The implications of Biplab Deb’s gaffe | HT Editorial
Tripura’s chief minister Biplab Deb recently said that home minister Amit Shah — while he was the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — had joked, at a closed-door meeting, that after achieving electoral success domestically, the party would expand in Nepal and Sri Lanka. “We were talking during a meeting at the state guest house when Ajay Jamwal (BJP’s zonal secretary for the northeast) said the BJP was in a good position as it was in power in many states. In reply, Amit Shah said Sri Lanka and Nepal are still left. We have to take the party there and win there as well,” said Mr Deb, with a laugh.
In the absence of a comment from Mr Shah on the issue, it is not possible to know whether he did indeed make such a remark. Mr Deb’s comments can be read as a light-hearted joke about the BJP’s tremendous success in recent years at home. But, in the neighbourhood, it is being read as the characteristic arrogance of Indian leaders in assuming that smaller neighbours have little agency of their own and fall within an Indian “sphere of influence” where political ideologies can be exported and political configurations determined. This may not have been the intent, but given the sensitivities on nationalism and sovereignty in the neighbourhood, this reading of the comment is not surprising.
Remember, in Nepal, there is an active conservative constituency which seeks the restoration of monarchy and the Hindu state — and Nepali commentators have been left wondering if the BJP has plans to actively intervene in the country with such an objective in mind. India’s past political interventions in these countries only leads to further apprehensions and has prompted official responses from both Sri Lanka and Nepal. The lesson for Indian leaders, particularly those occupying constitutional positions, is to be more responsible, recognise boundaries, and know that jokes aren’t always funny.