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.

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