The many controversies of President Bidya Devi BhandariNepal’s President is facing criticism for politicking not because of a one-off event—there actually is a long list.
The day President Bidya Devi Bhandari returned the amendment bill to the House of Representatives for a review on August 14 with her 15-point concerns and suggestions, many were quick to view it with political lenses. Sending the bill for a review back to the House, however, is a constitutional power vested in her.
Four days later, the House of Representatives endorsed the bill without any revision and sent it to the National Assembly. The bill was endorsed in the lower house with 135 lawmakers among 295 present voting in favour. As the ruling parties command a majority in the upper house as well, there is no obstacle for the endorsement as in the lower house.
It was also within the lower house’s prerogative to pass the bill returned by the President—either in the existing form or with a revision.
Bhandari, however, seems to have taken the issue too personally. Her consultations with former Army generals on Wednesday and Home Minister Bal Krishna Khand’s meeting with journalists on Thursday to discuss the matter have created a face-off like situation between the executive and the head of the state.
Observers though do not find fault with the President’s consultations before sending the bill for review, they say seeking advice from various sections, including Army personnel, on the matter when the bill is still with the upper house is uncalled for.
Radheshyam Adhikari, an advocate, two-time Constituent Assembly member and former member of the National Assembly, says the President's current activities are unwarranted. He said she did ample consultations before returning the bill.
“The President did her part by returning the bill for a review,” he told the Post. “Now it is up to the federal parliament to either review the bill or not. She shouldn’t be stretching the issue anymore. Her recent meeting does no good to her image and the high office she holds.”
He says the only option left for her is to authenticate the bill if it gets through the National Assembly and Speaker Agni Sapkota sends it to the President’s Office for authentication. 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.
Any activities beyond what is prescribed will be unconstitutional and controversial, according to Adhikari.
Bhandari, a former leader of the CPN-UML, which is currently in the opposition, however, has had a brush with controversies in the past also.
She is the second President of the country since the country became a republic in 2008. She first became the Head of the State on October 28, 2015 and was re-elected to the position again on March 13, 2018.
The President is the custodian of the constitution.
While returning the bill to amend the Citizenship Act to Parliament, she has explained that making laws through an ordinance and through a bill are two different processes. She has argued that she issued the ordinance from the erstwhile Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli to revise the Act without holding it for long because it could have been checked by the House later. However, that is not the case with the bill endorsed by the House, she has claimed.
However, there are instances from the past when she put ordinances of other governments on hold for weeks.
On October 23, 2017, the then Sher Bahadur Deuba government recommended an ordinance on Medical Education. However, she didn’t issue it for around three weeks. It was issued on November 10, 2017 only after a section of civil society members led by Dr Govinda KC, who has long been fighting for reforms in the medical education sector, registered an application at the President’s Office asking about the status of the ordinance.
Similarly, she was reluctant to issue an ordinance on National Assembly elections. The Deuba government in December 2017 recommended the ordinance proposing Single Transferable Voting System, which was a must to hold the elections for the upper house.
The Nepali Congress and Madhesh-based parties had been advocating the Single Transferable Voting system while the CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Centre) were for adopting a majoritarian system. She waited until the UML agreed for the single transferable system to issue the ordinance.
On February 9, 2018 then Sher Bahadur Deuba-led government had recommended Krishna Prasad Poudel, Chandani Joshi and Gopi Lal Basnet for appointment as members of the National Assembly. However, she didn’t nominate them and waited until the government was changed. Deuba was replaced by KP Sharma Oli on February 15 the same year and his government withdrew the names and recommended new faces. She endorsed the names of Yubaraj Khatiwada, Ram Narayan Bidari and Bimala Rai Poudyal recommended by the Oli Cabinet.
“The President has displayed double standards in the past,” Dinesh Tripathi, chairperson of the Constitutional Lawyers’ Forum, told the Post. “She, on several occasions, has been seen favouring a particular party.”
The biggest example was on December 20, 2020.
Bhandari didn’t give a second thought to endorse the recommendation of the Oli government to dissolve the House while he was still leading a majority government. The Supreme Court on February 23, 2021, reinstated the House saying the dissolution was unconstitutional.
However, three months later Oli dissolved the House again, and Bhandari quickly endorsed it past midnight on May 21, 2021. Experts on constitutional affairs criticised the move for rubber-stamping every move of the Oli government.
Bhandari, who has held several consultations on the amendment bill on the Citizenship Act, didn’t hold a single consultation while approving the Oli government’s move of dissolving the House.
When tensions escalated, then Nepal Communist Party (NCP), formed after a merger between the UML and the CPN (Maoist Centre), Bhandari made every attempt to keep the party intact. She personally called then NCP vice chairperson Bamdev Gautam to her office in November 2020 and urged him “to play a constructive role” in stopping the party from a split. Then also she had faced criticism for her active involvement in party politics.
How she favoured the erstwhile Oli government was visible on December 16, 2020.
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 immediately. The very next day, then NCP leaders Bhim Rawal and Pampha Bhusal reached the President’s Office with signatures of 83 lawmakers demanding that the House be convened. They had reached Sheetal Niwas after seeking time from Hari Poudel, secretary at the office. However, he was nowhere to be found and his mobile phone remained switched off. They waited for six hours but could not register their application.
Article 93 (3) of the constitution says the President summons the House if one fourth members of Parliament call for it. If the House was summoned then, the Oli government would have been in trouble.
Not just for professional reasons, Bhandari has been criticised for her personal activities. On January 16, 2017 she conducted the marriage of her youngest daughter Nisha Kusum Bhandari from the President’s Office. The move was criticised saying she turned the President’s Office into a party place.
Political experts say when the President forwarded the bill for a review, the Parliament could have done a thorough discussion by taking some time.
“It is clear that the ruling parties took the President’s move as an ego. However, there is nothing the President can do. Her consultations with the army officials on the citizenship bill doesn’t suit her position,” Khagendra Prasai, who teaches political philosophy at Nepal Open University, told the Post. “The controversies, however, are not new to our President. Her several moves in the past have courted controversies for failing to maintain impartiality and neutrality.”