Sitting in an Oxford college guest room recently and writing about corruption in Nepal quickly became an out-of-body experience for me. With jet-lag and all that, I wasn’t quite sure if I was astral travelling. Was I in the UK writing about Nepali police officers in the Darfur scam soup or was I in Nepal wondering how the Murdoch scandal was sinking big names in Scotland Yard and perhaps David Cameroon himself? What was clear was that both were no mere scams capable of resolution through existing mechanisms: they were about cancer in the framework itself. With Downing Street, the police, parliament and the press mired in so much sleaze, a friend remarked that the only institution she could now trust in the country was the British army!
Similarities between Nepal and the UK, however, end quickly. In the UK, there are institutions of democracy – the laws, the judiciary, academia, civil society and the ethics communities – that are still intact in place. Its parliament has swung into action doing what it must do with debates and hearings; and its police chief has resigned, not for suspected criminality but by taking responsibility for poor judgment. The 800-year old constitutional monarchy has enough institutional resilience to cure the ills in its body polity. In Nepal, having dumped a functioning democratic constitution as well as the pillars that came with it, we are waking up to the fact that, in the middle of a demolition job, the bulldozer drivers of New Nepal – party leaders, media barons, civil society busybodies, professors more beholden to parties than their disciplines – are exposed as far more corrupt than those in the old set-up they claim to be consigning to the dustbin of history. It is as if the American founding fathers were found to be two-bit crooks even before the ink had dried on the Declaration of Independence, or that Gandhi was seen to have amassed a personal fortune from donations to the Congress movement even as India was meeting its tryst with destiny. The pain of Nepali Ram, Dev and Hari is deep, and it leaves a frightening hollowness inside them.
The Darfur scam has exposed how chronic the rot in the system has become. What has emerged in the vernacular press indicate that it all began when the CA elections were postponed in November 2007. Prachanda was making excuses to the all powerful president-cum-prime minister Girija Koirala that the Maoists were unwilling to go for elections because they had no money. Koirala promised, and delivered, the asked for amount to the Maoists through his henchman the home minister, his daughter and her Bangladeshi son-in-law Rubel through the Darfur ruse, also benefitting his clique immensely in the process. Scamming the police welfare fund, junkyard equipment from Kosovo were painted UN lilly-white and shipped to Sudan for the Nepal Police contingent with the hope that the UN would reimburse it all. It did not; and now the police chiefs who signed off on the deal are suspended or in jail; but the politicians whose orders they followed have been left off the hook, and the moralizing Maoists and the Marxist-Leninists have remained very silent. Indeed, there seems to have been an amazingly hasty all-party consensus to allow Rubel, even though a prime suspect, to fly off to Bangladesh in broad daylight. Equally silent have been the international donors who have been bankrolling the Loktantrick experiment of Naya Nepal.
It is said that, for a rule to be legitimate, not just Caesar but even his wife must be above suspicion. The kind of corruption are we talking about here is not that of VAT-cheating businessmen (that is plain theft which normal laws of the land, if not subverted, can deal with); rather, it is political corruption which delegitimizes an entire system together with those who back and benefit from it. It is a crisis of faith in Nepal today that has poisoned all hope when the guardians themselves subvert the laws they have sworn to uphold. For a political rule to be stable, it has to ensure that there is no conflict of interest between those entrusted with public powers and those subject to them.
Yes, politics has always been the exercise of sovereignty by groups who use the distribution of office and patronage to consolidate their hold on the reins of the state. In countries that have domesticated capitalism to their interests such as in Britain (unlike in much of the third world countries that are instead being tamed into colonies by capitalism) strong institutions were built on the principle of the distinction between political appointees and those employed in public service, between the interests of cliques and the responsibilities of office. Political power is used to make political appointments without tampering with the functioning of the civil service, and the dispensing of high level patronage is done with a view to prevent multiple factions in society from flying apart and to ensure they remain harnessed for the larger common good. In Naya Nepal, however, parties are fragmenting and factions are flying apart because patronage dispensing has not been held to account for the common good produced. Instead, they have been used for clique consolidation and quick enrichment at the expense of the powerless subjects. In the districts, with no elected and accountable local body, “all party” mechanisms are doing mini-Darfurs everyday with total impunity.
This failure forces all Nepalis to ponder over the lessons. Imported systems, whether they are ideologies or mechanisms, do not work without massive adaptations to the social realities nurtured over the ages by history and culture. Nepali democracy of both 1951 and 1991 were poorly digested Westminster models. Loktantra of 2006 is a poor composite copy of the Indian and Chinese experiences that simply refuse to amalgamate. When it comes to handling corruption as the litmus test of stable politics, the Chinese at least execute their corrupt commissars and maintain their party’s legitimacy. The Nepali Maoists promote them to central committees and ministerships. The Indian experience, on the other hand, has been one of impunity to the corrupt. Indeed, writing in the Asian Survey in 1964, eminent Indian intellectual Rajni Kothari describes how the Nehruvian system was built on a corrupt distribution of patronage through regional party henchmen. It was further corrupted by Indira and Rajiv with their “briefcase politics”. Girija Koirala’s Nepali Kangress and its splinters in the Madhesh have only copied the Nehru-Indira model in toto, with crippling effects on Nepali polity’s ability to resolve political conflicts.
The Nepali word bhrashta-aachaar (i.e. depraved conduct) captures the state of polity much better. This rot at the top could have been stemmed if the politicians had been subject to the discipline of elections: they have skillfully avoided that. The CIAA is of no help because it can only see if the law has been broken, not if it has been subverted at the highest political levels where morality has become an alien concept. With Loktantra, a total political failure has happened even before the system is built; and the CA has now become so defunct that even their most die-hard apologists, foreign and domestic, will find it increasingly impossible to ignore.