By Sangam Prasain
Kathmandu, Nov 8 (EFE).- Taking a cue from neighboring India, Nepal politicians, including communists, are banking on Hindu appeasement to win general elections later this month.
Hindu nationalism has become a key part of the election campaign, with parties attempting to win voters with offers or contributions to build Hindu temples, despite the fact that many of them are communists preaching atheism.
The Himalayan republic is holding general elections on Nov.20 to elect 275 members of the House of Representatives. It will be held alongside provincial elections to elect 550 representatives to the provincial assembly.
Fostering the Hindu sentiment has become an important part of this election campaign for the opposition Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), or the CPN (UML), and the ruling social-democratic Nepali Congress.
“Both parties, although they have not incorporated Hindu agendas in their political manifesto, are trying to cash-in on the religious-nationalist card,” Vijay Kant Karna, a professor of political science at Tribhuvan University, told EFE.
“People who do not believe in it are propagating the Hindu ideology. Politicians are trying to polarize the society to get the votes and that’s a bitter reality,” Karna said.
Nepal, where more than 80 percent of the population are Hindus, officially became a secular republic with the promulgation of its new constitution in 2015.
The Himalayan nation went through a traumatic process of political transition, with the first outbreak of a decade-long civil war in 1996, which pitted Maoist guerrillas against the official forces of the then Hindu monarchy.
With the start of the peace process in 2008, elections were held to form a Constituent Assembly, and at its first meeting, the 239-year-old Hindu monarchy of the Himalayan kingdom was abolished and Nepal was declared a secular state.
However, Karna considered that the recent religious overtures to win over votes could polarize society and lead to negative repercussions for the Nepali society, especially given that it recently went through 15 years of turbulence in search of stability.
The situation is even more dangerous taking into account the political instability in a country, which has had 27 prime ministers in the last three decades.
Neighboring India is believed to have inspired the recent political development in the Himalayan country.
In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has emerged as a seemingly unshakable powerful force while stoking strong religious sentiments.
The BJP is a flag-bearer of Hindutva, an extremist and political offshoot of Hinduism that looks to rally the country around its ideology.
Since Modi coming to power in 2014, religion has progressively become a determining factor in all aspects of society.
His consolidation of public support was reflected in the BJP’s absolute majority in the 2019 general elections.
“The rise to power in India of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has had a significant influence on Nepal,” said Karna.
In August, CPN-UML chair and former prime minister KP Sharma Oli visited Pashupatinath Temple and donated funds to the temple.
Oli, who was harshly criticized for the visit, also made the headlines in 2021, when, as prime minister, he ordered to build a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Ram in the village of Madi, claiming the deity had been born there.
“Our chairman (Oli) is open and has been advocating Hinduism for quite a long time. It’s not officially reflected in the paper or the party’s manifesto but our party has a larger interest in cashing on Hindu votes,” a CPN-UML standing committee member told EFE on condition of anonymity.
The clashes with the profile of Oli, who joined the communist movement in the 1970, something that in theory is incompatible with religious ideology.
“Obviously, religious agenda has taken precedence in the upcoming elections to cash in on the country’s large Hindu constituency,” Uddhab Pyakurel, a political analyst, told EFE.
“But as far as I have observed, candidates are trying to exploit religious sentiments only. Nepal has been declared a religiously diverse country and it will remain secular,” he added.
The CPN-UML’s unlikely turn towards Hinduism is all the more striking in the face of the alliance it has forged with the Ratriya Prajatantra Party, a right-wing group that openly advocates the idea of restoring the monarchy and Nepal’s status as a Hindu state.
Nepali Congress Chair and current Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba also demonstrated his Hindu credentials with a visit to the important pilgrimage center of Varanasi in India during a three-day trip.
Though Nepali Congress officially advocates secularism, some of its key leaders like Shashank Koirala have been vocal supporters of reviving Hindu statehood.
“Different parties have different ideologies in Hinduism. They speak openly to promote Hinduism, mostly to win the votes. In reality, parties want to maintain the status quo,” claimed Pyakurel. EFE