Constitutional President

The next president need not be regarded with reverence, just respect.

Besides a viral video of hysterical female fans at an Eleena Chauhan concert, the other trending clip on YouTube in Nepal this week is of women pilgrims hurling expletives at President Bidya Devi Bhandari for being driven right to the gate of Pashupati on Shivaratri on 18 February, making everyone wait.

The most important role of Nepal’s Constitutional President is to be a symbol of national unity. The persona of the head of state therefore should command widespread respect. It would be fair to say that aside from partisan support of the UML that elevated her to the ceremonial post in 2018, President Bhandari is not held in very high regard by the public.

As the widow of the charismatic and popular UML leader Madan Bhandari who was killed in a car crash in 1993, President Bhandari had a lot going for her. Nepal’s second president and the first woman to hold the post could have built on those plus points.

Instead, President Bhandari has been ridiculed as a political sidekick to K P Oli of the UML when he was prime minister. Oli did use President Bhandari’s power when faced with a challenge from Pushpa Kamal Dahal in 2021-2.

Lately, the criticism has swirled around how her motorcade creates monstrous traffic jams everywhere she goes, inconveniencing the public.

Posts on social media poke fun at her inability or unwillingness to get the Nepal Army, of which she is titular supreme commander, to relax the protocol for presidential convoys. The tacky and ostentatious of the hall where she regally receives dignitaries is the subject of much mockery on social media.

Why does all traffic have to come to a halt when the President is driven to address Parliament? A National Trauma Centre surgeon was beaten up by police for daring to walk on the sidewalk on 10 February as the presidential convoy approached.

President Bhandari must be aware of this rising public anger, but what is puzzling is why she has not used her powers to get the security apparatus to go easy on the bandobast. The government says it is revising the protocols, but the damage has been done.

Inconvenience to the public from blocked roads is symptomatic of a larger national malaise since 2017 of lack of accountability, erosion of rule of law, impunity and abuse of the Constitution. All political forces are guilty, they have all meddled with constitutional norms for personal or partisan benefit, have pardoned criminals for political expediency, declared a ‘people’s war’ day to appease cadre, passed ordinances to bypass legal hurdles to get what they want.

Even the new RSP, came out of nowhere to become the fourth largest party, behaved in the same roughshod manner by putting forward Rabi Lamichhane as Home Minister (and another minister) despite clear conflicts of interest.

Nepal’s 2015 Constitution envisions the president as the head of state, a guardian of national unity, defender of the Constitution and the ceremonial head of the Army. In this respect, the president’s role is no different than that of the king after 1990 – the only difference being that the monarchy was hereditary.

The President and Prime Minister should therefore be meeting every week. The head of government briefs the head of state on the matters at hand, and if needed, the president offers non-binding suggestions to the prime minister which should not be made public. That is the way it is supposed to work.

President Ram Baran Yadav fulfilled his role to the letter, even though he had to make a move in 2008 against Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s removal of the Chief of Army Staff Rookmangud Katawal and replacing him with a Maoist nominee.

President Bhandari’s immediate support for K P Oli’s dissolution of Parliament, while she dilly-dallied on the Nepali Congress-Maoist ordinance on the Citizenship Bill in 2022 was widely criticised as partisan double-standard.

A ceremonial president is not weak, the post has residual powers that are quite critical in times of crisis. Which is why the prime minister and president should be on the same side – on the side of national interest.

The next president need not be regarded with reverence, just respect. It would help if we elect a non-political president on 9 March, someone who is held in high esteem by all Nepalis. As symbol of national unity and inclusiveness, it is turn of a candidate from the indigenous community or a Dalit.

May better sense prevail so that coalitions are not made or broken depending on who gets to be a Constitutional President.

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