Sunday, April 15, 2012

Wrestling History With The President

Regardless of how Nepal’s transition to a federal democratic republic turns out, this much is clear: few people would have been able to lead the country during these tumultuous times better than Ram Baran Yadav. To get a sense of his significance, just consider some of the leading contenders for the top job in the summer of 2008 and speculate how they might have compared. Some were simply too rough for the requisite ceremonialism. Others were too frail in physique. The snobbery, haughtiness, elitism and entitlement of those in between were repulsive enough.
Throughout his tenure, President Yadav has served the office with equipoise and grace. When he has acted seemingly outside his authority, as in reversing then-premier Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s decision to fire army chief Gen. Rukmangad Katuwal, Yadav was able to project his action as being in the national interest.
Of course, the president has had his share of critics. Some in the Nepali Congress accuse him of political machinations within his former (and future?) party, needlessly picking sides in the acrimonious internal battles. Others have cited the president’s inability to rein in those close to him, be they family members or advisers.
What has struck Maila Baje most profoundly is the restraint Yadav has been able to maintain in his pronouncements. Anyone familiar with the words Yadav uttered during the factional skirmishes in the Nepali Congress or during the party’s battles against the monarchy in the past would recognize how hard holding back must be for the president.
Surely, we would have been in a greater mess had Yadav gone around shooting from all sides of his mouth in the way, say, his deputy does. That’s why it is important to take seriously what Yadav does say.
Just the other day, he insisted that he would not sign any constitution that he felt would lead to the division of the country. The statement did not quite kick up a firestorm perhaps because of the general euphoria that broke out over successive breakthroughs relating to the Maoist army and arms. Yadav’s assertion does, however, have important implications relating to the future of our political development.
Any constitution that may be promulgated by the May 28 deadline – full, partial or any other variant – undoubtedly will have its share of bitter critics. The issue of federalism alone will be hard to satisfy all the constituencies that have invested so much political energy in it.
Any hastily produced document just to meet the latest deadline might not be what Nepal needs right now. But can a ceremonial president, on his own, block something of such enormity an elected body has produced?
When King Birendra used a constitutional technicality to block a controversial citizenship bill voted on by parliament, he could do so with barely an outcry because he had public opinion on his side.
Yadav himself could restore Katuwal to office because even the leaders who Dahal thought he had on his side eventually sided with the president. (The people, of course, were wary enough of the prospect of an imperial prime minister with his own army.)
Were Yadav to block a constitution on the grounds he cites, it might satisfy many and alienate many others. For every voice bemoaning the possible disintegration of the country, there is another rejoicing in the prospect of real sense of belonging. How is Yadav going to straddle the ends?
More importantly, could he do so without stepping into a more assertive political role should the national situation so demand? Were he to step out of his ceremonial limits, might critics accuse him of harboring dictatorial intentions?
Yadav may enjoy international legitimacy in whatever he does, but what about those who press ahead with the principle of constitutionalism. (And, rest assured, the cause of constitutionalism would provide a broad umbrella to disparate groups opposed to the president’s action.)
What role would the Supreme Court – already energized by its recent spate of decisions – be asked to perform here? What about the military? Equally importantly, what about the armed groups who might have no shortage of external patrons should the geo-strategic dynamics shift precipitously.
So far, Nepalis have had the luxury of blaming individual leaders for much of the mess. It won’t be so easy when institutions are pitted against one another.