The country be damnedNo one seems to be able to stop Oli’s whimsical actions, even if it ends up destroying the country.
Two weeks is a really very long time in politics. My last column a little over a fortnight ago was the somewhat unfortunately titled ‘End of the Oli show’. It was published on the very day the opposition faltered in its resolve to oust KP Sharma Oli and paved the way for his comeback for a third stint as prime minister. Since the man is still on the job, and as unrepentantly defiant, I would have had to eat crow for my premature exultation but for the fact that the situation has actually turned for the worse. For now, all the political parties are on the backfoot, awaiting the Supreme Court’s verdict on the latest constitutional chicanery cooked up by the prime minister and served to the nation by the president.
There is hardly a word I would have detracted from my rather harsh estimation of Oli in that said piece of mine. As if to prove my points more emphatically, the very next day he and the president enacted what can only be called a farce of an oath-taking ceremony. Oli’s refusal at the event to commit himself to do right by the country by cutting off President Bidhya Devi Bhandari to tell her that repeating the pledge she had read out was unnecessary was perhaps the most blatant show of contempt of the Nepali people. After all, as our head of state, the president represents our national sovereignty in her person. And it is on the strength of that sovereign power our president derives the authority to swear in the country’s chief executive.
YouTubers have been having a field day caricaturing Oli’s assertion of ‘tyo pardaina’ while the president’s juvenile ‘tee-hee’ of a response has been widely panned. A leading constitutional lawyer even described the swearing-in as akin to a ‘playful exchange between lovers’. For some reason though, no one appears to have pointed out what the body language of the president appeared to indicate. If one looks at the video, immediately following that most unpresidential tittering is a gesture by Bhandari with her right hand that seems to say ‘There you go again’ or some such expression of helplessness. Here we were criticising Bhandari for standing ready 24/7 to approve anything thrown her way by Oli when the fact appears to be that she is completely in thrall of him; there is probably little she could have said or done to stop Oli or his ways—if she wanted to, that is. While that does not excuse her role as the principal enabler of a rogue prime minister, one cannot but feel a twinge of sympathy for the quandary she finds herself in.
At the same time, it does beg the question why the prime minister found the idea of making a pledge so objectionable. The wording of the oath Bhandari was trying to get Oli to repeat has been commonly used so far for all government functionaries, consisting of the usual platitudes about working in the interests of the country, with honesty, etc, etc. It cannot be that Oli suddenly developed a conscience and realised that he had been acting against the very same pledge he had made twice earlier as prime minister—when sworn in by Bhandari in 2018 and by Ram Baran Yadav in 2015—and wanted to deceive the nation no longer. It was more of a spur-of-the-moment whim that basically seemed to demonstrate to the people he could do or say anything he wanted, and there is little anyone can do to stop him, least of all someone he had single-handedly carried into the high office of the presidency.
Luckily for Oli, as it turned out, the government actually did not have a formal text for swearing people into offices of the state. And, after the Supreme Court asked him to provide an explanation for the uncalled-for awkwardness at what should have been the most solemn of ceremonies, the government crafted an ordinance on oath-taking that, true to form, was immediately signed by Bhandari. It was basically the same text as earlier but omitting the crucial words ‘I pledge’. In all fairness, reading the new text does make it seem that the earlier formulation was indeed superfluous since the office-holder was being asked to make a ‘pledge’ and then immediately afterwards ‘swear’. Good for Oli to point it out. But having himself taken the oath countless times over his political career without any drama, the middle of his own swearing-in was simply the wrong place to play language editor.
The widespread condemnation sparked by that episode followed by the president’s refusal to accept the opposition leader’s claim to prime ministership has led to a free-for-all in the media such as the accompanying cartoon published in Kantipur. Sadly, while poking fun of the very unequal partnership between the president and the prime minister makes for good copy, it hardly bodes well for the country’s institutions. It could have been to repair her image that the president found herself engaged in some high-profile diplomacy. Successfully, it would appear since it resulted in a gift of 1 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccines from China. Not that she would have had anything to do with the Chinese benevolence since all of that would have been worked out in advance and, in all likelihood, the Chinese president had a chat with her simply to announce the grant.
But even that had a downside, for while the Chinese may not have found it untoward that a ceremonial president should taken up executive functions, that does not seem to have been the case with the Indians. After Bhandari sought help with procuring vaccines from the Indian president, another figurehead like her, the chief of the Indian ruling party’s foreign cell paid a visit to our ambassador in New Delhi. During the meeting, the Indian functionary reportedly ticked off the ambassador for the fact that the Nepali president was becoming more active than the prime minister. He apparently even joked whether given the current political circumstances Oli was barred from taking an initiative that is squarely his responsibility. If that story is true, one indeed wonders what our government was thinking by breaking decorum in the delicate rules that guide international diplomacy.
Since President Bhandari would not have been thus involved without the prime minister’s sanction, that brings us to the conundrum that Oli’s advisers must grapple with all the time: how to rein in the prime minister without appearing to do so. No one seems to actually know what is going on in his head apart from his obsession with remaining in power—apparently for the sake of it, since he really has done little with it besides using the authority of the office to spin many a yarn over the years.
I cannot imagine that all of Oli’s advisers are in complete agreement with whatever steps he has taken in these recent months. Surely more than a few would have lost sleep over how to justify to the public acts of whimsy in constitutional terms, not to mention to their own selves. There must also be a few who surely recognise the damage Oli, in league with Bhandari, has been causing to our democratic institutions. The tragedy is that the allure of power is such that all they are interested in is ensuring that their chap wins—democracy, federalism, inclusion, peace, stability, and, ultimately, the country, be damned.