Southerly winds

With India’s mammoth elections halfway done, Nepalis are not so impressed with majoritarian Hindutva politics

VOTE BANK: Women voters queue up to cast their ballots in Madhubani in Bihar state, just across the Nepal border on 7 May. Photo: ELECTION COMMISSION OF INDIA / X

Nepal and India are both Hindu-majority countries, but there is a difference between the Hindutva nationalism playing out in India’s ongoing elections and the Hindu faith as practiced in Nepal.

Most Nepalis are too busy trying to get by in hard economic times to be too engrossed with elections across the border. Some do harbour strong views about Narendra Modi’s brand of Hindu revivalism, and the RPP in particular seems to want to imitate the BJP’s ability to set a national Hindutva narrative.

Still, a majority of Nepalis look at Narendra Modi with something between indifference and fondness. The Indian Prime Minister has visited Nepal five times since he was first elected in 2014, and many here still remember his address to Parliament which he began in Nepali during his first state visit to Kathmandu.

There is a section in Nepal that supports a non-secular Hindu state, and Nepalis have noticed that every time Modi comes to Nepal he makes it a point to visit Hindu and Buddhist sacred sites. But in contrast to his BJP’s Hindu exclusionist policies in India, Nepal has traditionally enjoyed a syncretic blend of Hindu and Buddhist traditions.

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For most Nepalis, therefore, the affinity for BJP and Modi could be characterised as cultural rather than political. Most Nepalis still have memories of the hardships they suffered during the 6-month blockade that New Delhi imposed just after the 2015 earthquake because it did not like the contours of Nepal’s new draft Constitution.

The poor showing of the Hindu-monarchist Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) in last month’s by-elections in Ilam and Bajhang shows that at least in the mountains, Nepalis are not so impressed with the polarised electoral politics on display in India. Interestingly, Bajhang is close to the Indian state of Uttarakhand which has declared itself to be a Hindu-only ‘Devbhumi’ and with which it has close cross-border cultural ties.

Although factions of the other four main parties in Parliament, the NC, UML, Maoist-Centre and the RSP, do flirt with the Hindu-monarchy line from time to time, there is not much public support for it yet and none of the four largest parties in Parliament has officially voiced its support for such an agenda.

When (and if) Modi does win a third term in India’s elections there could inevitably be ripple effects in Nepal — especially if the BJP’s mentors in the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) adopt an even more radical agenda, abolish secularism from the Indian Constitution, or push the Greater India idea of ‘Akhanda Bharat’.

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Even so, rousing radical religious passions will not be as easy in Nepal, which is South Asia’s oldest nation-state and does not carry with it the historical baggage of Partition. Nepal’s Muslim minority which forms 5% of the population has for the most part lived in harmony with Hindus and Buddhists, although there are politically-instigated local flare-ups from time to time mainly along the southern border. 

Though Nepal’s Hindu population is more than 80% (2021 census), Nepal as a whole is a country of minorities. The Hill-Brahmin and Chhetri may dominate the political and economic spheres, but they form less than 30% of the population. Nepal’s ethnic and indigenous groups have been asserting themselves, as seen in the recent Ilam by-election, where the UML’s Suhang Nembang comfortably beat the NC’s Dambar Bahadur Khadka by close to 6,000 votes. However, an independent candidate, Dakendra Singh Limbu, with no political affiliation, but who campaigned on a platform of assertive Limbu identity, made a strong showing, finishing third with 11,457 votes.

Such identity politics is more a response to ethnic exclusion and a demand for regional autonomy than pushing a religious agenda. Indeed, Nepal’s political parties have so far desisted from mixing religion with politics, even though some individual leaders in the parties sometimes seem to appear to be sorely tempted.

Nepal’s next general election is more than three years away, and India-style Hindutva politics could still be whipped up. For now, it seems more likely that it will be Nepali nationalism that will be a more potent vote-mobiliser.

This already seems to be happening, with the government minting Nepal’s new 100-rupee note that depicts the country’s ‘pointy map’ (‘chuchhe naxa’) showing a 350-sq km strip of territory in its northwestern tip which is also claimed by India.

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Akhilesh Upadhyay is former Editor-in-Chief of The Kathmandu Post and a Senior Fellow at the think tank, IIDS.