Nepal’s corruption carousel

Public pressure to curb graft is making heads roll, but is it all just political drama?

Just two weeks into the new Maoist-led 5-party coalition government, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal has found a new best friend in Home Minister Rabi Lamichhane.

So desperate is Dahal to stay on as PM that he has sacrificed his bishop, comrade-at-arms Krishna Bahadur Mahara who is Maoist vice-chair and has given new meaning to his party designation. 

Lamichhane is out to show that he has the pluck to go after high profile politicians, and has convinced Dahal that he had to do what he had to do to restore flagging public support.

It was convenient that Lamichhane could use an inquiry commission report implicating Mahara in 60kg of gold being smuggled in from Hong Kong as motorcycle brakes last year, and another 9kg gold a Chinese passenger was caught hiding in a consignment of e-cigarettes in 2022. 

Read also: Skeletons in the Cabinet, Editorial

Lamichhane met the Prime Minister last Friday, and the two seem to have agreed that Mahara was expendable. Mahara got wind of this, and was caught while trying to escape to India via the Kapilvastu border. He is currently being detained in a hospital in Kathmandu.

Lamichhane is said to be targeting senior opposition Nepali Congress (NC) leaders next, and Mahara’s arrest was necessary to prove that he is not sparing party figures from his own coalition. His predecessor, Narayan Kaji Shrestha who is now Foreign Minister, had selectively gone after UML and NC leaders. 

Dahal’s decision to sacrifice Mahara may have been easier because the former House speaker was already a tainted figure, with ties to telecom kickbacks and accusations of syphoning off money meant for ex-guerrillas.  There was no probe into either allegation. 

In 2010, an audio recording was leaked to the press of him demanding Rs500 million from a Chinese national to buy lawmakers to keep the Maoist coalition intact. Despite this, he became House Speaker in 2017. 

Mahara was finally arrested in 2019 after a female staffer of the Parliament secretariat accused him of rape. He resigned as Speaker, but was eventually acquitted by the courts.

Read also: What difference does it make?, Editorial 

Former Maoist leader Muma Ram Khanal says this time, too, the case against Mahara may fizzle out. “It could just be another stunt that the Prime Minister is pulling with his Home Minister,” he told our sister publication, Himalkhabar.

As of press time Thursday, it was not clear whether Mahara’s four-day arrest would be extended. The evidence against Mahara that he pressured customs officials to release smuggled gold, and made multiple phone calls to the accused may not be deemed enough by the courts to convict him. 

Seeing that Lamichhane may be coming after its own Arzu Rana Deuba and Binod Chaudhary next for their involvement in the fake refugee scandal and the Bansbari land grab, the NC is trying to snare the Home Minister in a case involving the misappropriation of funds from cooperatives to fund a media company Lamichhane co-founded with businessman G B Rai.

Suspiciously, one of Lamichhane’s first acts as Home Minister was to transfer CIB chief Kiran Bajracharya, who was heading the investigation of the cooperatives fraud case. Bajracharya was blamed for her unwillingness to investigate Mahara and others in gold smuggling.

Read also: Catapulting to Singha Darbar, Kunda Dixit

The NC has threatened to obstruct Parliament unless Lamichhane is investigated in the cooperatives case even though Prime Minister Dahal this week staunchly defended his Home Minister. 

If all this was an attempt by the RSP to show that it is serious about curbing corruption, the public does not seem all that convinced. Many see the investigations as vendetta and political drama. The web of corruption is so tangled that every politician has something on another politician, and they all tend to cancel each other out. 

Mahara was questioned about his alleged connection with the smuggling racket last year, and his son Rahul has been in police custody since August for his involvement in the case. Other political leaders including incumbent Finance Minister Barsaman Pun, former speaker Onsari Gharti Magar, and Dipesh Pun, son of former vice-president Nanda Bahadur Pun, have all also been accused of being a part of the gold trafficking ring. 

Former prime ministers, ministers, and political leaders have been questioned, even detained, for their involvement in cases ranging from the Baluwatar real estate scam to the fake refugee scandal, but they have either been spared completely, released on bail, or the investigations have hit a dead end. 

All the leadership seems to care about is to push probes into corruption cases when they are in power and rivals are in the opposition. In that respect, though, Mahara’s detention is an outlier — he has been taken in while his own party boss is Prime Minister.

Read also: Nepal gets Gold Medal for corruption, Editorial

Shristi Karki

  • Most read