RED to SAFFRONEven by the standards set by Nepal’s flip-flopping politicians, Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s sudden U-turn is remarkable
When he was still leading the Maoist insurgency as Prachanda, guerrillas under his command executed priests, desecrated temples, burnt Sanskrit books. But even after being elected prime minister as Pushpa Kamal Dahal, he tried to replace priests from Kerala at Pashupati with Nepali ones. Indian priests resigned, and the move angered Hindus in both countries. During the insurgency, Dahal exhorted his fighters to wage war against India, even while he and other leaders were in a safe house in a New Delhi suburb.
Fast forward to 2023. Prime Minister Dahal visits the Mahakaleswar Temple in Ujjain during his official visit to India, where he offers prayers clad in saffron, holy thread, and sacred ash smeared on his forehead. Faced with criticism from his own comrades, Dahal defended his temple run an act of “cultural diplomacy”.
On the home front, the cultural diplomacy continued with Dahal visiting Pashupati for the first time with his finance, foreign and tourism ministers in tow. The irony was not lost on the public, at a time when opposition leader K P Oli of the UML is on the spotlight for 11kg of gold that went missing during redecoration of the sanctum sanctorum three years ago.
Then on Wednesday, Dahal attended a graduation ceremony at the Nepal Sanskrit University in Dang, the same institution his cadre set fire to in 2002, destroying ancient texts in the library. He said the university was important for Nepal’s “cultural reawakening”.
Nepal’s Maoist leader is overseeing a cultural revolution in reverse. It was a matter of time before India’s Hindutva supremacist politics would influence Nepal, but few expected it to be as dramatic as the 180 degree turn by Nepal’s prime minister.
To be sure, Dahal is not the first Communist leader to visit a temple. UML chair K P Oli visited Pashupati and declared that Lord Ram was born in Nepal, amidst much criticism from secularists.
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As for Dahal, he has dabbled in Hindu rituals before. In 2010, he was ridiculed when he worshipped a buffalo in Sunsari to “ward off bad luck” per an astrologer’s suggestion.
Dahal has not even tried to hide why he is suddenly a born-again Hindu. With Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi probably headed for re-election next year, he may have thought it expedient to be on the BJP’s good books by shedding his Communist skin even if it means risking radical saffronisation of Nepali politics.
Dahal’s party is the third largest in Parliament, and he has a hush-hush deal to hand over rotational prime ministership to Madhav Nepal of the CPN-US and the NC’s Sher Bahadur Deuba. To shore up his popularity, he could be courting support from a majority of Nepalis who past polls have shown want to dump secularism and declare Nepal a Hindu state.
He could also be trying to take the wind out of the sails of the RPP, the party which was trying to use the Hindu card for the reinstatement of the monarchy. In fact, the RPP’s Rajendra Lingden dismissed Dahal’s new Hindu avatar as mere optics, and said the real test would come when the RPP brought a proposal to Parliament to remove secularism from the preamble to Nepal’s Constitution.
UML leader Bhim Rawal said Dahal would have saved the country from much grief if he had visited Pashupati in 1996 instead of starting a war, and wondered if the prime minister’s volte face was a result of his one-on-one with Modi in Delhi.
Dahal’s one time comrade-at-arms, Baburam Bhattarai tweeted obliquely: ‘One cannot question someone else’s decision to visit a religious place, that is a matter of personal faith. But when it is a Cabinet that makes the visit together, there are questions as to whether this is politically motivated.’
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All this does not seem to be deterring Dahal, who is trying to kill multiple birds with one stone. Even Nepalis critical of the Maoists have said it is better that the former guerrillas are now visiting temples instead of destroying them.
Dahal also wants to keep Modi and the BJP happy, given their aggressive Hindu-right agenda having a ripple effect in Nepal. Having Modi’s backing will be beneficial if Dahal faces another power struggle within his coalition. On the other hand, the BJP seems more comfortable with a rebranded saffron Maoist leader in Nepal rather than the RPP whose agenda it may consider too monarchist and nationalistic.
Political analysts and insiders have attributed the Maoist party falling to third position to a lack of institutional structure and the abandonment of its anti-status quo ideology. Using a Hindu card may be too tempting to forego for Dahal, who must have noticed the support among young Nepalis for populist personas like mayors Balen Shah and HarkaSampang, or new technocrats in the RSP.
Dahal faced criticism back home that he did not raise the issues of the Akhanda Bharat map in India’s new parliament building and the Kalapani dispute. Balen Shah and Harka Sampang immediately hung their own ‘Greater Nepal’ maps ” including territory lost to British India in 1816 in their offices. NC leader Gagan Thapa also called for Nepal to issue its own “cultural map.
Dahal must have expected criticism for his Pashupati visit, and whatever his intentions might be, it remains to be seen if the prime minister will make rounds of monasteries, mosques, churches, and other places of worship across the nation to show that he supports Nepal’s constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom.
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