Two Hindu gods have been roiling up India’s neighbourhood this week. Krishna, stealer of buttermilk and hearts of gopis as well as master strategist of the Mahabharata, has been at the centre of a national discussion in Pakistan on whether or not a temple should be built in Islamabad by the 3,000-odd Hindu community there.
And in Nepal, embattled Prime Minister K.P. Oli has claimed, in what seems to be a last-ditch attempt to save his chair, that Ram’s Ayodhya ‘nagri’ is actually a village to the west of Birgunj, a Nepali town that borders India.
“We gave Sita to Prince Ram, but we gave the prince too from Ayodhya, not India,” Oli said at a function in his home Monday, quoted by the Nepali website ‘Setopati’.
Oli then bitterly complained about cultural oppression from India (“facts have been encroached”), going on to deliver what he thinks is the ultimate coup de grâce: “Lord Ram is Nepali, not Indian.”
The battle for power in Nepal
Former Nepali prime ministers, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ and Madhav Kumar Nepal, are probably nodding sagely at this moment, wondering if this is the right time to dislodge Oli with a little help from India and send him to vanaprastha.
It seems Oli is anticipating the exact same denouement. He has prorogued Parliament ahead of time even as his rival, Prachanda, accused him of making anti-India remarks that were “neither politically correct, nor diplomatically appropriate”. He has banned India’s TV channels for broadcasting anti-Nepali propaganda. (The ban has been partially lifted now.)
It’s fascinating to see India trying to reassert its influence in Nepal. Having lost the first battle against Oli and his rival Nepali Congress who nevertheless ganged up to change the map of Nepal on its coat of arms in Parliament, Delhi is hardly laying low or turning the other Gandhian cheek. Egging on Prachanda and Madhav Nepal seems to be part of Delhi’s plan to turn the tables on Oli.
Not that the Chinese are giving up. Ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi has met Madhav Nepal and another former PM, Jhalanath Khanal, probably in an effort to persuade them to split the anti-India faction, abandon Prachanda and strengthen Oli’s spine when the Nepal Communist Party meets Wednesday to resolve the leadership crisis.
The fact that it had to come to this makes you wonder whether India’s diplomats have been asleep at the wheel or whether the Indian government was so off the mark that it was unable to see Oli flirting with the Chinese only to keep himself in power.
Pakistan’s halted temple
In Pakistan, meanwhile, the question of to build or not to build a Hindu temple to Krishna in Islamabad has shaken up the country. A tiny sliver of the Pakistani elite – who are mostly defined by their ownership of two passports, one of them to a western NATO nation – is crying itself hoarse, re-remembering Jinnah’s significant speech on 11 August 1947, days before Partition, when he exhorted Pakistan’s minorities “to go back to your temples….” because, as he promised, the new country would not distinguish itself between Hindu and Christian and, yes, Muslim.
To give Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan credit, he sanctioned the construction of the temple in Islamabad, so Hindus started building a temple wall. Then all hell predictably broke loose and extremist Muslim parties quoted chapter and verse from the Sharia and asked how this could be allowed in an “Islamic” state?
The hero of the hour is Khwaja Asif, the former defence minister to Nawaz Sharif, the former Pakistan PM who was recently banished to London in a purported deal that gave him exile in exchange for jail.
In a widely watched video of Asif’s speech in July in Parliament, the legislator asks why the nation is wavering in its support for minorities when Jinnah, “whose photo you are sitting under, Mr Speaker Sir”, himself ordained as much.
But the Speaker has a mask wrapped around his mouth, in unintended imitation of Gandhi’s famous “hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil” metaphor – in any case, it’s not his job to reply.
Khwaja Asif, meanwhile, has got some support for his case from Fawad Chaudhry, science and technology minister in the Imran Khan government, as well as from the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, led by Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto.
It’s not clear what Imran Khan, so dependent on his army for his political survival, wants to do now – he’s probably waiting for army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa to sign off on the project, so he can tell the world about Pakistan’s commitment to its temple-building minority — even as Modi’s India next door recently gave away the land on which the Babri Masjid had stood for centuries to the Hindu community. (In fact, Hindu groups are now agitating to reopen the Places of Worship legislation, which gave ownership of religious sites to each community when Partition took place in 1947.)
The argument works if the master-puppeteer, the army chief himself, is on board. But as long as Imran Khan allows himself to remain a puppet, he won’t be taken seriously by the rest of the world.
Imran’s weakness also allows Modi to further ignore Pakistan – surely a mistake, considering how Delhi hasn’t bothered to send a high commissioner back to Pakistan for over a year, ever since Ajay Bisaria was recalled after the Pulwama attack in February 2019. Significantly, several other capitals in the neighbourhood are getting new envoys.
In any case, with the two avatars of Vishnu, Ram and Krishna, helping upset the political apple-cart in the subcontinent, Modi can focus his energies on evicting the Chinese.
Meanwhile, there’s always time for a $10 billion distraction — none other than Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Alphabet pledged this sum for a “digitisation fund” during a video chat with Modi on Monday.
Views are personal.