"We are a political startup"Banker turned politician Anil Shah speaks to Nepali Times about what inspired his turn in his career and about giving back to the country.
Nepali Times: How did this transition from banking to politics happen so suddenly?
Anil Shah: I worked in the banking sector for 31 years, 17 of them as a CEO. The primary reason I left is because I have always been vocal about young people needing a chance at leadership. And it did not seem fair to keep expressing that opinion while I held on to my own position.
I then wanted to move on to something new, and set up Lead Nepal Inc, the objective of which was to craft leaders. For a year, I shared my three-decade leadership, management, motivation and team-building experience with political parties, law enforcement and military, private organisations as well as students.
Around that time, my daughter graduated in New York and we planned to go to Boston to visit friends. We were crammed in an Uber in New York on the way to the train station and during the ride, the driver looked at the rear view mirror and asked if I was Anil Shah. He turned out to be Nepali who eventually asked why someone like me had not entered politics. I replied that I was not interested. He was emphatic that people like me needed to bein government.
I told him that politics was not for me, but he made me a promise — if I were to get into politics, he would donate $1,000 to me and he had 100 other friends who were willing to donate the same amount. The gentleman’s name is Mangal Shrestha, and I thanked him when we got off at the train station. I thought his heart was in the right place, but I did not take him seriously.
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The day after I joined the Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP) I got a message on Facebook (from Mangal Shrestha) asking where he could send the money he had promised me. At that moment, his hope, and the hopes and aspirations of Nepalis like him, touched me deeply.
In Boston, I met Nepali students at Harvard, MIT, and Tufts. One of the students said they were tired of me complaining for 15 years about how our politics was a dirty pond that no one was willing to clean up. I needed to either stop talking about it or wade into the dirty pond myself and try to clean it up, he said. Should you decide to get into politics, we are with you.
It was a culmination of various conversations like this that touched me and made me question why I could not take this step. Then came the question of where to go. And I think RSP was a good fit for me, because they are new to politics just like I was, and their vision and thought process sort of matched with mine. I thought if I was going to make a jump into this pond, these are the people I want to do it with.
I was reminded by Mangal Shrestha him of the Nepali spirit of honesty and integrity. He could have forgotten about his promise, but he reached out to me. This told me two things: the first was the hope that not only I, but the RSP as a whole had given people like him. The interaction also showed me was the state of despondency people feel about what is happening to our country, the hopelessness that a Nepali Uber driver in Manhattan feels about returning. I think it reflected the thoughts of a lot of the youth regarding the visions of the RSP and its aspirations towards the people.
Did you have to think a lot about whether it would be the RSP or maybe RPP or Bibeksheel?
Definitely. Coming back and joining the RSP was not my first thought. My knee-jerk reaction would have been to join the Nepali Congress because my family has historically been closer to NC. Subarna Shamsher Rana is my wife’s grandfather. But it was not a question of joining a party for a position, or to use family legacy. I wanted to join politics to try and actually do something.
The RSP has made you the head of its training department. Do politicians need training?
Politicians do think that they should be the ones giving training, not getting it. That is why our country is where it is right now. However, our party does not have politicians, it has ordinary citizens like myself who want to do something for the nation. And the best thing is that a lot of RSP members— parliamentarians and Central Working Committee members alike— reached out to me to say that they were willing and glad to be trained because they wanted to learn to become better leaders. That kind of positive attitude is a start.
A few days ago our party chair Rabi Lamichhane, parliamentarians, CWC members and other leadership sat down and discussed our training visions for leadership. We looked at our strengths and weaknesses and how we can individually contribute to the party. All of this makes me believe that I am in the right place.
What kind of training do leaders need?
Training is not one-size-fits-all. For the parliamentary party and the Central Committee, it is a training of synergy, team building, teamwork, and confidence building, all so that we can work together as a cohesive unit.
At the end of the day, even though we are a political party, we are a startup. So when we go to the provinces, the training focuses on introducing the party and our Constitution, our vision, our culture. When we go to people who want to stand for elections, at any of the three levels, we explain what leadership is, and what one is expected to do when the party is in leadership, what our role will be when we are the opposition. We train people about how to express criticism that actually adds value and moves elected leaders in the right direction.
Meanwhile, we have our ‘Mission Chaurasi’, because we are clear that we are going to run the country after the next elections in 2084 (2028). This is because we cannot be trying to figure out what to do and how to lead once we are already elected and waste another two years in the process. That is why we are taking these years to prepare.
The question we always ask ourselves is not what to do or how to do it, it is why we are here. We are not like other cadre-based political parties, and we cannot forget why we exist. We are still figuring that out. I tell people that I have not joined politics, I have joined people-tics.
Nepali politics has been plagued by leg-pulling, an unwillingness to compromise, and infighting. Can they be trained to change that?
You cannot teach old dogs new tricks. But the RSP is still a puppy, so what our entire team learns now is going to be really crucial and we want to learn the right values and skills.
This is a country of countless leaders, but the RSP wants to create value-based leadership from the roots at all three levels of government, which entails humble, value-based leadership. I start off by saying that if service is beneath you, leadership is beyond you.
In Nepal, I find once you become a leader, service becomes something that is seen as shameful. But leadership is about service. It is not about being in charge, it is about being responsible for the people in our charge.
What is the difference between training bankers and politicians?
The core of political leadership is about the people you surround yourself with. And what I like about our chair Rabi Lamichhane is that he welcomed people like myself, Dr Swarnim Wagle, Shishir Khanal, Manish Jha and Dr Toshima Karki. If he had just wanted to rule, he would never bring people like us into the party, he would always have people who look up to him and surround himself with yes men.
I have been in corporate meetings, and meetings of other political parties, and there is always free dialogue and conversation within the RSP. Our weakness is perhaps a lack of structure but there is no lack of open dialogue and discussion.
You said you were inspired by the diaspora, but there are more Nepalis leaving, many of them for good. What do you say to them?
I used to always think and tell people who went overseas to come back, make a life in Nepal, and do something for the country. When I once said this to a labour migrant, he replied that while I had come from a well-to-do family, he did not have the same privilege of coming back home to stay off work and spend time with family without there being consequences. I realised that to many people, spending time with their mother might mean letting her go hungry.
That is when I decided that I was not going to tell the youth to come back because not everybody has what I have. What I am going to tell them is not to forget Nepal. The country has what it has and the economy is sustained because of money sent by the people who pour their sweat in foreign lands.
Nepal is not just its land and its rivers, it is also its people, wherever they are.
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Are you going to stand in elections yourself, maybe from Bhirkot where your ancestors are from?
Anil Shah: One should never say no when it comes to politics, because you never know. If the party needs me and tells me I must stand, why not? I will not back down and say no. But if I were to say right now I'm going to stand from Kathmandu or Bhirkot or Janakpur, then I would have to devote half of my time to developing my constituency. If I were to focus on that while also building the leadership within the RSP— which has been my dream— I will fail in both of those undertakings. Right now I am clear within the party that my job is not to win elections and be given a post, my job is to ensure results in all three levels of government in the next election.
Should I go to Bhirkot, I am confident that I can develop it. But developing Bhirkot will not develop Nepal. I have embarked on a journey where I want to build the kind of leadership to develop all of Nepal. The interactions and energy from Kosi and Lumbini have been phenomenal so far. Additionally, there is sometimes a misconception that the RSP is a party of and for young people. That is not the case at all— we are a party of Nepalis where people of all ages, ethnicities, genders, and religions are welcome. The central leader in the RSP from Bhirkot is from the Muslim community and from my ward. There is already a leader there.
A lot of Nepal’s ageing leadership is overly ambitious, egotistic and do not want to let go. Do you address that in your training?
Absolutely. I call that god syndrome. This belief that rules do not apply to us because we are in politics. But whether it is traffic rules, or having to be in a queue, we impress upon the RSP leadership during training that we must follow them.
Do you think Rabi Lamichhane has god syndrome?
Everybody has an ego, including me. The question is if Rabi Lamichhane can control it, and from my experience he can. Rabi Lamichhane is a brand now. He is looked at as the face of the RSP, as the tip of the spear of a lot of people’s aspirations. People could argue and comment on all of his speeches and public appearances, but he has to do that as the leader of a national party. There is a difference between being invisible and being humble. And whether it is in parliament or on the streets, he is humble but never invisible. He is a humble man—a god-fearing man—and he is someone I think I can follow as a leader.
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