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The L-shaped lump in our throat

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 post-election 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-à-vis 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 high-profile 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 ho-hummed.
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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