President’s initiatives for Covid-19 vaccines seen as foreign policy failureThe move is an attempt to improve the President’s image tarnished after her complicity in the prime minister’s move to dissolve the House, observers say.
President Bidya Devi Bhandari has been on a request-making spree. After writing to her Indian counterpart Ram Nath Kovind, Bhandari spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping to facilitate the process for Nepal to import vaccines on Wednesday. The response from the north was prompt. Within hours, it announced 1 million doses in grant assistance. Bhandari has since written to US President Joseph R Biden, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, making similar requests–help Nepal with vaccines.
As Nepal is battling the worst coronavirus crisis and is in dire need of vaccines, President Bhandari taking initiatives to directly approach the Heads of State of friendly nations may look desirable.
If vaccines do come because of letters by the President, it would be a much-needed respite for her country. But not everyone is happy at the initiatives being taken by Sheetal Niwas.
Many say Nepal’s constitution envisions the President as a constitutional figurehead, with no executive power, whose job is to safeguard the constitution and work as the guardian of the government and the people. According to them, President Bhandari is doing what actually the government should have been doing through its agencies and officials and functionaries under them.
“All this is happening to divert the attention of the public, as the President's role has come under scrutiny,” said Madan Kumar Bhattarai, a former foreign secretary. “These initiatives are part of the strategy of Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli.
President Bhandari, elected in October 2015, has come under fire for colluding with Oli in the latter’s series of unconstitutional moves, including the latest House dissolution in the night of May 21.
Constitutional experts say just like on December 20, Bhandari once again served as an aide to Oli rather than a President.
Days after the House dissolution, President Bhandari wrote to her Indian counterpart, urging to facilitate the process to supply vaccines, which does not look feasible given the scale of the coronavirus crisis India is facing. And just like Bhandari, Kovind in India also holds a constitutional position, with no executive power. Even if Nepal’s request has to be processed, Kovind ultimately needs to forward it to the government.
Experts say, unlike what Bhandari is doing in Nepal, working like an executive, India functions in a different way, sticking strictly to the constitutional provisions.
Since the request to Kovind has to be forwarded to the Indian government ultimately, according to experts, the Nepal government should have written directly. Same applies to the British queen, whose position is also constitutional.
Except for Kovind and Elizabeth, all other Presidents Bhandari has requested for vaccines are executive heads, albeit they function differently. Chinese and Russian presidents can issue a diktat to put any request through the process immediately, American president needs to follow a certain procedure.
That the action from China was prompt is evident as the country functions directly under President Xi. Of the promised 1 million doses 800,000 are set to arrive in Kathmandu on Tuesday.
There have been no words from any other countries President Bhandari has placed requests to.
The way Nepal is behaving may even affect its ties with friendly nations, say analysts, as these countries’ foreign policies do not function according to a set of leaders and politicians’ whims and emotions. The Nepal government must understand how to use its foreign policy instruments to get support from friendly nations, rather than putting forward a constitutional Head of State with a begging bowl, according to them.
Bhattarai, the former foreign secretary, provided India’s example.
“You see India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has travelled to the United States. Apart from other bilateral issues at hand, one important matter he is discussing is vaccines,” Bhattarai told the Post. “India wants vaccines; it is using all its might and legitimitate measures to get them. Why can’t our foreign minister travel to India or China as a special envoy of the prime minister?”
When Nepal slid into the coronavirus crisis after getting hit by the second wave in April, the country did not have vaccines. After receiving 1 million doses from India and 800,000 from China in grants, as well as a consignment of 348,000 doses under COVAX, the government did nothing to secure additional doses. The governance has taken a back seat, as Oli had unleashed a game of political brinkmanship.
Oli even refused to admit that the virus had engulfed the country, as he went on to proclaim in an interview with CNN that the virus “situation is under control.” But two days later, in an opinion piece for the Guardian newspaper, he pleaded for support.
Supports have since poured in, from Oman to Spain; from China to the United States; from Switzerland to Thailand; from Canada to Australia. These medical goods are essential, but none has provided vaccines.
Countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan are said to have been sitting on stockpiles of vaccines, not willing to share additional doses with countries like Nepal.
Analysts say the Nepal government should have employed all its diplomatic channels to press these countries to provide vaccines, rather than using Sheetal Niwas. The constitution has defined a set of roles for the President, and it is better for the President to remain within that boundary, according to them.
Hari Sharma, who was advisor to the first President Ram Baran Yadav, said as a member of the founding team of the institution, there were various issues that they deliberated so as to set precedents for future presidents.
“I don’t recall any incident in which President Yadav got involved in something that was purely the business of the government of the day,” Sharma told the Post. “We tried our best by following international practices to maintain the sanctity of the institution.”
Yadav served for eight years and saw six governments. His role as the Head of State is largely regarded as being non-controversial.
The one decision by Yadav that had run into controversy was his move of blocking then prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s sacking of then Army chief Rookmangud Katawal.
“I had read somewhere Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali had spoken with his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar,” said Sharma. “What happened after that? I find this strange. There was a need to follow-up on that, as a matter of fact.”
According to Sharma, during Yadav’s tenure, he would write to government heads and heads of state on occasions to congratulate them or to express sorrow in case of disasters or calamities. But he did not engage himself in something that was the business of the government of the day, he said.
As questions have arisen about the role Nepali missions have played in securing vaccines, a senior Foreign Ministry official told the Post that Nepal’s diplomatic missions “have already arranged millions of doses of vaccine through negotiations.”
“But it’s not the Foreign Ministry that does the procurement,” said the official who did not wish to be named fearing getting drawn into controversy. “The Chinese made an offer about a month ago and sent proposals but you know who is sitting over it.”
According to the official, it’s not possible to acquire such a strategic and political commodity just by holding out a begging bowl.
The President’s initiatives also come at a time when Oli is being ridiculed for attempting to act like the Head of State.
On Friday, Oli addressed the nation, but he read out something that was akin to the government’s policies and programmes. The country’s constitutional provisions required the President to present the government’s policies and programmes.
Many say Oli and Bhandari have been working in cahoots for quite some time thereby blurring the lines between Baluwatar and Sheetal Niwas.
Analysts and experts say the question is not just about the protocol, the way things are happening in Nepal also shows how the system is being ignored.
“Can’t our foreign minister visit India or China as a special envoy of the prime minister to secure vaccines?” said Bhattarai. “The government should activate the Foreign Ministry and Nepali embassies abroad rather than prodding the President to write letters to her counterparts. It is not the job of the deputy prime minister to hold meetings with diplomats and seek vaccines.”
The Office of the President, however, defended Bhandari’s proactive moves to secure vaccines, saying such requests are being made as the country is facing a hard time.
“The government was holding talks with several countries. To support the government’s initiative the President has written to some of her counterparts,” said Lalbabu Yadav, an advisor to President Bhandari. “When the country has been hit hard by the second wave, the President cannot sit idle. She took initiatives and wrote to some of her counterparts. There’s no need to read too much into it.”
There is one section that believes in what China’s Deng Xiaoping’s famous saying: "It doesn't matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice."
If the President' initiatives yield results, then an argument can be made that the end justifies the means, said an observer of geopolitical affairs, adding diplomacy can–or rather needs to–be quiet.
“Why publicise it?” he said.