President Ram Baran Yadav is not exactly famous for sophistication and urbanity. Somewhat like Lalu Prasad of Bihar or Mulayam Singh of Uttar Pradesh in India, President Yadav revels in a reputation for rusticity. He speaks his mind without mincing words. But even by his own standards of outspokenness, the threat that he wouldn’t ratify a statute that may lead to the disintegration of the country borders on absurd.
The presidential statement is presumptuous at best and ominous at worst. President Yadav may be the wisest and the most patriotic person in the country, but the constitution does not confer upon him the right to cast aspersions upon character, competence and integrity of Constituent Assembly members. If CA members were competent enough to elect him nearly four years ago, they have become even more mature now. They are no less conscious of their responsibilities toward the country and its people than the individual they have made the custodian of Interim Constitution.
Lalu can get away with buffoonery—he suggested sometime ago that being a Yadav, Baba Ramdev should stop teaching yoga and start selling milk—because populism is normal in partisan politics. Mulayam can carry off grunts of a wrestler with élan. The Indian media appreciates what it considers to be compulsions of grassroots politics where rough words are considered to be markers of toughness. The problem with President Yadav is his professional education, illustrious career, and exalted status. He is too learned to be excused for linguistic lapses, too experienced to be forgiven political impropriety and too highly placed to be tolerated for breach of constitutional protocols. Even when there is no malice in what he says, his statements are examined minutely for hidden messages. It is assumed that he would not speak a word without calibrating all possible repercussions.
First, the benefit of doubt, even though President Yadav extended limits of that facility when he set a dubious precedent of the head of state overruling the head of government on an issue as sensitive as the control of the army. Nepali is not his native language. Born in Mahottary—Dhanusha was carved out of the mother district much later—he must have grown up speaking Maithili at home and learning Nepali through Hindi medium in school. During his medical education in Bengali-speaking Calcutta and Punjabi-dominated Chandigarh, he probably relied on English for everyday communication.
Perhaps President Yadav became proficient in Nepali language only after encountering Pahadi neighbors in Barhampuri Tole of Janakpur. Since he was a personal physician of BP Koirala, it is possible that his acquired language was polished under the influence of one of the all-time greats of Nepali literature. Apparently, the exposure did nothing to prepare him for the decorum of presidential office. In all likelihood, he still relies upon a clutch of advisors—he has consciously kept the group ‘untainted’ of any trace of Madheshi presence—for text, tone and tenor of all his speeches. In that case, it is somewhat understandable that he is repeatedly made to read scripts that seek to enlarge roles and responsibilities of the presidential secretariat. Turf expansion is one of the defining features of meritocratic bureaucracy and hand-picked technocrats of President Yadav take pride in being the best and brightest of the land in their respective fields.
It is also possible that having reached the top, President Yadav now has no use for conventions, traditions, values and beliefs of parliamentary system where a head of state is expected to see and hear but speak only through the Prime Minister. During the last days of his reign, Chairman Gyanendra too had begun to utter inanities in a similar vein. If that be true, then President Yadav is a greater proponent of executive presidency than Pushpa Kamal Dahal. It is too early to attribute conspiratorial intentions, but presidential observations have failed to inspire confidence in the impartiality of his office.
FEARS AND HOPES
President Yadav was born in a period when his parents would have needed visas to visit the national capital at any time other than Shivratri. Pahadis required no permission to settle anywhere in the country. The district headquarters in Jaleshwar was a day’s bullock-cart ride from his family house in Sapahi while dense forest of Charkoshe Jhadi was close enough to collect firewood or take buffaloes for grazing during dry months. According to the first census of the country taken over nine decades ago, Mahottary was the most populous and prosperous district of the country with over one-and-a-half times the population of Nepal valley. Other than winter visitors from the capital that came down to the plains to collect their share of the crop, the Pahadi community was rather tiny.
The forest cover has since thinned and clearings settled almost exclusively with Pahadis. Contestations over control of resources—primarily land and forest but also government contracts to a certain extent, where ruling clans and castes always had the power of the state backing it—created grounds for mistrust. Democratic decades widened the gulf as more settlers from the hills and mountains swooped down the plains after every political disturbance in the country. The trust deficit between two antagonistic communities in Tarai-Madhesh has historic roots.
From Sapahi to Shital Niwas, it has been such a long and momentous journey for President Yadav. This country has given him all that it had to offer. He may find it inconvenient to admit at this stage, but all his setbacks and successes probably had as much to do with his Madheshi identity as with his caste, competence, citizenship, profession and property. Yes, we are all Nepalis first and foremost Mr President, but please do not belabor the obvious. Unless influential Pahadis, a community that flamboyantly style itself as ‘true’ Nepalis, gather the courage to acknowledge that Madheshis have been wronged for decades, communal harmony in the southern plains shall remain elusive.
President Yadav is too learned to be excused for linguistic lapses, too experienced to be forgiven political impropriety and too highly placed to be tolerated for breach of constitutional protocols.
Madheshis need to be respected for who they are rather than constantly being told what to become in order to be ‘authentic’ Nepalis. In absence of accommodative identity, calls for national unity sound hollow even when the most prominent Madheshi of the country is doing the haranguing.
While it is true that the rage in Tarai-Madhesh against Pahadis has begun to subside, frustrations with the instruments of the state have yet to dissipate. The state is structured in such an extractive manner that it gives rise to sectarian impulses among a section of the national population that perceives itself as victims of internal colonization. Ramesh Kharel was a celebrated police officer in Parsa, but it was not just criminals that resented his thinly veiled communalism. A rickshaw-puller in Birgunj made a caustic comment recently, “Babu, it is so easy for these Pahadis to act honest. The country is theirs and they can take whatever they want and whenever they want with impunity. Madheshi officers can’t afford to be upright. They are so few and have come up the hard way. They would be hounded out if they attempted to remain clean.”
Assertions of identity can become divisive only when grievances of those that have been deprived of their dignity remain unaddressed. Wounded psyche is the most dangerous weapon in the world. President Yadav was once a renowned physician. He must not have forgotten that patients with chronic diseases do not always act in a rational manner. Hopes for externalized and marginalized communities lie in the fears of those worried about continuity of their advantageous position.
Federalism and inclusion are established ways of ending exploitative rule and introducing accommodative governance. But nobody willingly gives up traditional privileges. Part of the fear of fragmentation is purely communal: The possibility of unwashed masses from Madhesh staking their claim over the state frightens Gorkhali intelligentsia. However, hubris of the entrenched elite that only they are capable of protecting ‘national interests’ is equally responsible for the state of paranoia. Some ‘Gorkhalised’ Madheshis try their best to be fully-paid member of this exclusive club.
Alternatively, President Yadav may have had a bout of what media analysts call Severe Attention Seeking Syndrome (SASS), the qualifier added to remove frivolity of the acronym. Having realized that his controversial and lackluster term may be nearing its end, he seems to have decided that it is preferable to be criticized than ignored and honorable to be feared than admired. Its implications for polity and society of the country remain to be seen. The pomposity may ultimately turn out to be harmless: The President would have to sign any document that CA decides is appropriate for the country.