Bidhya Devi Bhandari: Country’s president or a party’s patron?

President Bhandari

Nishan Khatiwada

  • Read Time 3 min.

Kathmandu: Nepal’s President Bidhya Devi Bhandari gathers controversies time and again due to her interest in internal politics of the ruling Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist), (former Nepal Communist Party). Despite mounting criticism from different walks of life, she has continued her engagement in the internal affairs of the party.

When the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) was struggling to iron out the internal differences and the party appeared to be on the verge of a split, President Bhandari took steps to prevent the split. On November 3, 2020, she met Bamdev Gautam at Shital Niwas and asked him to play a constructive role in the party unity.

Five months earlier she had held similar meetings with Pushpa Kamal Dahal and K P Sharma Oli apparently to ask the two leaders to resolve the internal disputes.

President then was criticized for undermining the dignity of the office she occupies.

On December 20, 2020, President Bhandari quickly endorsed the recommendation forwarded by Prime Minister K P Oli for the dissolution of the House of Representatives, without giving a second thought.

President Bhandari was criticized as betraying the country and people by endorsing the House dissolution move.  

On March 16, President Bhandari called an-all party meeting, where many leaders present in the meeting questioned her role.

Whenever the President issues ordinances or makes some political consultations, she has courted controversies.

President Bhandari has resumed the meeting as ruling CPN-UML is still mired in internal dispute and Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli is seeking a vote of confidence for him from Parliament on May 10. Unity in UML—which together commands 121 seats—will be crucial in sustaining the  government leadership.  When and if the UML faction led by Madhav Kumar Nepal, which commands around 35 seats in Parliament, walks out or does not support the PM, PM Oli is almost sure to fail to gain confidence vote. PM Oli is holding parleys with opposition Nepali Congress and his rival Madhav Nepal to garner support for him.

Whenever internal disputes in the ruling party have escalated, President Bhandari has stepped up activities. How far can the president go?

Amid this, President Bhandari on May 6 reportedly met Madhav Kumar Nepal and KP Sharma Oli at Sheetal Niwas though the Nepal faction has denied the meeting.

Critics argue that President Bhandari has always worked in favor of the ruling party (then NCP now UML) and that she has been more inclined to defend the prime minister even when he is on the wrong side. President Bhandari is acting more like a patron of a political party than the head of state, says Lok Raj Baral, professor of Political Science and former ambassador of Nepal to India. “She is presenting herself as a leader of CPN UML, the party she belonged to in the past, not as a president. It does not suit the president to get involved in resolving internal rifts of a party,” he said. 

 “President Bhandari is acting as if she is a leader of a political party”, rejoined Jagat Nepal, a senior journalist and a political analyst. He cited the examples of incidents—removing governors of Gandaki and Sudurpaschim provinces, issuing ordinances, ending the House session and so on. Nepal argued that President Bhandari should have stood as a symbol of a republic. “If her role continues to be weak and against the spirit of the constitution, that will erode the image of the country as well, nationally and internationally,” he said.

Professor Baral is of the view that the current president has courted more controversies than her predecessor (Dr Ram Varan Yadav). “Though few incidents drew him to the controversy, he did not get involved in party politics of Nepali Congress,” said Baral.  However, he also holds the incumbent government and opposition parties responsible for this situation. “They should have questioned,” he said. 

Constitutional expert Dr Bipin Adhikari said the president should be independent and fair. “Even though a president comes from a certain political, economic and social background, after swearing in the president loses party affiliation and becomes the head of state,” he said. 

According to him the president can meet the political leaders and discuss development and prosperity. “But that should not be discriminatory and biased. President should avoid politically controversial issues,” he added.

The resolutions of the meetings should be transparent and released immediately so that people would come to know what was discussed, he said adding “but we don’t have such administrative capacity.”