By Maila Baje
Did our head of state publicly make fun of the way the leader of the opposition speaks?
A spokesman for President Bidya Bhandari insists that she was merely commenting on the venue’s poor public address system. In his characteristic magnanimity, Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba says he isn’t offended even if Bhandari had indeed dissed him.
The episode took Maila Baje back to the aftermath of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit held in Kathmandu in early January 2002. Then prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba had declared a state of emergency and deployed the military against the Maoist rebels. The Nepali Congress was still united and Deuba was on professional, if not entirely pleasant, terms with party president Girija Prasad Koirala.
At one point, Koirala felt comfortable enough to tell his one-time protégé that he should have addressed the South Asian summit in Nepali, as his English speech pattern was near-incomprehensible. Deuba instantly responded: “My Nepali is scarcely better, Girijababu.”
Not that Deuba is always able to let things go so easily. When he gets mad, he really blows the gasket. But, then, during such times, he is more likely be operating ‘under influence’, as they say. Broadly speaking, this innate tendency toward self-deprecation has helped Deuba professionally as well as personally.
So why haven’t we been able to shrug off this Bhandari-Deuba thing? Maybe because it is symptomatic of our political times. What matters more is what the president, prime minister, or any other public figure is perceived to have said. Bhandari’s words are there in the ether for all of us to see. So are her facial expressions and physical gestures.
There is a palpable feeling that the political order has given the people the right to speak their minds but also guaranteed the leaders’ right not to listen. Even then, freedom of expression is being curtailed on one pretext or the other. We can debate ad nauseum how valid or widespread such popular perceptions are. That’s immaterial. The fact is that it is there. And since it will be a convenient rallying point for every kind of discontent that is bound to grow, the perception, too, can only grow.
In defense of the president, public speaking is an art not everyone is naturally proficient in. Improvisation comes easily to a rare few. Others must have in reserve a recovery strategy, if they are intent on taking the risk. A president already under fire for extravagant pomp and ceremony should know better than to admire the preceding speaker for the applause he received while complaining of the incomprehensibility of his content.
Moreover, who nitpicks with the sound system at a solemn function held in remembrance of such an iconic personality as Ganesh Man Singh, especially when the audience hasn’t complained? True, Deuba’s tirades at her government must have become too unpalatable to the president, but it’s not her job to defend it. For one thing, why relitigate the ‘my government’ controversy that’s barely been put to rest? For another, Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli is far more adept – institutionally and individually – in defending his government.
The people may be full of prejudices – nothing personal here, Madam President. It’s a hazard of our touchy-feely times. The last thing a public figure should do is give the impression of fueling those prejudices – unless, of course, there’s something else going on here.