How would you respond to the criticism that President Bhandari often oversteps her constitutional limits?
It is the president’s duty to abide by and protect the constitution and to promote national unity. As far as the issue of the president meeting ministers or leaders is concerned, they take place at the request of these ministers and leaders. If an individual or group seeks an appointment, the president has to give them time and listen to them. If the president cannot even meet political leaders and people from various walks to discuss contemporary national issues, why do we need the president’s office at all? What she is doing is entirely constitutional. You cannot give a single example of President Bhandari acting like an executive president, as she has been criticized in some quarters of doing. In the past, too, President Ram Baran Yadav used to meet political leaders, also on constitutional matters. Such meetings and consultations come under normal practice. So let us not protest for the heck of it and drag this hallowed institution into controversy.
What about the allegation that she has tried to influence the functioning of the ruling Nepal Communist Party, for instance by inviting its top leaders for a meeting when a separate NCP standing committee meeting was going on?
We have to be clear on these issues. First, the NCP standing committee meeting got extended beyond the scheduled time. Some of the committee leaders had already sought an appointment with the president and they kept their appointment. Other government officials were also present at the meeting and they together discussed issues of national interest.
Did the president call the meeting or did the leaders seek it themselves?
The leaders sought an appointment with the president, and not the other way round. Those leaders who met the president had also informed the party’s standing committee that they would do so.
The president has also been accused of trying to run the government by proxy, for instance by picking her own favorite as the next House speaker.
The president has no such right. It is the responsibility of the parliament and political parties to elect the new speaker. In democratic countries, political parties drive the parliamentary process. The president has no role in this whatsoever.
Did President Bhandari act as a guarantor of honest implementation of the gentleman’s agreement between PM KP Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal?
No, the president played no such role. PM Oli and party Chair Dahal frequently go to meet the president. In fact, Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba and senior leader Ram Chandra Poudel can also meet the president. I don’t think either PM Oli or party Chairman Dahal consider themselves so politically weak that they have to seek the president’s mediation. They are capable of settling these issues on their own.
You deny every allegation leveled against the president. If she is blameless, why the constant barrage of criticism against her?
See, Nepali Congress has not spoken about it. Even other fringe opposition parties including Madhes-based parties have not said anything about the president. Most of the criticism against her comes from within the ruling Nepal Communist Party. Some leaders who are not satisfied with PM Oli are venting their ire on the president. They forget that the president is an institution, the protector of the constitution. It is not about a particular individual.
What about one after another media report about the president’s alleged extra-constitutional steps?
The media should play the role of watchdog. They should not indulge in yellow journalism. If there are bad things happening, they can write about them, but only on an objective basis. Journalism is a sensitive area and even a small mistake can create huge problems. Look at what happened with the Hrithik Roshan incident. All reporting should be fact-based. Without fact-based journalism, the society will face many troubles. The problem right now is that negative mindset prevails everywhere.
We also get to hear rumors about the ailing PM Oli handing over executive powers to President Bhandari.
How can the president exercise executive rights? Is there any constitutional provision to do so? Absolutely not. It is possible only if you destroy the current constitution. The constitution provides all executive rights to the prime minister. To be prime minister, first you have to be a member of parliament, and the president is not. Without becoming an MP, how can she become an executive? Until and unless this constitution is functional, the president cannot take up executive rights.
But can’t the constitution be amended?
Is it possible to amend the constitution for the same? Will all parties agree to it? I do not see any such possibility. Even if the parliament does so, the people and the society won’t accept it. Our president has not even thought about this issue. It is a ploy to defame the prime minister as well as the president’s office. The prime minister is somewhat sick but he is still very capable of steering the country in the right direction.
Who then is benefiting by dragging the president into controversy?
There are many people and conservative forces that are displeased with the current political dispensation and the constitution. Some external forces too are against this constitution. Soon after the constitution was promulgated, there was a blockade. People who opposed the constitution in 2015 now accept it. In history, there have been several instances where internal and external forces worked to sabotage the constitution and democracy. There is another factor as well. In the history of Nepal, almost all governments that were toppled were brought down not due to opposition parties but due to intra-party rifts. Now, KP Oli is facing difficulties from his own party leaders.
So the ruling party leaders are themselves trying to drag the president into controversy?
Yes, there have been such attempts. As I said, opposition parties have no problem with the functioning of the president.
One common criticism of the president is that her cavalcade often obstructs traffic and makes people’s life difficult. Why doesn’t the president’s office listen to public criticism?
Nepal Army has taken the full responsibility for the president’s security as she is their ceremonial chief. We even consulted the army chief about the traffic issue. “If there is a security lapse tomorrow, who will take responsibility?” the army chief asked us in return. He added that the army will have to give full-fledged security to the president. We proposed some concessions to provide relief to the people but the army was adamant. This is not only the case of Nepal, it happens in other countries as well. It is the security bodies that assess security risks, and it is not for the president to say what level of security they need. Even in normal times, people face traffic jams. But if there is 10-20 minute delay during the president’s visit, we get agitated. We have to respect the organization. Again, this is not about an individual.
Does the president heed the suggestions of advisors like you?
The president spends hours seeking advice from us on respective areas. She is very receptive to our ideas.
There are also complaints about the president’s opulent lifestyle, for instance about her penchant for new vehicles, her helicopter travels, and her office seeking greater space.
The only vehicle added in the president’s office in the past two years is one electric car, which costs no more than 5-6 million rupees. All other vehicles are old. There are talks of the president getting a new helicopter. But the office has not bought any. She uses the army’s helicopter, which is old and without any air-conditioning. So far as the issue of land for Sheetal Niwas expansion is concerned, the process was initiated during Ram Baran Yadav’s tenure when there was a Nepali Congress-led government. Now, if the president stops this process, people will say the president has become active.
How difficult is it for the president to stay completely neutral in a thoroughly politicized society like Nepal?
There is saying that democracy is one of the worst systems but there is also no better system. The political system remains within the democratic framework. It is also true that a president cannot be elected without the support of political parties. As the president comes from a particular party, the party always seeks some benefit from the office. This is so everywhere. There is always party pressure.
Why have the president’s advisors like you been largely silent when she is being so widely criticized?
If we speak, people say that the president is becoming active. They say that the advisors are supposed to give suggestions to the president, not defend her. Yet, they criticize us when we speak. It is not easy for us