There is finally an agreement on government system. According to Tuesday’s accord between the four main political blocks, there will be a mixed system of government with the provision of a directly elected president and a prime minister elected by the parliament. Though the nitty-gritty of power sharing between the two have yet to be worked out, as the president will be directly elected, it bears to reason that the president has the upper hand in the balance of power.
As discussions on government form heated up in the media and intellectual circles, there have been various nationwide polls to gauge the level of support for top political leaders. In the latest Himalmedia survey, to the question “If you had to elect a chief executive
[President or Prime Minister], who will you vote for?” Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai got the nod from nearly every one of three Nepalis. President Ram Baran Yadav was a distant second (with the backing of one in every 10 people) followed by Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
In another nationwide survey conducted by Nepal magazine/IDA, when asked how many marks out of hundred they would give to individual leaders, President Yadav emerged on top of the pile. With the score of 55, Yadav, the poll found, was more popular than Bhattarai (51) or Pushpa Kamal Dahal (44). Interestingly, according to the a similar polling conducted at the end of 2006, Dahal (60) had emerged by far the most favored candidate to lead the country.
The latest poll numbers can be taken as rough guides of the trajectory the country’s polity is likely to take now that the bulk of the work on the constitution has been finalized; although, it might be argued, legitimately, that by deferring the most important decision on state restructuring, the top parties have copped out of their primary responsibility. But irrespective of the final structure of federal Nepal, if the current agreement on the executive holds, we are in for a hell of a contest.
Let us for a moment consider the results of the two polls. President Yadav is so popular because in these divisive times, he is seen as a moderate force who has been able to articulate the aspirations of both the Madhesi community he belongs to, but also, crucially, the larger Pahadi community. Luck also seems to favor him. Barely visible before the 1990 Jana Andolan, Yadav’s star post 2006 has risen by leaps and bounds.
When the Maoists put forth the name of Ram Raja Prasad Singh for president to get the backing of the Madhesi CA block, Nepali Congress was left with no option but to put forward a Madhesi candidate of its own. Even till the day of the crucial CA voting, the Maoist candidate seemed to have an edge. But the last-minute alliance between NC and the Madhesi People’s Right Forum (MPRF) put paid to Singh’s presidential aspirations, thereby elevating, then-NC general secretary, from near obscurity in national politics until a few years ago, to the highest office of the land.
Since his election, according to different interpretations of his level of political activism, Yadav has been either a uniting force who has by and large chosen to remain above party politics, and hence been a strong symbol of unity for Nepal bereft of the symbols of national identity post abolition of monarchy in 2008. Or he has been a conniving politician who has played his cards judiciously to cultivate a broader political base.
As the president, Yadav’s first true test came when then-Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal dismissed CoAS Rookmangud Katawal. Yadav, unconstitutionally, reversed prime minister’s orders, prompting the Maoist chief to resign on May 4, 2009. The president had clearly given in to NC and UML pressure. While Yadav clearly overstepped his brief, the decision went down well with the NC and UML grassroots, which started seeing the president as a convenient tool to check the newfound Maoist power.
Although Yadav has tried to project himself as a figure above the fray of everyday politics, his actions belie his words. For instance, Yadav is given to impromptu speeches even in the events he is not scheduled to speak, qualifying each of his political statements with the lame rejoinder, “although I cannot speak in my current capacity.” He has publicly said that he will not accept a constitution that poses a threat to the country’s territorial integrity. Who would judge if a constitution meets that criterion, he left for the people to work out. Likewise, recently, he issued another statement to the effect that in the name of stability, the country could not undermine rule of law and democratic principles, which was but a thinly veiled attempt to push through NC’s parliamentary system during crucial political bargains.
Yadav has, through a cleverly managed PR campaign, been able to project a benign image to the Pahadi community, that of being the biggest exception to the rule of Madhesi leaders pushing ethnic agenda. Yadav has been as successful in harnessing a strong Madhesi base (as Nepal/IDA poll bears out), rousing the Madhesi electorate by playing up an image of a simple Madhesi cattle-herder who has managed to reach the highest office of the land on the back of his message of unity and brotherhood.
Latest polls suggest Ram Baran Yadav and Baburam Bhattarai are two most popular politicians. What will happen if they face off in a presidential election?
Whether or not Yadav’s actions as president have been for the country’s overall good, there is now little doubt that he is busy laying the ground for future election. Given his popularity (which is well above any of the other NC leaders who further slipped the popularity ladder in the last four years) Yadav is sure to emerge as a strong presidential material from NC, although given NC’s volatile power dynamics it will be no mean task for the Dhanusha-born medical doctor to lock up party´s candidacy.
Equally interesting will be Maoist Chairman Dahal’s maneuvering when he finds himself under increasing pressure to back Bhattarai’s candidacy for presidency. Despite his constructive role in recent times vis-à-vis peace and constitution, neither the majority of the people nor other political parties trust the two-tongued, unpredictable Dahal as the leader of the land. No less importantly, New Delhi is far from assured that Dahal will not resort to shenanigans like untimely sacking of an army chief and visibly tilting towards China.
Bhattarai, on the other hand, is not only credited as the original author of the peace and constitution line, but also the prime mover of the twin agenda in the last few months. Come election time, Bhattarai will have plenty of bragging rights. First, giving momentum to the long-delayed integration and second, clearing obstacles to a viable constitution by May 27 under his watch.
If Yadav and Bhattarai somehow manage to convince the party rank and file that their candidature is in the best interest of the respective parties, we are headed for a battle royale of an electoral finish. It will be Yadav’s rags-to-the-riches story of a common Madhesi, backed up by his professed ability appeal to Pahadi community as a unifying force in a divisive polity, competing against the cerebral Bhattarai, the favorite of the educated class with a knack for getting things done under most difficult of circumstances. It could easily pale the recent Sarkozy-Hollande cliffhanger.