The L-shaped lump in our throat

People's Review - - COMMENTARY - BY MAILA BAJE

What a be­lea­guered Nepali Congress Pres­i­dent Sher Ba­hadur Deuba had dis­charged as pre-emp­tive dis­par­age­ment fi­nally seems to have caught up with Prime Min­is­ter K.P. Oli. An­tic­i­pat­ing the post­elec­tion back­lash within the party, Deuba be­gan por­tray­ing Oli’s India pol­icy as ‘lam­pasar­bad’. Not that the ap­pel­la­tion was novel by any means. Any tough talker vis-àvis our southern friends in­evitably got the tag once in the premier­ship. But our in­cum­bent prime min­is­ter was still so new that the poor guy hadn’t even gone to New Delhi on his cus­tom­ary first for­eign trip. In fact, Oli had barely be­gun to de­lin­eate his gov­ern­ment’s China pol­icy as one aimed at en­hanc­ing Nepal’s bar­gain­ing po­si­tion with India. By the time Oli re­turned from the In­dian cap­i­tal, even Deuba’s bit­ter­est crit­ics in the Nepali Congress had be­gun hurl­ing the L word against the prime min­is­ter. The Nepali Congress re­frain was that the coun­try’s re­la­tions with India were al­ways good. If Oli im­proved any­thing through his visit, it may have been his per­sonal re­la­tion­ship with the In­dian es­tab­lish­ment. While the L word didn’t en­tirely cushion Deuba against crit­i­cism from his party, it did start putting Oli on the de­fen­sive. The prime min­is­ter’s pain was be­com­ing ap­par­ent in some of his pub­lic pro­nounce­ments. Why Modi had to pay a re­turn visit so soon af­ter host­ing Oli wasn’t ever prop­erly ar­tic­u­lated by ei­ther side. Oli’s best de­fense was the im­per­a­tive of any prime min­is­ter to play the good host. Even the Maoists be­gan us­ing the Modi visit as an ex­pla­na­tion for the de­lay in fi­nal­iz­ing their uni­fi­ca­tion deal with Oli’s Uni­fied Marx­ist-Lenin­ists. An Oli visit to China ten­ta­tively planned af­ter his re­turn from New Delhi was put off for ad­di­tional prepa­ra­tions. In­stead, Modi jet­ted off for a hastily con­vened in­for­mal sum­mit with Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping. Not co­in­ci­den­tally, the Nepali Congress be­gan to re­mem­ber the In­dian block­ade just as Oli wanted to for­get it. Still, Nepalis were open to eval­u­at­ing the out­come of Modi’s visit. Of­fi­cially billed as a state visit, Modi landed in Janakpur say­ing he ar­rived as a pil­grim. Of course, that de­flected to a de­gree why he would by­pass the cap­i­tal as the port of en­try. He spent his two days Nepal more than as just a pil­grim. Yet the trip lacked the kind of sur­prise that might have ne­ces­si­tated cam­ou­flag­ing it with an air of in­for­mal­ity. Af­ter all, the in­au­gu­ra­tion of a bus ser­vice be­tween Janakpur and Ay­o­d­hya didn’t need such a high­pro­file event. Nor did lay­ing the cor­ner­stone of a hy­dro­elec­tric project the two coun­tries had agreed to build a decade ago. Modi wanted to pray at ad­di­tional re­li­gious sites? Fine and dandy. Two pub­lic fe­lic­i­ta­tions of an In­dian prime min­is­ter here on his third visit in the fourth year of a five-year term? Beats us. Since he vir­tu­ally in­vited him­self in, Nepalis went along with the good-host bit. (Kind of like when Pak­istan’s Prime Min­is­ter Shahid Khaqan Ab­basi sud­denly knocked on the door a few months ago and got an honor guard at Tundikhel.) So when Modi be­gan re­sort­ing to his trade­mark de­vices in Janakpur, Nepalis ho­hummed. When the Oli gov­ern­ment be­gan clamp­ing down on any Nepali re­mem­brance of the block­ade, the L word ac­quired in­stant val­i­da­tion of sorts. True, some saw the Euro­pean Union be­hind the res­ur­rec­tion of the bit­ter­ness of the block­ade in an ap­par­ent at­tempt to de­rail any India-China un­der­stand­ing on Nepal that would edge out third par­ties. Given the EU elec­tion ob­server mis­sion’s re­cent shenani­gans, it would be hard to put any­thing past our Euro­pean friends th­ese days. Still, the block­ade was real even if the In­di­ans never gave it that name. In that vein, even those de­mand­ing a pub­lic apol­ogy from Modi rec­og­nized the fu­til­ity of seek­ing one. Yet the Oli gov­ern­ment wasn’t pre­pared to tol­er­ate even such a tepid ar­tic­u­la­tion of Nepali sen­ti­ments as one in­scribed in­side the premises of a mi­nor po­lit­i­cal party. What hap­pened to Oli and who are we sup­posed to be mad at? China?

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