is that the most enthusiastic response to Modi’s victory came from the two Maoist parties in Nepal, the UCPNM and CPNM (both are breakaway factions of the Maoist party that led an armed insurgency in Nepal). The day following Modi’s victory, the Maoist parties seemed like the only parties celebrating Modi’s victory in Kathmandu. Pampha Bhusal, the spokesperson of CPNM was full of praises for Modi. Baburam Bhattarai, the media savvy ideologue of UCPNM seemed equally enthusiastic. He was probably the first Nepalese leader without an office to congratulate Modi. His party boss Pushpa Kamal Dahal was two days late.

This does not come as a surprise to keen observers. The ultra left groups of Nepal have been staunchly nationalistic, having also re-defined nationalism as being anti-Indian. As described above, their strength was derived from the weakening of the then establishment. They justified their opposition of that establishment by blaming them of being pro-Indian.

Same sides, two countries?

The nationalist ultra-left of Nepal and the nationalist Hindutva-based ultra-right of India look like two sides of a same coin. Different historical circumstances meant different courses for these groups in the two countries. The essence of both groups seem to be the same, whether good or bad, depending on your point of view. One key difference is that the role of Indian ultra-right nationalism has been to strengthen the state’s authority while that of Nepali ultra-left nationalism has been to weaken the state’s authority to the extent of making it ineffectual. However, the illiberal nature of both flavors bear a strikingly similarity.


Indian election results: views from the fringes of the subcontinent

Recent events in Ukraine roused many in Nepal with a sense of suspicion, fear and uncertainty about the future world order. Despite being thousands of kilometers away from Ukraine, Nepalese here were able to relate to the predicament of the Ukrainiane people, mainly due to their proximity and own experiences with two other emerging powers, China and India.

Vindictive powers

Emerging powers (or re-emerging) express often and in no vague words how superior their history, culture and tradition are. It seems that they have not fully come to terms with their increasing importance in the world. This is indicated by their unabashed display of supremacist attitude in regional and international affairs. Some credit is due to the liberal Western countries who wasted the opportunity to set examples for the emerging powers. This provides a pretext for the emerging powers to make it appear that they’re set to correct what has gone wrong with the world recently. Never mind that what awaits us in a future world order governed by the new powers might be even more horrifying for smaller and weaker countries.

Modi's election message was "One India, supreme India."
Modi’s election message was “One India, supreme India.”

Compare the recent crisis in Ukraine with not only the territorial claims made by China in many of the neighboring areas, but also of the assertion of a ‘culturally superior’ and ancient civilization finally gaining the rightful supreme spot after a long period of subjugation. Consider Turkey’s assertive actions with neighbors in the form of what is called the ‘neo Ottoman’ policy. Also consider the popular Indian sentiment of being an old and superior civilization worthy of encompassing every other cultures and lifestyles in the neighborhood and elsewhere. Their ascent has hardly assured the rest of the world. There is a sense of vindictive pride rather than of maturity and responsibility.

After election results were announced last week, Narendra Modi is the new prime-minister of India. This has inspired a variety of reactions and emotions from across India and the neighborhood. Modi’s victory is far from the victory of hard-line and religious nationalistic viewpoint alone, espoused by organizations like VHP and RSS. Many young Indian voters are probably not much concerned about the question of building a temple in some contested place. Gurcharan Das has described it well in a recent piece. I will try to elaborate from a Nepalese perspective, what it might mean to the region.

Same, but different

Nepal has long ties with India. India is one of the biggest development partners of Nepal. The very close Indo-Nepal relations encompass almost all spheres of life in Nepal. However, all’s not smooth.

Nepal and India share share a long tradition of Hindu, Buddhist, and Sanskrit civilization. Practices of these faiths in one part has influenced that in the other. This makes the claim of a country being more ancient than the other debatable. The more important subject, in my opinion, is that Nepal has been home also to many other branches and different cultural practices like animism, shamanism, and the practices of different ethnic groups that have only partly and recently been associated with the Hindu tradition in the Indian sense of the term. For countries like ours, the patronizing appeal to cobble under the common umbrella of the “superior” religious-cultural system in the form of Indian Hindutva is a bit too offensive.

I assume it is not very different for the people in Ukraine, Mongolia, or, Armenia.

Demand for a strong leader

By and large, the Indian electorate has always been fiercely loyal and supportive of the army, intelligence agencies and the government. In recent decades (post-Nehru era?), one could say that the mainstream of thought in India has been increasingly dominated by chauvinistic nationalism. The view not only from Nepal, but also from inside India and elsewhere in the world has been similar- that Indian policies, both domestic and foreign, have exhibited a sort of uniformity and continuation of a legacy. An example of this kind of assessment is this Guardian editorial. A FP piece sometime ago argued how India was the biggest pain in Asia when it comes to foreign affairs.

Perhaps because of their conflicts with Pakistan and China, and a legacy of bureaucratic tradition continuing from the British era, the Indian state’s authority remains mostly unchallenged. Sometimes this stretches beyond the limits of what one could consider a modern democracy. This is visible for instance, in the silence and apathy of the media and general population about the state’s aggressions towards minorities or neighboring countries. Comparison with China provides an excuse to be complicit in the state’s excesses and also to demand stronger actions against troublemakers. They perceive it is because of a weak state that separatists, terrorists, and foreign agents get away easily in India. In comparison, such a situation would be dealt swiftly and without mercy in China. Neighboring countries like Nepal are of less direct concern to many Indians, and they are comfortable with allowing their government or intelligence agencies to do as they please.

With a mixture of this kind of historical context and a hugely patriotic nation faithful to the government, the demand for a strong leader who would deliver during difficult times was only natural. India is no more only a supporting partner to a party of the cold-war, but is soon poised to becoming one of such powers, should another cold war ensue. Even in the absence of such hostile situation, India will have to deal, negotiate and partner with an ever assertive China. She will have to find the right balance with America, Russia, Japan, Europe and Central Asia.

Nepal is the watershed for Northern India. Nepal's cultural and linguistic influences stretch the entire the pan-Himalayan region, beyond her current borders (green).
Nepal is the watershed for Northern India. Nepal’s cultural and linguistic influences stretch the entire the pan-Himalayan region, beyond her current borders (green).

Himalayan geopolitics

With Modi’s rise, fears of an even more intimidating Indian foreign policy are prominent in Nepal. Nepal occupies a strategic position in the Himalayas and has deep cultural and historical ties with countries in the entire pan-Himalayan region, stretching from Myanmar to Tibet to Afganistan (for more, please read Himal Southasian, “Looking for Greater Nepal”). Nepal is the watershed for much of Northern India and therein lies an area which will display even more geopolitical games in the future. People in Nepal feel their negotiators have always been outsmarted and they’ve been treated unfairly by the southern neighbor. Concerns over flooding on the Nepalese side because of Indians dams very close to the border have been heard this year too, with the onset of the Monsoon season. Such dams continue to be expanded every year. There are also numerous cases of border and trade disputes. Nepal, being landlocked, has to depend on India for most of her imports and when political relation between the countries have not been very good, an informal embargo is put into effect to influence power games inside Nepal. Recent publications by informed Indian sources have confirmed what had been widely guessed in Nepal: that the Indian government was well aware of, and was possibly protecting and training the Nepalese Maoist rebels during the insurgency, even as India labeled them as terrorists and cooperated the army to defeat the rebellion.

India has been alleged to get away with all such manoeuvrings and ‘micro-management’ while China gets the flack for every slight sign of influence it practices inside Nepal. The image of a soft and democratic power certainly helps India. The view inside Nepal has been that the bureaucracy and intelligence agencies dictate India’s foreign policy because of the apathy of the Indian civil society and political leadership. Modi has been a fierce critic of the ‘lack of foreign policy’ of his predecessor government, but it is not clear yet what kind of position he will take.

An unmissable trend in the emerging powers has been a renewed sense of national pride. This can look like an honest attempt to establish claim as a world-member and an equal partner in global affairs instead of being subordinate to the existing balance of power. On deeper inspection however, one finds such claims manifesting a vindictive desire to continue what we supposed ended with the colonial age. This sort of assertion is not necessarily territorial, maybe because it is politically incorrect and perhaps infeasible at this point in time. Nevertheless, the intentions and their results could be no less malignant.

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