Can ex-President Bhandari’s political comeback spoil Oli’s ‘one-man show’?

Leaders close to Bhandari say she has been waiting for an opportune moment to make a comeback with the support of those in the party who are fed up with Oli’s “one-man show”.

Tika R Pradhan

Tika R Pradhan

The Kathmandu Post


File photo of ex-President Bidya Devi Bhandari. PHOTO: THE KAATHMANDU POST

August 17, 2023

KATHMANDU – On Sunday, CPN-UML Chairman KP Sharma Oli objected to the possible return of former President Bidya Devi Bhandari to active politics saying that the rumour was designed to create trouble within his party.

Following his statement, broader discussions on whether the former President can join active politics have started.

“She was a respected President… Before that, she was a close friend and respected vice-chair of our party. Not only Bishnuji [UML leader Bishnu Paudel], but I also talked to her,” Oli said while responding to a query during a press meet on Sunday. “This incident was hyped as if an invitation card had been sent to her to rejoin the party.”

It is obvious for Oli to feel offended when someone who could potentially challenge his leadership of the UML is trying to make a comeback into the party, observers say.

So, in an attempt to stop Bhandari’s potential return as the party’s leader, Oli used the party’s June secretariat meeting to remove the age bar of 70 years for the party’s executive committee members.

Bhandari has been weighing her options and consulting UML leaders about her possible return to the party as its first woman chair. But then Oli has no plans on bowing out as party head anytime soon.

Leaders close to Bhandari say she has been waiting for an opportune moment to make a comeback with the support of those in the party who are fed up with Oli’s “one-man show”.

Lawmaker Gokul Baskota, who is considered close to Oli, has long been speaking in favour of Bhandari’s return to active politics. But when contacted by the Post, Baskota refused to comment saying “it is useless to talk about the issue when Bhandari has herself not openly expressed her desire to return to the UML.”

Bhandari, according to sources, intends not to take any remunerations and benefits accorded to a former President suggesting that she indeed intends to rejoin the party.

Bhandari’s personal assistant Raj Kumar Rai said she is currently interested in social service and has made no decision to return to active politics. “But she has also not ruled out the possibility,” Rai told the Post.

Some political analysts said the former President cannot rejoin active politics as such a person could misuse state secrets obtained while in office.

Leaders who were involved in drafting the current constitution said they didn’t imagine a person who has become the President rejoining politics. So the point was not discussed during constitution-making as well.

“It’s a matter of common sense and we didn’t discuss this during the constitutional-making process,” said Radheshyam Adhikari, a former member of the Constituent Assembly who was actively involved in drafting the constitution that was promulgated in 2015. “Our assumption was that once a person becomes President he or she will not return to active politics.”

But Adhikari pointed out that there were also no legal hurdles for the former President to join politics, as there are other such examples from around the world such as Vladimir Putin in Russia.

Leaders close to Bhandari said it is difficult for the former President to rejoin the UML unless she is promised its leadership.

“She cannot assume other than the executive leadership position,” said Krishna Rai, a politburo member of the party who is close to Bhandari. “One thing she can do is take over party leadership after announcing that she will not contest for prime minister.”

According to Rai, the removal of the 70-year age limit was intended at inducting some new leaders joining the party including Mukunda Neupane. Neupane earlier this year quit the CPN (Unified Socialist) and joined the UML.

But it is not easy to remove the age bar approved by the first statute convention of the party in 2021.

The recent meeting of the party’s secretariat had decided to remove the age limit, allowing the party chair to run for another term. But the central committee and statute convention can still revise the decision.

Since many existing leaders will cross the age limit by the time of the next general convention, party leaders believe Bhandari could take over as she has developed a great clout in the party.

However, some senior leaders in the party also say that she has already benefited a lot due to her status as the spouse of late Madan Bhandari, the charismatic UML general secretary.

Political analyst Hari Roka, who was also involved in the drafting of the new constitution, said they had not discussed whether the former President could join active politics, but he was not against the idea. But he was surprised by the way party chairman Oli reacted to her possible entry into party politics.

“Chairman Oli’s reaction suggested that the very idea of Bhandari’s reentry into the UML hurt his pride. He clearly thinks that no other past or present UML leader is capable of challenging his hold on the party,” Roka said.

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