The Presidency has come under increasing scrutiny because of the constitutional crisis in Nepal. The abolition of monarchy had laid the path for a ceremonial President who would serve as the head of the state. However, the politicking around the election of the first President hinted that the role would not be limited to ceremony alone.
The President did not allow the first Maoist government to change top army personnel, leading to a hasty resignation from the Prime Minister that kept the Maoists out of the Executive for a long time. The next Maoist government has been at the helm for a year now, and the Constituent Assembly‘s inability to draft a constitution has once again brought the Presidency into the limelight.
Even if the Presidency were entirely ceremonial, maintaining that role would still be a political act, as the head of the state balances various political forces while appearing neutral. The President has allowed the Baburam Bhattarai-led government to assume the role of caretaker but refused to approve multiple ordinances from the Cabinet.
Inaction is not apolitical, and when he refuses to either dismiss the caretaker government or allow it free reign, the President is walking a fine political line. That this role is political should come as no surprise in the context of Nepal, where the monarchy flirted with that line for the last two decades. The current political limbo has led to some calls for the restoration of monarchy, at least in a ceremonial role, but the tide has turned and such a return is unlikely.
The facade of a constitutional monarchy in 1990 upheld the role of the royal family despite the euphoria of multi-party democracy. Even as an 8th grader, I could not understand how Nepal could have been a constitutional monarchy when a key clause explicitly stated that no action of the king could be questioned in any court of law. If anything, we lived under a monarchical constitution while keeping up appearances of a new dawn.
The emphases on leaders as well as the debates on the ceremonial head of state are reminiscent of the Hobbesian Leviathan. Hobbes argued that the identity of the Leviathan did not matter so much as that there was a Leviathan with whom citizens had some sort of contract—any contract—that allowed for the semblance of a polity.
Discussions on national politics remain fixated on the identity and nature of our leaders but it could hardly matter who is at the top anymore. In fighting about who should lead us, ceremoniously or unceremoniously, we have ourselves become mere ceremonial citizens.
Citizenship serves as the contract that ties the populace to the state. This contract broke down most recently with the dissolution of the CA. The government no longer draws legitimacy from the will of the people, expressed through the elections held four years ago.
Elections serve as the most powerful renewals of the contract in this age of representative democracy, where citizens give up some rights to effectively enjoy other rights and freedoms. The contestations over the nature and nomenclature of federalism led to the demise of the most recent contract but, shockingly, dissent against the lack of local level elections has been largely inaudible.
The demand for federalism is centrally related to the demand for decentralization and local control over resources. Village Development Committees represented the most decentralized form of governance under the existing structure but they have been run not by elected Chairs but bureaucrat Secretaries for the last decade, amidst deafening silence.
Although the devolution of rights is necessary to maintain a democracy, the extent and manner in which our rights to representation and political participation are being compromised warrant serious attention. Political decisions are not made in legislatures but behind closed doors while public consultations and interactions with the citizenry are replaced by token speeches in ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
The only time political parties, their cronies, so-called civil society leaders, and other political actors appear to work for the people is when they call national strikes. In some ways the claims are the same, where they are allegedly asking us to give up our right to free association, mobility, and employment for the sake of some opaque greater good. In reality, we are not citizens for whom the polity acts but ceremonial citizens in whose name they profit.
OUTSOURCING OF CITIZENSHIP
The frustration among the populace is palpable as political parties fail to compromise or return to the people to renew their contract. The aftermath has spilled over in at least two ways, both of which reinforce claims for citizenship in the abstract but fail to effect substantive changes.
First, social media and cyberspace provide platforms for expressions of resentment. When various outfits, most of them sister wings of political parties or youth organizations, call traffic and national strikes that affect educational institutions for a whole week at a time, it is difficult to sympathize with their violence.
This author must plead guilty to the charge, as the ineptitude, dishonesty and corruption of the political elite coupled with the sense of disempowerment spills over into expletives and somewhat reasoned rants. Even as people are conscious that their rants only gather “Likes” than effect change, these acts make us feel more Nepali.
Second, up to 1,500 Nepalis are leaving the country each day. The economic implications of this migration and the subsequent inflow of remittances are being widely discussed but the value of the absorption of the frustration in our society cannot be underestimated either. The sense of powerlessness that comes with unemployment, lack of opportunities and lack of hope is enough to motivate people to move, even as numerous horror stories about the plight of migrants filter in each day.
This movement often leads to an ironic relationship with citizenship. Absence can apparently breed fondness, and nostalgia of a romanticized past can be powerful in facilitating a sense of longing and belonging. In a different, often unfamiliar, world, people can seek comfort in their roots.
Incidentally, their longing for the foregone land can lead to greater activism, particularly in cyberspace. Intense discussions in forums and comments on news articles follow as people seek to connect to remain Nepali citizens as they make a living elsewhere.
As the political battle wages on at the helm, debates about whether the role of the President is ceremonial are largely pedantic, because the head of the state, through action, inaction or neutrality, is nonetheless political in Nepal. Instead, the focus should be on the masses, who have been turned into ceremonial citizens.
Our will and strength are used as excuses to provoke partisan motives, but even debates on decentralization and federalism have not been held at the local level. The only spaces available to express our concern, our Nepaliness and our citizenship non-violently appear to be in cyberspace and/or from abroad.
These expressions have been criticized for being obscure and not leading to substantial systemic change. The charges are largely true, but so is the helplessness. Those that pour their hearts out in solidarity of their Nepaliness—whatever their causes or wherever their platforms—seek recognition, even if no one is listening. The system night not change thus, but such expressions could help people find some personal solace.