Media headlines and presentation were not very kind to President Bidhya Devi Bhandari, the first woman President of Republic Nepal,
when she unveiled the government’s programs and policies on May 3 before the joint sitting of the bicameral parliament. The criticism was not so much over the content, but for her repeatedly referring to what ‘My government’ intended to do during the year.
“Her expression smacked of Monarchy that ruled Nepal for centuries and was abolished when world’s only Hindu Kingdom was declared a ‘secular Republic’ in May 2008, most media—print, digital and Radio—concurred. Was it something forbidden in a republic? Opposition parties were equally harsh towards the 58-year old President for her comment. Her husband Madan Bhandari was arguably, the most powerful and popular leader of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist, but died when he was in his early 40s in a mysterious road accident in 1992, without ever occupying the government leadership that appeared well within his reach, in not so distant future.
In a country where dynastic succession in political parties is as rampant or as natural as the succession to throne from within the royal family, political circumstances favored her to occupy the chair of the President first in 2015, and again in 2018 for a five year term as the Communist Party that she belonged to emerged as the largest party with near two third majority in Parliament. There have been jokes and ‘objections’, not formally though, about some of her Party leaders still addressing her as ‘Comrade’ and not the ‘Excellency President’, in private meetings. Habits die hard, and the past does not so easily erase its marks.
Both Bhandari and her predecessor Ram Baran Yadav who belonged to the Present opposition Nepali Congress Party have been accused at times and publicly of ‘denigrating’ the sanctity of the highest office for indulging in ‘partisan’ politics. Both cynicism and genuine concern over the fairness or lack of it on the part of the president, appear to have guided the media criticism of her referring the KP Oli led Government as ‘My Government.’ Incidentally, both Oli and Bhandari have been in the same party for years, and mostly in the same faction during the often recurring intra party feuds.
Nepal’s constitution provides for the election of the President for a five year term as Head of the State as the ‘promoter’ of the National Unity, with the responsibility to appoint the council of ministers headed by the Prime Minister, but with little Executive power. Like the monarchy, the constitution envisages the head of the state to be above partisan politics and interest in a country that has multitude of political parties, diverse ethnicity, geography, culture, language and a history of social amity and religious tolerance.
“We all say it is my Country, my nation, my national anthem etc’ as citizens, and it is only natural that a President who is also the head of the state refers to the government as My Government,’ Prime Minister Oli said in his reaction to the media criticism. “ One should not be like a frog in a closed well, and rather try to understand the practice world over with an open mind,” he said.
During 105 minutes that took President Bhandari to finish with her written text, she uttered the word ‘My Government ‘42 times.
As Social media began hotly debating the issue when the President was still reading out lengthy paper that the government had prepared for her, some of the supporters of the Party countered the allegation and posted texts of some news Papers that quoted Indian President Ram Nath Kovid calling the Narendra Modi led government as ‘My Government.’
In fact, Nepal’s highly partisan politics not only has brought the President’s office to debate and controversy, almost every constitutional office including the apex judiciary, stands defamed.
Last month, the government, on recommendation of the Judicial council, followed by confirmation by a parliamentary committee, appointed Dinesh Thapaliya as the new Chief Election Commissioner. Thapaliya, fellow bureaucrats say, has all along been the member of the Communist Party that rules the country, and that will have a serious implication on the impartiality and fairness of the Commission that conducts elections to all the representative bodies. “It has proved wrong on our part to have Party members in the judicial council that recommends future judges,” said Prithvi Subba Gurung, Chief Minister of Province three, and a senior leader of the Ruling Communist Party, as the current debate rages.
At least a dozen judges of the lower court went to pay their ‘gratitude’ to the Party Headquarter of the CPN-UML (the Party led by KP Oli that has now merged with the Maoist Party to give birth to the Communist Party of Nepal), straight after their taking oath of office some five years ago, and some of them have climbed up the ladder to higher judiciary, but keeping their party loyalty intact.
The trend of political and partisan loyalty being rewarded with key posts including judges, members of the constitutional bodies and ambassadors has almost been institutionalized. President or head of the state acting or being perceived as partisan has discredited the highest constitutional office, with direct impact on its image and respect.
So the current criticism of President Bhandari doubting her credentials as ‘fair and non-partisan’ head of the government is more because of the compounding politicization of public offices, and resultant fear that citizens are not treated by the state on the basis of ‘equality’, but differentially on the basis of which political faith one belongs to.