Much ado about nothingThe only positive spin to the whole debacle was that it showed the govt was responsive to adverse public opinion
'What were they thinking?’ is what came to my mind when I found out that the government had declared the current week’s Monday and Friday as public holidays to mark our president’s state visit to India. It sounded so 20th-century Nepal when the country was forced to celebrate any and everything that the king did. Nearly 10 years after the country was declared a republic, it is just amazing that a government led by an avowed communist could do no better than emulate the monarchs of yore.
During the rule by the king, it was necessary for the regime to re-emphasise time and again that the nation and the monarchy were fused as one, and among the ways of achieving that was to make a carnival out of everything linked to the king. This included gratuitous holidays on the day the king embarked on a foreign jaunt, and again on the day of his return. The celebrations included the streets being swept clean, gagri filled with of water placed all over to give the king an auspicious send-off and welcome, banners strung hailing the king and his presumed international renown, school children brought out in strength onto the streets to flank the royal motorcade’s procession through the streets, and compulsory turnout by government officials in assigned places along the route to demonstrate their fealty to the crown.
The president of a republic Nepal requires no such affirmation of legitimacy. She is president because the people have elected her—albeit indirectly. Hence, it was all the more astounding that the government should decide to give the country two days off just because she went away on a trip. The only plausible reason for the ceremoniousness was to signal to New Delhi how important Nepal considers the presidential visit to be.
The fact is that the president has taken up symbolic roles in the religious-cultural sphere that belong to the by-gone era of kings. Perhaps most significant is her presence during Indra Jatra festival, a carry-on from the Malla period that the Shah kings adopted without demur since it provided continuity to an important religious tradition that also helped placate the indigenous Newars through the gesture of the king’s paying obeisance annually to the Kumari.
So instrumental is the ritual role of a king in many parts of Nepali hills that even till today many religious events require a representative of the erstwhile royal households to be present even if it has been centuries since anyone from those families had actually ‘ruled’ those tracts of land that used to make up the tiny kingdoms that were swallowed up by an expansionary Gorkha in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Unfortunately, former king Gyanendra could not be extended the same courtesty given the politics of post-2006 Nepal and, as acting head of state, Girija Prasad Koirala set the precedent of showing up in the role of a king at religious functions.
The transition from Koirala to the later presidents has been smooth. It does beg the question though what will happen if the not-unlikely scenario of a member of a non-Hindu community assuming the post of president comes to pass. Unlike other religious traditions that allow non-congregants to participate in worship and prayer, orthodox Hindu notions of purity is not all that accommodating. There is likely to be awkwardness all around, not to mention the complexity of finding a symbolic figure suitably august to be at the temperol apex of religious functions. Perhaps that is one good reason to functionalise our version of secularism as a strict separation between state and religion once and for all. Or, at the very least, begin a conversation on how that could be achieved without hurting the sentiments of either the religiously inclined or of the republican-minded.
Going back to the public holidays, or rather, holiday, since the government has rescinded the one on Friday, the government at the head of a modern economy should have known pretty well that every day the country is out of work means high levels of financial losses. A 2013 paper, incidentally with the current Vice-Chair of the National Planning Commission as the lead author, had estimated that the country lost Rs1.8 billion from a day’s bandh, the bulk of it from the service and industry sectors. Given that most of Nepal remained closed on Monday and assuming that much of the service sector remained functional even though everything from transport to eateries would have seen reduced business with more people staying at home, and also discounting the fact that the economy has grown a fair bit since that study, even if the impact was only half that of a bandh, Nepal’s economy could easily have been set back by Rs1 billion. And, all for the sake of a day of unnecessary pomp and show.
The criticism heaped on the government for its ridiculous decision and its subsequent withdrawal of the Friday holiday showed that at least it is responsive to adverse public opinion. But it could not bring itself to admit that it had made an error in judgement and instead put out a notice that said something to the effect: whereas the 17th of April [Monday] should have been declared a public holiday for all government offices and foreign missions abroad and ‘something else’ happened, this notice hereby amends it. Everyone knows what that ‘something else’ included a second holiday. This is nothing but an epitome of supreme official dissemblance, an art hardly becoming of a democratic government.