Nepali Times Asian Paints
Idol worship

Two events this week are reminders that the power of a globalised media now touches even the remotest corners of the world.

An Indian policeman from Kolkata makes it to the finals of a televised song contest marketed by a Japanese multinational media conglomerate in partnership with an Indian mobile phone company. Nepalis spent an equivalent of Rs 70 million through mass SMS voting to make this man win.

When Prashant Tamang became India's idol, why did half of Ilam drive across the border to celebrate with fellow-Nepalis? Prashant made us rethink the definition of what constitutes Nepali culture and nationalism. Why were our double triangle banners waving at midnight at the Mall in Darjeeling alongside Indian tricolours? At a time when people wearing Nepali caps are being hounded out of the tarai, Prashant proudly wore the headgear that is a symbol of Nepaliness in India. When Bhanubhakta statues are being demolished by inclusivists in Nepal, our own Martin Luther is almost worshipped by Nepali speakers in Sikkim and the Indian northeast.

Dasain boycotts have become the norm in parts of Nepal, but it is still the main holiday for Indian Nepalis. The very symbols of monolithic nationhood that are being questioned in post-April 2006 Nepal are indentifiers for India's Nepali-speaking minority. Five Nepali workers in the Gulf have jointly published a book of poignant poetry in which they observe that while people back home now see each other as madhesi or pahadi, Hindu or Muslim, Tamang, Gurung, Limbu or bahun, in the Middle East they are all Nepali.

At one level the Prashant Tamang phenomenon showed the current Nepali craving for a feel-good story, the need for a knight in shining armour who, even if he can't rescue us, will make us feel momentarily proud. At another, it proved the need for national symbols when the motherland itself is being torn apart by centrifugal identity politics.

Prashant epitomizes the shared geography, shared history, shared lingua franca of Nepalis no matter what their passport. But he also underlines a flaw in our perception of ourselves and the way Nepaliness has traditionally been defined by hill-centric nationalism.

We wonder if there would be the same interest or excitement in Nepal if, instead of Prashant, an Indian of Nepali madhesi origin was the finalist. Probably not. Then there is the Ramdev phenomenon, which showed that televangelism has arrived and no part of the subcontinent is beyond its powerful footprint anymore. That an Indian yoga guru has such a following in ostensibly secular Nepal also goes to prove our spiritual deficit and that lifestyle stress is now endemic in this country's urban middle class.

Crossborder television has redefined the public sphere and now sets our national agenda. It is beyond regulation, and the message goes directly to audiences. Nepal and India don't just have an open border, we are now in the same geostationary orbit. The impact of this on our society, culture, politics and nationalism can only get stronger in the years to come.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)