There is an old Hungarian proverb: ‘If you are among thieves, and you keep quiet, that makes you a thief as well.’
The saying does not hold much weight in Nepali politics, where impunity has now been elevated to this government’s mission statement. There was the lack of rule of law before, but never has it been as blatant as it is today.
A Speaker of Parliament accused of attempted rape is the same man who as Finance Minister ten years ago was caught on tape asking for Rs500 million from a Chinese contractor to buy off opposition legislators for a no-confidence vote. Needless to say, he never had to answer for the leaked tape, and two weeks ago he was acquitted by a district court on the rape charge as well. Meanwhile, a murder-accused who never answered for his war-era crime, replaced him as Speaker.
The Minister of Information and Communication is caught on tape bargaining for a Rs700 million kickback from a commission agent supposedly representing a Swiss security printing supplier. He is forced to step down, but questions have arisen about his political patron, Prime Minister K P Oli. What did he know, and when did he know it?
The scandals are coming thick and fast. Nepal has become a one-scam-a-day country. The Baluwatar real estate heist and the nefarious dealings that gave Yeti Holdings unprecedented access to royal assets administered by Nepal Trust have added to cumulative public disillusionment with the Oli administration.
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At a time when all these scandals are swirling about, and trending on social media, Prime Minister Oli staged a lavish birthday bash in his hometown at state expense this week (picture, above). Dignitaries fly over from Kathmandu in five helicopters, and even before the dust from the landing pad had settled, another Dynasty Air chopper arrived with an enormous birthday cake in the shape of a 3-D map of Nepal strapped to the back seat. We are living in a crony-communist Oligarchy.
There is nothing wrong with a prime minister celebrating his 69th birthday, but PM Oli has done himself no favours by not paying attention to the optics. The Athrai birthday was timed badly and was in bad taste. And it was not the first time this has happened. A New Delhi five-star hotel sent a $10,000 bill to the Nepal government in 2016 when Oli celebrated his birthday there during his first tenure as prime minister.
Oli is known for carefully cultivating his public persona, and he should have known the social media reaction to heli-borne cakes and videos of birthday boy slicing into Nepal with a kitchen knife. It is looking more and more like the emperor has no idea he is naked.
Oli is doing his nemesis, prime minister-in-waiting Pushpa Kamal Dahal, a great favour with these mis-steps. In fact, Dahal has only had to twiddle his thumbs, waiting for Oli to self-destruct. There is no love lost between these two Big Boys of the NCP, and it now looks like Dahal has the upper hand.
A morally weak, politically feeble and physically frail Oli would like to have his succession issue sorted out before checking into hospital for his second kidney transplant. But Dahal is determined not to let that happen.
In this elaborate chess game, Dahal’s primary aim is to undermine the foundation of the former UML rank and file, who still make up a significant block in the NCP. He knows he cannot make a dent at the cadre level, which is why he is peeling away top leaders like Jhalanath Khanal, Madhav Kumar Nepal and Bam Dev Gautam from the Oli camp.
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Dahal advanced former UML leader Bam Dev Gautam into the Upper House this week. Gautam has been home minister thrice, and has a barely concealed ambition to be prime minister. The trouble is, he lost in the 2017 election.
But Dahal’s move has spooked Oli, who has got Defence Minister Ishwar Pokhrel to deliver some Twitter broadsides, and to keep Yubaraj Khatiwada on as Finance Minister till the announcement of the annual budget even if his Upper House term is expiring on 8 March. Former Speaker Subhas Nembang has also come out strongly against Gautam being inducted into the Upper House, saying this sets a bad precedent.
One danger is that President Bidya Devi Bhandari, who is close to Prime Minister Oli, will be dragged into the fray. The sooner this paralysing power struggle in the NCP is resolved, the better it is for Nepalis, for whom the electoral promise of ‘stability and prosperity’ has become a joke.
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10 years ago this week
In an editorial 10 years ago this week, we wrote about how political instability and corruption was hampering economic growth and scaring off investors. Unfortunately this is still the case. We have seen some significant growth in economy, but intense power struggle and polarisation with the ruling Nepal Communist Party has paralysed party decision-making and corruption has grown (the latest being Communication Minister Gokul Baskota’s printing press kickback scandal). Excerpt from Nepali Times #491 of 26 Feburary-4 March 2010:
In a scenario dominated by politics, we know we are crying in the wilderness to talk about the economy. But even if it is only for economic reasons, this government must be reformatted. The state has no credibility. The economy is on the verge of collapse.
The cost of capital is so high that big projects are not viable anymore. Investors have fled, there is huge capital flight. Even the investors who are here are being harassed, as made evident by the ‘Maoists’ extortion of power projects. Businesses struggle to cope with the daily 12-hour power cuts. Corruption has never been worse than it is now.