The cause of prolonged political paralysis in Nepal is cronyism, and the only way to uproot it is by tackling its source: vote-buying and campaigns funded by big business.
The criminalisation of politics and the politicisation of crime means that it is becoming more and more difficult to separate business and politics. None of the parties are free of this cronyism which fuels corruption, and the business of politics.
Those being investigated or convicted by the courts and criminals on the wanted list walk freely in and out of the prime minister’s residence. Lawbreakers become lawmakers. Gangsters become ministers.
Post-1990, there have been many ways to get into politics: student union leaders and dropouts become whole-timers, retired bureaucrats try their second innings by joining parties, and the really smart ones take the short-cut to become legislators and ministers without even standing for elections. They buy their way to the top.
Idealism has become a fairy tale. Politics without principle is possible, but politics without money is unimaginable. Political integrity has become an oxymoron. No matter how popular or honest politicians may be, they cannot win elections without financial backing. And the cash comes from businesses seeking a healthy return on investment.
There are two ways to seek ROI from politics. Firstly, by offering a straightforward donation (a bribe in polite parlance) to a politician standing for elections and demanding a pound of flesh later. The second is to offer an even heftier ‘campaign contribution’ to directly become a nominated MP from that party without ever contesting an election.
The constitutional provision to ensure proportional representation for marginalised communities has become the backdoor for tycoons to enter the House chambers.
Education entrepreneur Umesh Shrestha became an MP through proportional representation, and he is now state minister for health.
This was one of Sher Bahadur Deuba’s first ministerial appointments after assuming office two weeks ago, and one he took without consulting his party or coalition members, and it has understandably been met with much flak.
Shrestha is a self-made but wealthy man, and has announced he will not take a salary as minister. Unlike politicians, he may be less tempted by petty payoffs. However, appointing someone who is setting up a chain of private hospitals to the Health Ministry is akin to putting a fox in charge of the chicken coop. The conflict of interest has sent a clear message to the public: anything goes in Nepal’s crony capitalism.
Deuba had earlier appointed Shrestha as MP from the Nepali Congress reserve quota after the second Constituent Assembly election in 2013, and the private school operator sat in the Education Committee of the legislature.
The prime minister has not been able to give a clear rationale for appointing Shrestha, and after widespread criticism of the move, he said rather ambiguously: “It won’t happen again.” It is clear that Shrestha is being rewarded for being a major party donor.
This week, the Ministry of Health under the new businessman-turned-state minister announced that the private sector can import Covid-19 vaccines. How does this make sense when there are G2G agreements in place, COVAX doses are in the pipeline, and private importers will be competing with the government for vaccines from the same global supply chain?
We can give Shrestha the benefit of doubt, and argue that the boy who came from Bhojpur to Kathmandu in his flip-flops to build a business empire, may be better at managing healthcare delivery than clueless and corrupt politicians who have been ministers before.
In fact, if there is blame to be placed on anyone, it should be on an expensive system that allows greedy political actors to elevate their cronies to important positions in government.
Who is next, Nepal’s richest man Binod Chaudhary who is also a NC donor and MP?
All this is nothing new, of course. Prime Minister K P Oli also promoted his favourite cronies, and appointed industrialist Moti Dugad minister. Cronyism was also in full display in the Gandaki Province drama last month: Dobate Biswakarma was all set to become the only Dalit minister in the provincial government, but he was suddenly supplanted by Bindu Thapa, a Deuba loyalist rewarded for his generous contributions to the party.
When Nepal’s development is driven by sand mining magnates, quarry tycoons, and infrastructure contractors, it is no surprise that politics is also contracted out. This is why for politicians, ‘prosperity’ is measured by highways, bridges, view tower contracts, and not by quality schools, accessible health care and meaningful jobs for young Nepalis.
An investigation in this paper after the 2017 elections showed that up to 40% of elected local government representatives were contractors who now rent out their own excavators and tipper trucks to themselves. This is behind the recent spurt of destructive road-building and unregulated natural resource exploitation.
The way to address this rot is to stop allowing Nepal’s richest businessmen from using the quota for indigenous and ethnic minorities to become unelected ministers. The ballot box is not a cash box, and for Nepal’s equitable progress, the next election must stop votes being bought with notes.
Transliteration of Shekhar Kharel’s original op-ed in Himal Khabar by Aryan Sitaula.