Dear Madam President:
How do you sleep at night?
How do you rest your head back on the pillow, turn off the bedside lamp, close your eyes and drift off to sleep when there is so much grief and despair around? Your palace is no more than a few hundred meters from Kathmandu’s main hospital. Don’t the cries of patients, relatives wailing and people pleading drift in to wake you from your slumber?
Please pardon my impertinence, Madam President. Of late, you remind me of the French Queen, Marie Antoinette, who upon being told that starving French peasants had no bread, famously remarked, “let them eat cake.”
This is not the image I wish to hold. We discarded our kings and queens a long time ago. We are now a young democratic republic, having emerged from a long and brutal civil conflict. Help me shake off this image of you as Queen Antionette. Instead, please help me build a positive image of you, and your political peers, that radiates a feeling of hope, reassurance, humanity, and empathy.
I know that many are questioning the constitutional legality of your recent moves. Over a dozen cases have now been filed in the Supreme Court challenging your latest decision to dissolve Parliament and call elections ‘unconstitutional’. I don’t worry about these decisions or their constitutional implications. Even in the most mature democracies, political leaders are always up to some tricks to extend their influence. Constitutions are always being tested. Nepal is a far younger democracy—the rules haven’t yet been fully established. It should be no surprise that this kind of political instability should plague us more often.
What horrifies me is the blatant disregard for the public pain from across all the political parties. We have been in a lockdown and highly restricted environment for over a year. Many lives have been lost. Livelihoods have perished. We are more vulnerable than before. Yet, the political fighting has intensified in this crisis. Why is it that political parties are not able to set aside their differences, if only for a short time, to focus on the pandemic and the immediate crisis?
What motivates you, Madam President? You have had an illustrious political career with a long history of struggle from the time you were a teenager. You were part of Nepal’s communist movement. You and your party colleagues spent their whole life fighting for freedom from oppression. Your Prime Minister, for instance, spent 14 years in prison. Your sacrifices, and those of your colleagues, are not to be taken lightly, and reflect a lifetime of commitment. So why is it that now that lifetime of commitment appears as no more than a ruse for a getting to power? Why is it that you and other political leaders once in power all become Queen Marie Antoinette?
What is your message of hope, Madam President? You are more than a President. You are also a mother, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend. You are an inspiration to many young people, particularly the girls and women of Nepal. What will you tell us about how you can sleep, Madam President? What will you tell us about why you’ve become Queen Marie Antionette?
The funny thing about Queen Marie Antionette is that there is no convincing evidence she ever said, “let them eat cake.” But that line became a rallying cry of the French revolution. Queen Antionette had many vices—she spent lavishly to the point of causing a financial crisis and opposed any sort of social reforms. But for all her greater vices, it was the disregard for the pain and suffering of her citizens, so aptly captured in the phrase “let them eat cake,” that stirred and sparked the French revolution.
Madam President, what is your responsibility to the pain and suffering that Nepalis feel? Maybe there is nothing you can do. The constitution limits you to a symbolic head of state, bound to the advice of the council of ministers. You could impose a medical emergency, as many believe you will do next. But I’m not thinking about all that. I am not interested in the implications of what you will decide—the political winners and losers you will create.
I write to ask you a simpler question: What good is our constitution if it cannot get the government to focus on the greatest crisis of our times?