Off the Record 007: The many sins of Bidya Bhandari

Issue 007 • 21 May 2021

It’s May 21, 2021, and you’re reading Off the Record, the weekly newsletter from The Record. We are an independent, ad-free, digital news publication out of Kathmandu, Nepal. 

I’m Pranaya Rana, editor of The Record, and in this newsletter, we’ll stop, take a deep breath, and dive deep into one singular issue that defined the past week. 

You can read Off the Record for free by visiting this link or subscribe on our website to receive this newsletter in your inbox every Friday. 


Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening from a Kathmandu where political shenanigans continue to take precedence over the raging pandemic.

First, some good news. The lockdowns across Nepal have worked somewhat in reducing spread. Nepal’s reproduction rate (R0 factor) has fallen from a peak of 2.12 on April 21 to 1.12 as of May 18. This is a significant decrease and illustrates how effective lockdowns and restrictions on public movement can have on spread.

Daily cases, however, have remained somewhat stable at around 8,000 cases every 21 hours. On Thursday, May 20, Nepal reported 8,227 cases; on Wednesday, the number was 8,064, and on Tuesday, it was 8,136. The falling reproduction rate does provide some room for hope that daily cases too will start to fall soon.

The international community has also started to sound the alarm. Prominent UK personalities, including actor Joanna Lumley, Sir Micheal Palin, General Sir Sam Cowan (who is also a regular contributor to The Record), and Victoria Cross-recipient Captain Ram Bahadur Limbu, have all signed on to a petition asking British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to send oxygen supplies to Nepal. The UK has already provided support in the form of oxygen plants, medical equipment for hotspots, and funding for treatment centers. Individuals in the United States continue to lobby their representatives and senators to come to Nepal’s aid, even as USAID dispatched the first of three shipments of emergency medical supplies to Nepal. Spain, after much lobbying by the young Nepali ambassador Dawa Futi Sherpa, provided humanitarian assistance in the form of personal protective gear, antigen kits, oxygen concentrators.

There is, however, still no sign of any more vaccines than the few hundred thousand Nepal has in stock.

The Nepal government has now started providing second doses of the Sinopharm Verocell vaccine to all those who’d received the first dose. This time around, local governmental units, and not hospitals, are in charge of the vaccinations, which is taking place in every ward in Kathmandu city and dozens of centers in Lalitpur and Bhaktapur. The vaccination drive, this time, has largely been free of overcrowding and serpentine queues. After the disastrous April vaccination drive, where many are believed to have contracted the coronavirus in crowded, unmanaged vaccination centers, this too is good news.

And now for the bad news. On Tuesday, March 18, the Health Ministry confirmed the presence of the double mutant B.1.617 variant of the coronavirus in all 35 samples collected randomly from across the country. While 34 samples contained the B.1.617.2 sub-lineage mutant, one sample contained the B.1.617.1 sub-lineage. This variant was recently updated by the World Health Organization from a “variant of interest” to a “variant of concern” meaning that it either transmits easier, leads to more severe illness, or is more resistant to treatments and vaccines.

Bagmati Province — and the Kathmandu Valley — is still reporting the highest number of infections but hotspots are emerging in the mofussil, where health care is sorely lacking in personnel and equipment. Testing is limited in the districts and doctors believe that the infection numbers are severely underreported. Even if Kathmandu is able to stabilize with international assistance, there is a fear that that aid will never trickle down to the districts that need it the most.

Source: Ministry of Health and Population

Making things worse is the fact that Nepalis outside the Kathmandu Valley and its environs have yet to receive the vaccine and there’s no telling when they will get a first dose. The Verocell vaccine was only provided to those in the Valley and its surrounding districts due to logistical issues, said the Health Ministry. The elderly above 65 years of age have only received the first dose of the Covishield vaccine while those in the age group 60-65 seem to have been completely forgotten as they are not eligible for any of the vaccines at the moment (Covishield for those above 65, Verocell for those between 18 and 60).

So it is likely that things will get worse before they get better. There’s not much else to say about the Covid crisis. At times, it feels like we’re all just waiting to get infected and every little tickle in the throat feels like another symptom.

But like last week, this time too, we must discuss politics, as Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, aided and abetted by President Bidya Devi Bhandari, continues to prioritize government formation over the pandemic.


The deep dive: The many sins of President Bidya Bhandari

Bidya Devi Bhandari is a career politician, having been involved in Nepal’s fractious party politics since her student days. She, however, come to national prominence after the mysterious death of her husband, the firebrand politician Madan Bhandari. Bidya Bhandari contested the 1994 parliamentary elections from her husband’s constituency and handily defeated Nepali Congress veteran Krishna Prasad Bhattarai. She would repeat the feat again five years later in 1999, defeating Daman Nath Dhungana.

Bidya Bhandari after her 1994 electoral win over Krishna Prasad Bhattarai. Photo: Bikas Rauniar/Nepal Picture Library

For the next decade or so, Bhandari would remain largely behind-the-scenes in the CPN-UML (Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist, for those not in the know). She lost the first Constituent Assembly elections but was eventually made Defence Minister in the Madhav Kumar Nepal administration in 2009.

She really only became an influential national actor in the wake of the rise of KP Sharma Oli within the UML superstructure. Oli and Bhandari had always been close comrades, but when Oli became chairperson of the UML and Bhandari, the vice-chair, the two began to work in tandem. Eventually, they brought that camaraderie to the highest offices in the country.

Bhandari was elected president in 2015, becoming the first woman to hold the highest office in the land. A president sheds their party membership upon being elected and is expected to act in a non-partisan manner, befitting their role as the “guardian of the constitution.” This was a role that Ram Baran Yadav, the first president, had played with aplomb, maintaining the dignity and decorum of the office. On the surface, things appeared progressive, with a Madhesi as the first president and a woman as the second.

But even before her election, it was clear that Bhandari was far from the progressive woman she might appear to be. During discussions over changes to Nepal’s existing citizenship law — which still does not provide equal rights to men and women when it comes to passing down citizenship — Bhandari maintained that women’s rights activists were influenced by the “West” She went on to say, “Whether we agree with it or not, in Eastern cultures, a woman is entirely devoted to her husband. This might be controversial but that is how our society has functioned.”

Ever since her election as president, Bhandari has acted in such close concert with the prime minister that it often feels like the office of the president is simply an extension of the executive branch. Of course, as a ceremonial head of state, the president doesn’t really have much power. The president can, however, hold bills and send them back for a reappraisal, provided they run counter to the spirit and letter of the constitution. But however controversial the actions of the chief executive, Bhandari has provided them with her seal of approval.

In 2017, Bhandari sat on an ordinance passed by the Sher Bahadur Deuba government over the formation of the National Assembly, the Upper House of the Parliament. The delay benefitted the CPN-UML, which had just won the federal parliamentary elections and was attempting to form a government. The ordinance, if passed, would’ve allowed Deuba’s Nepali Congress to gain a few more seats in the Upper House. Bhandari only passed the ordinance in April 2018, after delaying it for nearly six months, and once the KP Oli government was firmly in place. Bhandari also delayed approving members to the National Assembly whom the Congress had recommended.

She has shown no such reluctance when it comes to the ordinances that Prime Minister Oli’s Cabinet forwards to her. She often approves of these ordinances in a matter of hours, no matter how controversial they may be. In April 2020, Bhandari swiftly approved of two ordinances forwarded by the Oli administration — one seeking to make it easier for political parties to split and the other aimed at making it easier for the ruling government to appoint members to constitutional bodies without the approval of the opposition. After the ordinances were heavily criticized, Oli recommended withdrawal and Bhandari duly repealed them.

In December 2020, Oli once again forwarded the Constitutional Council ordinance to Bhandari for approval, which came immediately.

Time and again, Bhandari has played a partisan role, not just for Oli but also for the Nepal Communist Party and especially the UML. Whenever the Nepal Communist Party appeared on the verge of a split, Bhandari intervened, inviting senior leaders to Sheetal Niwas for a consultation. Such meetings are unbecoming for an ostensibly non-partisan head of state.

But even within the party, Bhandari has been unpopular among the rank-and-file, largely for being too close to Oli but also for standing against women politicians when they most needed it. Veteran UML politician Asta Laxmi Shakya openly criticized Bhandari in 2018 for actively lobbying against her candidacy for chief minister of Bagmati province.

Bhandari has also been accused of ostentation. She has been lambasted for holding Kathmandu traffic hostage for hours in preparation for her motorcade, and her office has been criticized for spending Rs 20 million on renovations at Sheetal Niwas, replacing carpets and toilets. In 2019, she was hauled over the coals for using the phrase “my government” (mero sarkar) while introducing the government’s programs and policies. The phrase irked many by recalling the erstwhile monarchy, when the Nepal government was His Majesty’s Government. In May 2020, at the height of the first wave of the coronavirus, President Bhandari —not Prime Minister Oli — addressed the country and staunchly defended the actions of the government, saying that Covid-19 was under control.

While not all of these criticisms are fair, they paint a stark picture of the image the public at large has of Bhandari, especially when compared to her noticeably modest predecessor.

Bidya Bhandari & KP Sharma Oli pay their last respects to Mangala Devi Singh in 1996. Photo: Bikas Rauniar/Nepal Picture Library

This long saga leads us finally to yesterday, May 20. On Thursday, Prime Minister Oli asked President Bhandari to initiate the process of calling for the formation of a new government as per Article 76 (5) of the constitution. Article 76 lays out all the various conditions under which a prime minister can be elected or appointed, and the conditions progress sequentially. The first condition, Article 76 (1), is that the leader of any party that has a majority will be appointed prime minister; the second condition, Article 76 (2), applies when there’s no majority so any prospective prime minister must obtain a majority with the support of two or more parties; the third condition, 76 (3) comes into effect when no majority can be obtained and the president appoints the leader of the party with the most representatives as the prime minister.

Oli was most recently reappointed prime minister under the third condition, Article 76 (3). He had called for a vote of confidence in the House of Representatives on May 10, which he duly lost. President Bhandari then invoked Article 76 (2) and asked the parties to come up with a suitable candidate who could command a majority. The parties failed, so Bhandari, legally and constitutionally, reappointed Oli, just three days later, on May 13.

Now, Oli and Bhandari are both supposed to abide by Article 76 (4), which states that a prime minister appointed under the third condition must obtain a vote of confidence from the House within 30 days. Oli was only reappointed seven days ago and has ample time to cobble together a coalition to pass the floor test. But given the manner in which the parties are aligned, Oli is unlikely to pass and so, he’s mobilized his trusted comrade-in-arms to facilitate his stay in power.

Article 76 (5) says that if the prime minister so appointed fails to obtain a vote of confidence, the Presidents shall appoint “any member [who] presents a ground on which he or she can obtain a vote of confidence in the House of Representatives.” Even then, the following article, 76 (6), once again requires a vote of confidence. Oli is not that person and he will not be able to obtain a vote of confidence. He knows this very well. He is simply attempting to get to Article 76 (7), facilitated smoothly by President Bhandari. Article 76 (7) mandates the dissolution of the House and the declaration of fresh elections. That is what Oli has wanted all along.

[Quick update: As I was writing this piece, news broke that Sher Bahadur Deuba, president of the Nepali Congress, had managed to get 149 Members of Parliament to support his bid for government. He has 13 members more than the required minimum number of 136 and is likely to lead the next government.]

It is clear that the president and the prime minister have been acting in collusion with each other. Each has helped the other out whenever possible, even to the detriment of the rest of the country or Nepal’s burgeoning republican system. At any other time, such actions would pose a serious threat to the integrity of the system Nepalis have put in place, but at the height of a pandemic that is killing dozens every day, they are not just irresponsible but unconscionable. Constitutional lawyers and the opposition politicians have lambasted Bhandari for abetting Oli, with the latter now planning an impeachment motion.

Oli plans to conduct elections within six months. It is very, very unlikely that the pandemic will have worn itself out by then. At a time when the government’s full attention should be on controlling spread, minimizing deaths, importing equipment and vaccines, it is instead focused on prolonging its stay in power. Oli — and Bhandari — appear to be the most venal of politicians, that kind who capitalize on death and misery to carve out a bigger piece for themselves.


For more, read:

The Record team on vaccinations resuming in the Kathmandu Valley

Marissa Taylor on the impact of the pandemic on the tourism industry


Happenings this week:

Saturday - Kathmandu Rayzers became the first winners of the Nepal Super League football tournament, defeating Dhangadi FC 1-0. The win comes with a prize purse of Rs 3.5 million

Sunday - Kathmandu and Bhaktapur began to administer the second dose of the Sinopharm Verocell vaccine to all those who’d received the first dose. Lalitpur started its vaccination drive a few days later, on Thursday.

Monday - The Supreme Court issued an order asking the Nepal government to come with a detailed action plan within seven days to control the Covid-19 pandemic and treat the infected.

Tuesday - The Janata Samajbadi Party, the fourth largest party in Parliament, decided not to support Prime Minister Oli’s government and instead, stake its own claim to leading government.

Wednesday - The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal won $20 million in damages from Constructora Sanjose, a Spanish company contracted in 2012 to extend the runway at Tribhuvan International Airport and construct a new international terminal. CAAN had fired the company after only 17 percent of work had been completed by 2016. The case had then landed at the Singapore International Arbitration Centre, which decided in CAAN’s favor.

Thursday - The Supreme Court reversed the appointment of seven ministers in the Oli Cabinet on the grounds that they are not members of the House of Representatives. All seven ministers had defected from the Maoist party and joined Oli’s UML party.

Friday - The opposition parties managed to get 149 signatories to support a government under Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba. The coalition has the required numbers — a minimum of 136 MPs — to form a new government.


Read of the week

Listen to Gauley Bhai, a funky, fusion band out of Bangalore that combines elements of Nepali folk with rock, the blues, and jazz.


Announcements

If you’d like to donate to individuals and organizations who are helping provide health care services, medical supplies, and daily essentials to those who need them, here’s a short list of recommendations:

Feed the Hungry Nepal provides daily meals to those who cannot afford it

America Nepal Medical Foundation is securing oxygen supplies and providing infrastructure like oxygen concentrators

Juju Kaji Maharjan provides daily meals and supplies to those who need them in Kathmandu

Sano Paila provides food and relief material in Birgunj

Oxygen Bank Support is starting an oxygen bank, creating temporary isolation centers, and supporting hospitals with medical supplies

Peace4Dalits Foundation supports Madhesi Dalits with food and supplies


That’s all for this week. I shall see you Friday on the next edition of Off the Record

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