When Bidya Devi Bhandari became the first female head of state on October 29, 2015, we had hailed it as a “historic moment” in the building of a more inclusive Nepal. But given the tendency of the pervious occupant of the office, Ram Baran Yadav, to at times overstep his constitutional bounds, we were also cautious. “The legacy of Bidya Bhandari as president will be determined,” we had written that day, “less by what she does and more by what she refrains from doing while in office”. Even though President Bhandari has stayed well within the limits set by the constitution, we are afraid she has shown very poor judgment in some of her decisions and actions. It is for instance hard to understand why the road her cavalcade is passing through has to be completely cleared of vehicles and even pedestrians, up to an hour in advance. Why such a tight security arrangement for a ceremonial president when the motorcade of the executive prime minister, who faces higher security risk, can be seen every day zigzagging through the busy Kathmandu traffic? The president would win a lot of public adulation overnight if she ordered her handlers to do away with this feudal practice.
Yet, by the looks of things, the president seems determined to get more and more unpopular. In yet another instance of blatant disregard of public welfare—and of her responsibility as First Woman to be a role model for her people—her office has just sought Rs 160 million to buy an armored car (for herself) and a fleet of other vehicles (for her escort). The government had already set aside Rs 40 million for the purpose, but the Office of the President said that was not enough. It then asked the Ministry of Defense for an additional Rs 120 million to buy these vehicles. The president’s bullet-proof car alone is expected to cost Rs 80 million, making it among the most expensive cars being used by any head of state anywhere. It is almost as if the president feels she is a law onto herself and can do pretty much what she wants. The president’s profligate ways also shows her callousness. As of this writing, hundreds of thousands of victims of natural disasters in Nepal don’t even have roofs over their head.
Perhaps realizing that its demand was over-the-top the president’s office has chosen to go about procuring these vehicles through a devious way. Instead of writing to the finance ministry, the office routed its request for additional funds through the defense ministry, and asked Nepal Army to make the procurements. Purchase by the army, apparently, would attract less scrutiny than any effort of the president office to buy these vehicles by itself. This, again, adds to the suspicion that the president and her office have something to hide. When the country abolished monarchy and decided to have a ceremonial president, the new position was envisioned as a symbol of ‘national unity’, as per the new constitution. President Bhandari hasn’t quite managed that. If anything, she has been far more successful in turning herself into a common symbol of national hatred.