Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Nepali counterpart, Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli, seem to have much in common. They both share right-wing developmentalism as their main political plank in their respective countries.

If Modi sells the dreams of a clean and developed India with several smart cities, Oli rests his rhetoric on similar developmental daydreams. Both of them brook no dissent – take the case of what is happening in so-called liberal universities in India or to peaceful Madheshi protestors in Nepal.

Modi has always been a vocal Hindutva supporter who loves to talk about development. Oli, who has been a loyal follower of exclusionary nationalism propagated by the late King Mahendra, wears a facade of a Marxist without being one for many years now.

One would have expected them to get along well. So what explains the two being at loggerheads?

Neighbourly interventions

Oli seems to believe that the Modi establishment played a role in an attempt at toppling his government.

Recently, the name of Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal – or Prachanda, as he is commonly known – was proposed as the next prime minister replacing Oli, when the Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba agreed to back the former in an alliance.

After the written agreement was made public, Prachanda backtracked and his party UCPN (Maoist) has continued the alliance with Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist), thus allowing its leader, Oli, to continue as prime minister.

Thus, while Oli’s government survived after Prachanda’s U-turn at the last moment, he has been unsettled by the move and has accused India of encouraging Deuba and Prachanda in making an alliance against the present government.

China, which has never been seen as an interventionist neighbour, has been reported to have put vehement pressure on Prachanda to keep the present alliance intact.

This is what led to the knee-jerk reaction of Oli cancelling the week-long visit of President Bidhya Devi Bhandari to India starting May 9 and calling back the ambassador in New Delhi, accusing him of having a role in the “Indian conspiracy” of toppling the Nepali government.

A changed profile

Given Oli’s own past, this reaction looks excessively dramatic, particularly because he was always known to be a “man of India” in Kathmandu’s political grapevine. There is evidence to claim that Oli manoeuvred Nepali politics in Indian interest. The example often cited is of his role in helping India stop then Prime Minister Prachanda from sacking the Nepal army chief Rukmangad Katwal, who was believed to have acted against the order of the elected civilian government.

Though Oli was not a member of the first Constituent Assembly, he was pivotal in serving India’s interest of taming Prachanda, the recent insurgent, and in pushing Madhav Kumar Nepal, also known to be pro-India, forward as prime minister.

So what explains Oli, as prime minister, dramatically becoming an anti-India nationalist? This perhaps can be explained by what is seen as his deeper faith in exclusionary Mahendra-nationalism, which looks at a huge section of Nepali population with different features than those of Caste-Hindu-Hill-Elites – or CHHE, to use a term coined by political scientist Mahendra Lawoti – as “others”.

Also, the move is seen to be as diversionary tactics from his utter failure in delivering on post-quake reconstruction and restoring normalcy in the basic supplies like cooking gas to the people.

Exclusionary nationalism

When Oli was helping India in taming Prachanda, he intended to dilute the new political agenda– of ensuring rights to the historically marginalised section of Nepali population – largely represented by Prachanda and his party, UCPN (Maoist).

After the failure of the first constituent assembly, in which Oli was not present, he was catapulted as a key player by the second constituent assembly election, and became a major player in riding roughshod and pushing through a constitution which successfully diluted the major issues of representation and inclusion.

This constitution, which was a result of 16-point deal of power-sharing among major parties, including the biggest Madhesh-based party led by Vijay Gachhedar, has not been accepted by a large section of Madheshi, Janajati, Dalits, and women.

India, which was said to have been irked by the major parties’ decision of not giving it a stake in the deal, took a firm stand against the newly promulgated constitution. Narendra Modi, in both of his visits to Nepal after he became prime minister, had nudged the major parties to address the interest of Madheshi-parties and Madheshi population in the new constitution. Giving stake to India meant incorporating the agenda of inclusion and representation of Madhesh in the constitution. This basic agenda would not be compatible to the idea of exclusionary nationalism, which Oli firmly upheld.

Political dynamics

The Madheshi Morcha, which was in a peaceful street movement against the constitution, used this opportunity of India’s irritation against the major parties.

Since the key-players of Nepali politics, which also includes India, have a history of using one against the other, Madheshi Morcha wanted to play the same game this time. Using some leverage they had with India, they used its power of influencing Nepali politics for the interest of the excluded population of Madhesh.

As the Nepali state used excessive force on the street movement, killing dozens of Madheshi-protestors, the Morcha decided to block the border from where the basic supplies such as fuel and food entered Nepal. This move of Madheshi Morcha was covertly supported by India.

The blockade fuelled the anti-India nationalist rhetoric which Oli used to consolidate his strength in the hills.

While Oli was in a hurry to be elected prime minister, India tried its best to push Sushil Koirala for the post. But once Oli emerged victor, he capitalised the moment to fan the anti-India sentiment among Nepali citizens. This nationalist rhetoric, which finds an echo in more than half of Nepalese population, has worked as a longstanding cloak to cover all the failures of Oli as prime minister.

As a player who converted the earlier crises – the blockade and India’s exercise of pushing Koirala for the post of prime minister – in his favour, Oli wants to use another crisis to further consolidate his position.

Smartly using the Maoist ministers in the government to put pressure on their chairman and conceding to some demands of the Maoists, Oli compelled Prachanda to continue support for his government. This very success has been converted into propaganda against India’s failure by Oli and his aides. Going by the past experience, they feel confident that this will help Oli be insulated from all his failures on the other fronts.