OPINION: The curious case of Non-resident Nepalis and politics

KATHMANDU (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) - The NRNs collectively share a great interest in politics back home with an aim to hobnob with the politicians.

In my last column, I recalled that the population of Nepalis living outside the country has grown exponentially. The Non-Resident Nepalis (NRNs) have increased in number at a healthy pace, with the sight of Nepalis carrying passports of all hues no longer a novelty. And, as we witnessed once more with the recent NRN conference, there is this great expectation that we will somehow be able to involve the global Nepali diaspora in national development.

We also saw the dark side of the NRN when a delegate from Australia coming for the conference, one Ramesh Kumar Thapa, smashed the immigration counter glass at the Kathmandu airport in a fit of rage. Granted, that given the way things are at the airport, there are many who would have liked to vent their frustration likewise. Yet, no one does. But would Thapa dare behave in like fashion anywhere else in the world? No, and that brings us to the question of the curious relationship NRNs, though not all, have with their country of birth.

Blind support

In the early 2000s, I had a somewhat bizarre encounter with an NRN in Washington DC (before the NRN had become a legal category). This was soon after the dismissal of the Sher Bahadur Deuba government by King Gyanendra in 2002, a development that had taken precedence over the Maoist insurgency as the country’s main political issue. Having walked out into blinding rain from an event on Nepal, and with no idea of how we were to get anywhere, an unknown Nepali kindly offered to give a lift to me and my companion to our hotel.

The heavy downpour meant we were stuck in traffic for a while and that gave the good Samaritan a captive audience to unload his take on Nepali politics. Since politics back home is an all-consuming passion of almost all first-generation Nepalis the world over, that was only to be expected. Then, he began recounting his recent visit to Nepal and the meeting he had with someone he called budha, using the Nepali term for ‘old man’. It took a while for us to figure out that he was talking about Gyanendra himself, and from what we gathered he had even managed to give some pointers to a king who had begun to assert his authority. I had no idea who this fellow was at the time nor have I heard of him since in any context. What I do know is that he is a Nepali with an American passport, a fact that he appears to have leveraged for a one-on-one with the king.

Such instances speak volumes of the exaggerated sense of self-importance some NRNs are able to exude and also of the extent of gullibility of Nepalis when faced with NRNs. It was also in the early 2000s that Nepal was wowed by the sudden appearance of Rasindra Bhattarai . Reported in the media as someone who had accumulated vast wealth in foreign lands, for a brief period he was the toast of the town. Soon, however, it was found out that he was nothing more than a fraud and his stories of untold riches were probably part of a con he never managed to pull off.

During KP Oli’s first stint as prime minister in 2015-16, and at a time Nepal was reeling under power cuts, he became the national laughingstock when he proclaimed we would soon instal wind turbines to generate electricity. Nepalis laughed at him not because we were unaware that power from wind is possible but rather because of his earthy way of communicating; it sounded like he was promising electricity out of thin air (since the Nepali term for ‘wind’ and ‘air’ is the same). There were further laughs when it became known that the UK-based Nepali ‘entrepreneur’, Basanta Bhujel, on whose word Oli had relied was as fake as Rasindra himself. The closest Bhujel, a former British Gurkha, got to wealth was while welcoming students in his day job as a security guard at a posh private school in England. It can only be the NRN factor that allowed this would-be conman to be able to meet the prime minister and convince him about a project that would require funds the likes of which he had no way of accessing. What is disturbing is that despite the extensive network Oli’s party has around the world, including among the Gurkhas, a background check was not even thought necessary by those who arranged such a meeting.

Even more recently, the Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRNA) president, Bhawan Bhatta, was offloaded from a flight to Singapore for showing up drunk. Aside from giving the NRNA a bad name, the incident was not particularly noteworthy since Nepalis getting sloshed is not news. What was noteworthy was that he was on his way to Singapore to meet Oli as the latter underwent health check-ups. Ordinary people like us will never know why such a meeting had to happen while Oli was lying in hospital but it does give us some indication of how much influence NRNs carry over Nepali politicians.

The NRN-politics nexus

While an unfounded feeling of entitlement as an NRN could have played a part in turning Australian NRN Thapa into a ruffian at the airport, he must also have felt he could get away with it. Sure enough, after he was taken into custody, immediate political pressure began to bear on the authorities to set him free. It cannot only be the mobilisation of NRNA delegates along party lines this time around that led to such political interference. The NRN-politician connection goes much deeper.

The fraternal and sister organisations affiliated to various political parties in any country where Nepalis are in force is a phenomenon quite difficult to explain. In countries with substantial numbers of Nepali labour migrants, with the near-certainty of return home, jockeying for positions in such entities makes sense since it can lead to close contact with leading politicians who scoot over given half a chance. It hardly makes sense though for those with no intention of coming back to spend time and resources politicking for office that has no meaning outside the narrow circle of the like-minded. Granted, it does give people some standing that comes from strutting around with the topmost leaders from Nepal. What is difficult to understand is why politicians encourage this practice at all. Unless one takes the cynical view that it gives them free tours of foreign lands and a chance to pontificate before a gathering of Nepalis eager to engage in their favourite pastime—discussing Nepal’s politics.

It is time we all disabuse ourselves of the notion that the NRN has this immense attachment to Nepal that overrides everything else. Of course, this is not to detract from the contributions of NRNs as in the many fund-raising campaigns in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake. But, like any rational actor, the NRN will pour resources into Nepal (and create the much-needed jobs) only if there is any certainty of returns. Economics does not always trump sentiments—though it nearly always does. Otherwise, NRNs would not exist in the first place.

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