Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Vice President’s Supreme Bliss

As the principal political parties squabble unabated, another power struggle is turning interesting. President Ram Baran Yadav, having concluded his original medical profession far nobler than politics, now insists he is not a ceremonial president.
Asserting his authority, Yadav has admonished his deputy, Parmananda Jha, not to step outside his pay grade. At one point, we were told, the two men were barely on speaking terms, certainly putting a premium on the unabridged transcripts of the official consultations they have begun. But Vice-President Jha remains confused as to his own role. (So are we, Mr. Veep, if it is any consolation. It’s not as if Nepalis ever had deputy kings.)
Jha seems so flustered that he has trouble holding back his political opinions. The special committee set up to oversee the integration of the Maoist militia and Nepal Army, Jha declared, was unconstitutional because of its representation. Taking aim at the government’s claim that “major parties” were represented in the special committee, Jha asserted that there was no constitutional definition of such parties.
Since the interim constitution did not define “major parties,” involvement of certain parties in the committee did not bear constitutionality, the vice-president claimed. Only the constituent assembly and the Supreme Court could provide an unequivocal definition.
Predictably, that infuriated the Maoists and the Unified Marxists-Leninists, who have hogged the panel. They began talking about impeachment proceedings. Instead of shutting up under duress, Jha accused his critics of being worthy of impeachment. This time, he accused the parties of trying to infringe upon the people’s fundamental rights by trying to impose the whip system.
By this time, Foreign Minister Upendra Yadav, whose Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) had put up Jha as its candidate, saw the vice-president’s comments as unconstitutional. “The interim constitution does not clearly define the role of the president and the vice-president,” Yadav said. “I advise them both to remain quiet until new constitution is drafted and their role clearly written.”
Now the MJF chief may hold a law degree but Jha, a former Supreme Court justice, has little patience for a crash course on constitutionalism. The veep insists he is duty bound to vent his feelings because his job – as well as that of the president – is to protect the constitution. (Obviously, the interim as well as the prospective – and hopefully permanent? – one.)
Unapologetic over his use of Hindi while taking the oath of deputy head of state earlier this year, which triggered massive public protests, Jha seems to have lost none of his defiance. The fact that he stepped up his public utterances after an extended meeting with Indian Ambassador Rakesh Sood has fuelled speculation of all variety, especially among those who saw the Hindi oath as part of New Delhi’s design. (With the Chinese having made significant inroads into the parties in power under his watch, Sood’s options were certainly narrowing.)
If Jha persists with his candor in the way he has, our nascent republic could find itself in grave institutional turmoil. The constituent assembly has finally stepped into the process of drafting the basic law. But the adoption of rules of procedure alone cannot guarantee that the document would come into force by May 2010 as scheduled.
President Yadav, as supreme commander of the army, could use a drawn-out integration controversy to order the generals and their lieutenants out on the streets to preserve the interim statute. Where would Jha turn? Or does he consider himself the deputy supreme commander of the army, too?