Rhetoric and rationality

  • Neither Modimania nor Indophobia will help the long-term health of Indo-Nepal relations
- Pramod Mishra
Rhetoric and rationality

Aug 6, 2014-

Modimania has gripped Nepal since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the Constituent Assembly/Parliament on Sunday. But how long Modimania will detoxify Indophobia among Nepalis will depend on the attitude and intention of India’s permanent establishment and Nepali leaders’ own work.

Hitting the right notes

If nothing else, Modimania has made one thing clear. How easy it is to make simple-souled Nepalis happy. You just need to push certain buttons—fearless ‘Bir Bahadur Gurkhas’; Buddha’s birth in Nepal; a willingness to update or revamp the 1950 treaty; land of natural beauty and natural resources; and despite its small size, Nepal the focus of world attention given its choice of ballots over bullets, peace over war. And add a pinch of rebuke by Indian guests to Madhesi leaders for their perennial complaints about their second-class citizen status and marginalisation, the round of flattery completes full circle and hits the bull’s eye.

From political pundits to editors and journalists, from Maoists to rightwing Mahendrawadi-nationalists, from the laymen to the President, everyone was mesmerised by Modi’s oratory.

A skilled orator Modi has proven himself to be, since he began his prime ministerial campaign in India about a year ago. Modi knew how to flatter the conceited Nepali ego. Hungry for recognition and self-respect, Nepalis of all hues lapped up Modi’s praises. Who doesn’t want to hear glowing words about oneself, one’s abilities and one’s resources? One wonders, then, how is it that Indian leaders had failed so far to push these buttons before and let Indophobia overshadow all the loans and grants and other help India had been extending to Nepal? This failure tells you that India is still learning the ropes of diplomacy in the world, including its neighbourhood.  

Modimania may have created a new mood between India and Nepal for a fresh start but neither Modimania nor Indophobia is going to help serve the long-term health of Indo-Nepal relations.  One needs to coldly analyse Modi’s speech for the rhetorical devices used and make the process of India-Nepal exchanges transparent and public at all stages of its evolution, something that has remained shrouded, like so many things, in conspiracy theories, secrecy, intrigue, bureaucratic red-tape and suspicion generated by Indian intelligence and Nepali ultranationalism, embodied in each country’s old regimes.

Rhetorical revamp

I’d like to take up just a few buttons that Modi pushed to create Modimania. Modi studied the rhetorical situation well and molded his speech accordingly. Ever since his image was tarnished severely in the Gujarat riots of 2002, Modi has been at pains to persuade Indians and the world by establishing a persuasive ethos. His election campaign in the last year must have further transformed his ethos and vision. Instead of a monster—in the eyes of his opponents—who aided and abetted the riots where more than 1,000 Muslims were killed, Modi has projected himself to be a messiah of change/development. And now it seems that Modi has undergone change himself while harbouring the ambition to change India and India’s neighbourhood. If he succeeds, he won’t be the first.  

Modi established his persuasive ethos by projecting himself to be humble. He called himself a pilgrim, a wayfarer during his first visit to Nepal and projected himself to be a friend in his current visit. He even chuckled self-referentially when he mentioned how even tea-sellers will benefit from tourism. By bringing Jeet Bahadur with him, whom he had selflessly raised and educated at his expense, he killed the image of himself as a monster of riots, went beyond the image of a messiah of development and established his ethos as a compassionate, selfless, public figure who goes out of his way to help even those who are not related to him by blood or from whom he has no expectation of material gain.

Modi carefully read his audience and the context. He deployed the context of constitution writing after a decade-long insurgency, dug into history and geography, used religious sentiments and mythology—all emotionally charged matters for Nepalis—to make an emotional appeal to his Nepali audience. And it worked. Nepalis are no longer just fans of Indian movie stars and cricketers; they have an Indian political leader in the form of Narendra Modi to sing praises for.

The only ways forward

But a one billion dollar soft loan, a promise to harness hydropower, update the 1950 treaty, constitution writing—all these may be helped by persuasive rhetorical power but cannot be completed by it. These geopolitical, environmental and socio-political issues involve group, class and ethnic interests that have privileged some and marginalised others, benefitted one country while impoverishing another. One billion dollars will certainly help but what is the sum of loans and grants Nepal has received so far from the international community, including India, and where has all this gone? How much of it was funneled by the Nepali political and bureaucratic class for its own personal gain?

Similarly, utilisation of natural resources is a contentious issue even in India. It has emerged in its extreme form as the Maoist war, creating a red corridor from Bihar to Andra Pradhesh and Maharashtra. And how can an inclusive constitution be written by uniting the Madhes, hills and the Himalayan region and cultures in the old fashioned way of one language and one dress that is very much in evidence even now in Nepali officialdom? Will the soft and hard Nepali-language nationalists be willing to open up and be genuinely pluralists without a fight?  

Does that mean that Nepal and Nepalis should do nothing after being happily challenged by Modi’s rhetorical power? Complete transparency, open debate and ratification by Nepal’s sovereign Parliament on matters of all public importance are the only ways forward. In the meantime, let’s steer ourselves away from either Modimania or Indophobia and do some cool-headed thinking for the benefit of both India and all Nepalis. How many of us still possess the mind of a sage and the vision of a seer to create a constitution for the ages? The question will assume significance for Nepal’s political leaders in the coming days and months.

Published: 07-08-2014 09:28

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