State malfunction

SPOT THE MAYOR: Nepal’s nomenklatura crowds the balcony of Gaddi Baithak on the Indra Jatra chariot procession on 28 September where public disenchantment with the establishment was loudly evident. Photo: SANJOG MANANDHAR/KANTIPUR

It seems like just yesterday that the momentous story broke. Police started investigating the fake Bhutanese refugee scandal, and Nepalis held their breath. At last it looked like justice would be done. 

Police followed the digital trail from middlemen who hoodwinked hundreds of Nepalis to part with millions of rupees. Phone records and text messages led them to the highest people in the land. Former ministers and secretaries were tracked down and arrested. 

The story was first broken in a piece commissioned by the Centre for Investigative Journalism Nepal, and written by Devendra Bhattarai for Kantipur daily in June. Despite state malfunction, it finally looked like press freedom, democracy and the rule of law were intact in Nepal after all. 

Morale in the police and investigation agencies went up, journalists were encouraged that coverage had impact. After all, previous police inspectors and even the Commission on Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) had received the complaints about being swindled by fake refugee middlemen and their political patrons, but had filed them away. 

But it was all too good to last. SSP Manoj KC and AIG Shyam Gyawali, the two police inspectors leading the team investigating the refugee scam, were transferred. 

We have since learnt that the Maoist Home Minister was under pressure to do so from topmost Nepali Congress (NC) leaders and their consorts of whom police had evidence of collusion. Not surprisingly, KC was replaced by Basanta Kunwar, the same police inspector who had earlier buried the complaint.

More scandals then erupted, including those involving the sale of Baluwatar real estate and gold ornaments at Pashupati. 

In none of these were Maoist officials involved. 

Then, as if on cue, 100kg of gold was found being smuggled from Hong Kong concealed as motorcycle brake pads. Investigations led to senior Maoists and their progeny, and it emerged that the organised criminals has used brake pads and vapes numerous times before. 

Now, with all three of Nepal’s main parties neck-deep in muck, the scandals cancelled each other out. Backroom deals ensured ‘I will not probe your scandal if you don’t probe mine’.

Fast forward two months: none of these monsoon scandals have come to anything. Some small fish have been netted, other bigger fish are out on bail, but the cases are not going anywhere. This week, the CIAA made a show of framing a sitting Commerce Secretary on an unrelated budget allocation. Its chief is clearly trying to distract us from his earlier cover-up of the Bhutan refugee case.

The media has moved on, social media is captivated by the viral video of the day, and the three main parties are glad Nepalis suffer collective amnesia. Mainstream politicians are back to impunity as usual, using the Constitution Day pardon list to get President Ram Chandra Poudel to release a notorious gangster serving a 20-year jail term for murder. 

They are playing politics with rising ethno-religious tensions in Kosi Province and across the Tarai where social networking sites have been weaponised with Hindutva hate speech. Throughout all this, the prime minister disappeared for nearly three weeks on a round the world photo-op.

It does not look like the gerontocracy of the NC, the Maoists or the UML have seen the writing on the wall. They were up on the balcony of Gaddi Baithak on Indra Jatra on 28 September (pictured) and must have witnessed the frenzied welcome for Mayor Balen Shah. Still stuck in partisan power struggles, they underestimate the anti-establishment public mood. 

Independents and alternative parties are riding a populist anti-incumbent wave among Nepali youth. The dinosaurs of Nepali politics are oblivious to the approaching asteroid.