Hindutva juggernaut hits a speed bump

Message to Nepal’s leaders: mixing politics with religion does not work and voters will see through it all

FROMNEPAL WITH LOVE: Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal presenting a sacred rudraksha garland to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi after the latter's swearing in in Delhi last week. Photo: EMBASSY OF INDIA KATHMANDU / X

A few years ago, at a training workshop in Janakpur for political parties to deepen their internal democracy, an LSP leader openly declared that he was a member of Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Indian group promoting political Hindutva.

The RSS is notorious for its anti-Muslim rhetoric, and some elements of Nepal’s political class have since been influenced by the inflammatory rhetoric and ideology, as well as by its political front the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP).

Fast forward to 2024, and the dust is beginning to settle after India’s ‘festival of democracy’ in which the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the BJP lost 63 seats compared to the previous election in 2019. Yet the BJP still has 240 seats, and with its alliance partners, 293 seats in the 543-strong Parliament.

INDIA (the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) led by Rahul Gandhi’s Indian National Congress (INC) has recovered from a dismal performance in 2019 with 231 seats, and the INC itself bagging 99 – up from 52 last time.

Most India-watchers have concluded that Indian voters have stopped the BJP’s Hindutva juggernaut in its tracks. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party had ruled India since 2014 with an increasingly authoritarian style, imprisoning two chief ministers in the run up to elections, and gagging India’s once-vibrant free media. 

During the last 10 years, India’s Muslims were bulldozed, sometimes quite literally as the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath of the BJP used heavy earthmovers to raze Muslim homes and businesses.

Farmers in Punjab and Haryana repeatedly marched on Delhi to protest the BJP’s agriculture policy. The Covid-19 pandemic caused millions of unacknowledged deaths and it is accepted that the official death toll was a gross undercount. The youth, especially in rural India and the working class have not benefited from India’s impressive economic growth. The Ambanis, Adanis and other corporates used their BJP connection to amass wealth. 

More than anything else, this election result showed the BJP a red line: the party has coalition partners who do not share its ideology and it cannot anymore bulldoze its way over India’s social and political opposition anymore.

As soon as the election results were clear, pundits in Nepal have been trying to analyse what a downsized BJP means for the country. Officially, Indian ex-diplomats have said that no matter which party is in power in India, its neighbourhood policy maintains continuity.

But it was transparently clear that Nepal’s royal right parties got a boost in their effort to roll back secularism from the Constitution. UP’s BJP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, the high priest of the Gorakhnath shrine, openly backed the restoration of monarchy in Nepal.

But it was in UP that the BJP suffered its most humiliating defeat, its candidate losing even in the constituency of Ayodhya where Modi had inaugurated a Ram temple built on the ruins of a mosque as a part of his electoral campaign. The BJP lost 29 seats in UP alone.

A weaker BJP in India, and particularly UP, could mean that the influence of political Hindutva will wane in Nepal as well. This may mean a less aggressive RSS/BJP presence in Nepal.

This major shift in Indian politics also means Nepal’s ruling class cannot continue to do what it has been doing since 2014. Our leaders when in Delhi had been ignoring opposition leaders in the past ten years while kowtowing at Modi’s feet.

This continued when Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal was invited to New Delhi last week to participate at Modi’s third oath taking (pictured below). While there were photo-ops of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh hugging Sonia Gandhi, Dahal and his daughter Ganga did not bother to meet any opposition leaders. It was as if Nepal’s prime minister did not even bother about the outcome of India’s election result.

Ideologically, Nepal’s liberal and leftist political parties are supposed to be closer to the INC and its allies. After all, Nepal’s 2015 Constitution was written at a time that spanned regime change in Delhi ten years ago.  

When it rains in Delhi, Nepal's leaders unfurl their umbrellas. Indeed, our political leaders have resorted to performative Hindutva rituals during India visits, making it a point to worship at temples and don saffron robes just to appease the Delhi Darbar. But the political class now needs to revive its close ties with the Indian opposition.

Back at home, the saffron flags, angry Hanuman stickers, and sword-wielding Hindutva demos in Janakpur, Birganj and Kathmandu do not really showcase Nepal’s more tolerant brand of Hindu culture. After all these are the symbols of the proponents of ‘Akhanda Bharat’, the mythical greater South Asia that includes Nepal, maps of which the BJP leaders display on their walls.

Perhaps it is time to rethink what Hinduism means to us: an inclusive religion that seeks to bestow liberation to believers, not a political campaign to gain state power and marginalise other religions.

The Indian election results have also sent a message to Nepali liberals and leftists that mixing politics with religion does not work, nor does hollow populism. Sooner or later, the voters will see through it all. 

Shreya Paudel is Program Manager at the Centre for Investigative Journalism- Nepal.