President Bhandari addresses the nation but many are saying it should’ve been Prime Minister OliThe President’s Friday evening address to the nation was not just sudden but also defensive of the government, raising suspicions behind its intent.
President Bidya Devi Bhandari on Friday evening made a sudden address to the nation, saying that the coronavirus could not spread in Nepal because of the government’s strong policies and preparations.
A day later, the Health Ministry confirmed three new cases of Covid-19, including one local transmission, marking stage 2 of the pandemic.
At a time when the government of KP Sharma Oli is being widely criticised for a series of controversies, Bhandari defended the government, leading many to question the intention of the President addressing the nation at such a critical juncture.
In such a time of crisis, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, not President Bhandari, should address the public, say leaders and experts.
Opposition party leaders and experts on constitutional affairs said that it was a mistake on the part of a constitutional head of state to make remarks on a disease that the government has failed to deal with. According to them, an address regarding a public health issue like Covid-19 should have come from either the prime minister, the health minister or someone directly involved in dealing with the matter, like Defence Minister Ishwar Pokhrel, who heads the Covid-19 control committee.
“These are difficult times and in such situations, the prime minister should have been the appropriate person to inform the people about the government’s efforts and its initiatives to deal with the pandemic,” said Vijay Kanta Lal Karna, an associate professor of political science and a former ambassador. “A constitutional head of state defending the government is a wrong practice.”
But ever since his second kidney transplant on March 4, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli has been recuperating and as per doctors’ advice, he is shunning public meetings, except for occasional Cabinet meetings.
The last time Oli made a public appearance was on March 20, when in a televised address, he talked about the measures the government was taking to contain the spread of the coronavirus. At that time, Nepal had no live Covid-19 cases, with one case that had recovered.
All other decisions with regard to fighting the spread of Covid-19 are being taken by the committee for the prevention and control of Covid-19, headed by Pokhrel. Other related issues, including management of hospitals and isolation wards, are dealt with by the Health Ministry.
President Bhandari’s address came at a time when both Pokhrel and Health Minister Bhanubhakta Dhakal have been drawn into controversy over alleged corruption in procuring medical equipment required to fight Covid-19, leading many to wonder whether the president was prompted to address the nation.
Ruling party insiders said that the Office of the President had been used by the government as a shield against growing criticism from various quarters regarding the government’s lack of preparation and its inability to procure medical equipment.
“In our system, the President plays the role of the guardian. The President is not the patron of the government; she is the patron of the nation and its citizens. Why is the President defending the government?” Minendra Rijal, a lawmaker from the primary opposition Nepali Congress, told the Post.
Last week too, Bhandari had met with criticism after calling on several ambassadors to “learn about the situation of Nepali citizens in their respective countries”. Many had said that this was not the job of the President, but the foreign minister.
According to Karna, the former diplomat, if the President keeps making such statements on issues that should be dealt with by the executive, there is a danger of a dual regime.
“And that’s not good for democracy,” Karna told the Post.
Some experts on constitutional matters, including those who have served at the Office of the President in the past, said that the head of state should have consulted the major political parties represented in Parliament to learn about the preventive measures being taken. The president could have invited the prime minister, health minister and other officials to take stock of the situation, instead of going on national television to address the nation, they say.
Law professor Surya Prasad Dhugel, who served as an advisor to former president Ram Baran Yadav, said that it appears that the government made a request to Bhandari to address the nation, as it was facing criticism for failing to deal with the crisis properly.
“If she had to speak, she should have consulted with major political parties and come up with a common voice in a time of crisis,” Dhungel told the Post. “The address did not make a positive impact on the public. It looked like she was asked to cover up the mismanagement of the government.”
The address did not go down particularly well because the President’s remarks that the government had managed to contain the spread of the disease could not even hold for 24 hours, as more cases were reported the very next day.
But two officials, one former and one serving at the President’s Office, said that Bhandari did a good job and that as the guardian of the constitution and citizens of the country, it’s her duty to speak up in such times of crisis.
Sushil Pyakurel, who resigned as the President’s adviser on January 24 after controversy over the appointment of the House Speaker, said that Bhandari’s address on Friday should be seen in the right spirit.
“Since the President is the guardian of the nation, citizens look up to her. The statement made by the President should not be considered as overstepping on her rights and duties provided for by the constitution,” said Pyakurel.
“The President can discuss matters of urgency and other governance issues with the prime minister, ministers and officials. And she can address the nation as well. She has not superseded the executive. The address should be seen in a positive light.”
Bhesh Raj Adhikari, an aide to President Bhandari, also defended the address, saying the head of state wanted to convey a message to the people in good faith.
“She had no intention of playing politics, especially in such a time of crisis,” Adhikari told the Post. “But it’s a fact that there is internal conflict in the ruling party and some elements are making unwarranted efforts to drag the Office of the President into controversy.”
According to Adhikari, there was nothing wrong with the President expressing concern at a time of crisis.
“It’s also the duty of the head of state to communicate with the people,” he said. “The Office of the President has not breached any constitutional mandate by calling on the Nepali people and the government to work together to fight the disease.”