The flawed legacy of President BhandariHer decisions showed a clear bias in favour of her former party, the UML, say experts.
As the build-up to the presidential election next week nears a fever pitch, there perhaps couldn’t be a better time to look back on the outgoing President Bidya Devi Bhandari’s time in office.
Elected the second president of Nepal in October 2015, and re-elected in March 2018 in the new federal set-up, Bhandari served as Nepal’s head of state for seven years.
The constitution defines the role of President in clear terms. Article 61 (4) says, “The main duty of the President shall be to abide by and protect the constitution.”
Bhandari, however, has been accused of failing to be the charter’s custodian. To make matters worse, in many instances, she defied the very constitution she had taken the oath to protect. Criticisms outshine compliments when constitutional experts and political analysts view her presidential tenure.
Bhandari’s first term as President was less controversial than the second.
Constitutional expert Bhimarjun Acharya said: “Her second term was more controversial as she refused to stay within her constitutional bounds.”
Another constitutional expert, Chandra Kanta Gyawali, said Bhandari failed to act as the constitution’s custodian—particularly in her second term.
Yet, there are instances when she put ordinances of the government led by Sher Bahadur Deuba on hold for weeks during her first term.
On October 23, 2017, the then Deuba government recommended an ordinance on medical education, which President Bhandari held on to, for around three weeks. She issued it on November 10, 2017 only after facing criticisms, and after a section of civil society members led by Dr Govinda KC, a medical activist fighting for reforms in the medical sector, registered an application at the President’s Office asking about the ordinance’s status.
Similarly, she was reluctant to issue an ordinance on National Assembly elections in December 2017 when the Deuba-led government recommended it proposing Single Transferable Voting System, which was a must to hold the elections for the upper house.
It was only after the UML’s green signal that she issued it. The party was earlier against the system.
Now, let’s come to her more controversial second term.
On February 9, 2018, the Deuba-led government recommended Krishna Prasad Poudel, Chandani Joshi and Gopi Lal Basnet for appointment as National Assembly members. But President Bhandari waited until KP Sharma Oli, chair of CPN-UML, her former party, took the reins of government on February 15 the same year. She instead endorsed the names of Yubaraj Khatiwada, Ram Narayan Bidari and Bimala Rai Poudyal, which the Oli Cabinet recommended.
She even defied the constitutional provisions when it came to the endorsement of some bills.
Article 113 (3) of the constitution allows the President to send bills, other than a finance (money) bill, to Parliament for revision. However, Article 113 (4) says: “If both the Houses reconsider the bill as it was presented or with amendments, and pass it and present it again to the President, the bill shall be authenticated by the President within 15 days of its submission.”
But President Bhandari refused to endorse the Citizenship Bill passed twice by both houses of the federal parliament. The Citizenship Bill, after it was passed by both the House of Representatives and the National Assembly, was sent to the President for endorsement on July 31, 2022. However, on August 14, 2022, Bhandari returned the bill to the lower house, attaching a 15-point suggestion. It was re-endorsed by both houses without any amendment and re-sent to the President on September 5.
“She did exercise her constitutional right by returning the bill with suggestions, once. But she defied the constitution by holding the bill, even when the Parliament sent it back unchanged, for the second time,” said Gyawali.
The constitution, in such a case, mandates her to verify the bill within 15 days. The case against it is still sub judice. Bhandari had previously quickly issued an ordinance unchanged from the erstwhile Oli government.
“She acted as an extension of a political party in the case of the Citizenship Bill,” said Tula Narayan Shah, a political analyst. “While UML chair KP Oli was in difficulty, she issued the ordinance with the same content without delay, while she refused to endorse a bill that had been endorsed by Parliament, twice.”
She acted as an “executive president,” in cases such as the citizenship issue, said Rajendra Maharjan, another political observer.
Constitutional expert Gyawali added: “She acted, in this case, as if she was a power centre.”
Bhandari was also accused of rubber-stamping the Oli-led Cabinet’s decisions, even unconstitutional ones. Such moves sparked public outrage.
Political analyst Maharjan sees it as her biggest mistake. “She did not give a second thought to Oli’s unconstitutional moves that could have been checked, questioned, and balanced,” he said.
On December 20, 2020, Bhandari hastily endorsed the recommendation of the Oli Cabinet to dissolve the House. He was still leading a majority government. The Supreme Court on February 23, 2021 reinstated the House, terming the dissolution unconstitutional.
Three months later, Oli dissolved the House again. Bhandari endorsed it quickly after midnight on May 21, 2021. Bhandari, who held several consultations on the bill to amend the Citizenship Act, didn’t bother to hold a single consultation while twice approving the Oli government’s House dissolution.
Acharya echoed Gyawali that in many instances, the ordinances were issued as soon as the House sessions ended.
Her tilt towards the erstwhile Oli government was clearly seen in her December 16, 2020 move.
After failing to convene the Constitutional Council meeting, the Oli Cabinet on December 15, 2020 decided to revise the Constitutional Council (Functions, Duties and Procedures) Act through an ordinance. President Bhandari issued it quickly.
She also courted controversies because of her engagement in geopolitical affairs. Despite reservations from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, President Bhandari sent her recorded statement to a Global Security Initiative-related function organised by the Chinese People’s Association for Peace and Disarmament in Beijing on September 21, 2022.
Heart still in the UML
President Bhandari was also heavily criticised for her involvement in the internal UML affairs. According to Maharjan, “she was involved in the activities of her mother party. That was not, in any way, in keeping with her role as the head of the state.”
When tensions escalated in the then Nepal Communist Party (NCP), formed after a merger between the UML and the CPN (Maoist Centre), Bhandari personally called then NCP vice-chair Bamdev Gautam to her office in November 2020 and urged him “to play a constructive role” in keeping the party intact.
Five months earlier, she had held similar meetings with Pushpa Kamal Dahal and KP Sharma Oli, apparently to ask them to resolve intra-party feuds.
For analyst Shah, during her seven-year tenure, President Bhandari played “yes sayer” to the party she once belonged to.
Failure as the first female President
Bhandari’s election as the first female President was widely hailed. But a clear bias in her outlook shattered many hopes.
Another political analyst Indra Adhikari said people were excited when Bhandari became the President. “We took it as the symbol of change. We hoped that she would be the voice of women, and marginalised communities, the oppressed groups. But she proved us wrong.”
"Now, people will cite her negative example when we women speak up for equality, rights and fair participation in various sectors," said Adhikari.
Nevertheless, some programmes introduced at her initiative were praiseworthy. The President’s Women Uplift Programme, a national programme named after the head of state, started in April, 2017. It aimed to provide skill development and capability enhancement training to Dalit, indigenous, marginalised and Muslim women.
Lessons for future presidents
Political analyst Chandra Dev Bhatta said the President’s position assumed an executive tone due to Bhandari’s visible bias, which set a wrong precedent. Future presidents should be wary of not repeating her mistakes.
Maharjan added that Nepal’s constitutional practices are immature and there is always room to learn. He cited the example of the presidential convoys that inconvenienced the general public.
Constitutional expert Gyawali recalled how the court had to review several of Bhandari’s decisions. “That should never happen in the case of the President.”