How to spot a geniusNepotism and favouritism have been the bane of Nepali polity for centuries. It is not going away any time soon.
It has been a while since we heard from Donald J Trump about what a ‘stable genius’ he is. His claim to his supposed brilliance comes first and foremost from his having attended an Ivy League university although his own sister believes he cheated his way in. Trump also boasts about having made heaps of money out of the real estate empire he inherited from his father, before branching out into the hospitality business while dabbling with professional sports, beauty pageants, aviation and a university, not to mention a non-profit foundation. His detractors say all of these were failed enterprises and he managed to stay afloat only by gaming the system, which he himself has admitted to. But to his supporters his genius is unquestioned, particularly having managed all that and become a reality TV star as well as the president of the United States.
But Trump now has competition in the genius sphere, and that, too, from Nepal. I am referring to one Professor Dr Upendra Kumar Koirala, who comes with a resume as long and as varied as Trump’s. A college teacher who catapulted to becoming general manager of Nepal Food Corporation in the mid-1990s, he has served consecutively as campus chief of Mahendra Morang Campus and of the Post-Graduate Campus in Biratnagar, executive chairperson of Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC), deputy chairperson of Higher Secondary Education Board, vice-chancellor of Mid-Western University, and is now the presumptive chairperson of the state-owned Rastriya Banijya Bank, the largest financial institution in Nepal. He is, seemingly, someone who has been able to strike that most elusive balance between theory and practice. Except that, like Trump, his every appointment has been marred by controversy.
Of course, none of this would have come to light had it not been for Deputy Prime Minister Ishwar Pokhrel’s name being dragged in with the latest near-appointment. It turns out that Pokhrel’s son is married to Koirala’s daughter. Amid charges of nepotism, Pokhrel is said to have asked that the appointment be kept in abeyance for now. Koirala for his part is adamant that he was chosen because of, for want of a better term, his genius since it can only be that superior brain of his that has had successive ministers and prime ministers in thrall of him over a quarter of a century. ‘Yeah, right!’ seems to be the only possible response to such brazen dissimulation.
From what Koirala’s former colleagues have said about him, he is quite capable of navigating political channels on his own and his family ties to Pokhrel appear almost incidental. In the current cabinet, besides Pokhrel, he apparently is also pally with the prime minister, the finance minister and the education minister. As he himself has said, he headed the Food Corporation even before Pokhrel became a relative. Yet, even the duo should find it difficult to ignore the more than a hint of nepotism in the fact that Koirala was given charge of the NOC when Pokhrel was the departmental minister. As an intellectual, as he proudly calls himself, surely Koirala must have come across the old saying: ‘Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion’.
Even if one were to accept that there was no one more capable than him, bowing to the well-established protocol of avoiding conflict of interest, Koirala should have refused that appointment outright so long as his son’s father-in-law was going to remain his boss. In defence of his record there, Koirala pointed out in an interview that the slogan painted on NOC tankers, proclaiming ‘Purity in petroleum products is our motto’, was his idea even though that hardly sounds like the handiwork of a management whiz kid since we continue to suffer one of the worst instances of fuel adulteration in the world.
In all fairness to Pokhrel, granting favours to close relatives is not limited either to him or to his party. That has been the bane of the Nepali polity for centuries and has continued in the post-1990 era, regardless of who is in charge. To recall a book that has been both praised and vilified, Dor Bahadur Bista’s Fatalism and Development, it all has to do with our particular social structure that we look out for people who are ‘our own’, the afno manchhe syndrome. As he puts it: ‘Afno manchhe is the term used to designate one’s inner circle of associates…Academic qualification, training, background, working discipline, integrity of character and other such attributes are not as important or helpful as the sense of belonging to a particular circle. …A member of one’s own circle is naturally preferred, even without a particular capacity to perform in some organizational role. The most important asset for anyone is not what you know, but who you know’.
Bista’s book was published around the same time that the political parties came to power, riding a wave of enthusiasm after the 1990 People’s Movement and the hope that they would put an end to the feudal holdovers such as the afno manchhe system. The same hope was held in 2006 as well. But we all know how that has turned out as well.
For all his unfiltered and controversial views in the book, Bista also claimed that ‘[a]fno manchhe is a critical Nepali institution’, and that is something that has been latched on to mainly by foreigners to explain all the woes afflicting the country. Looking out for afno manchhe is certainly not a uniquely Nepali phenomenon, except that unlike here, when it involves close relatives, a strict line is usually drawn when it involves close relatives (something the other genius, Trump, has also blatantly disregarded). That is perhaps why similar practices escape carrying the same connotation such as the most obvious old boys’ network, most insidiously extant in Britain. Likewise with the more innocuous-sounding ‘social capital’, which has been defined as ‘networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups…Shared norms, values and understandings relate to the subjective dispositions and attitudes of individuals and groups…The cultural context in which shared attitudes, values and knowledge are transmitted from generation to generation is important in understanding the choices of individuals and groups in relation to co-operation’.
In Nepal, social capital often boils down to networks linked to each other by family and ethnicity, and that is where the afno manchhe are drawn from, mostly if not exclusively. Since entry into these networks is not open to all, it is but natural many people would find themselves in the ‘wrong networks’, i.e., in networks that do not provide the same returns as belonging to the ‘right’ ones. Research in the American context has shown that those from the dominant groups, meaning males and whites, tend to be part of more useful networks as opposed to women, Hispanics and blacks.
There are various ways in which large sections of the people are being further marginalised in Nepal, and that includes hailing from the ‘wrong’ ethnicity, and hence, belonging to the ‘wrong’ networks. My proposition thus is that since afno manchhe is going to be operational for a while here, it would make a lot of sense to ensure that positions of power and influence were to be apportioned more equitably to allow for all social groups to get a shot at everything comes in handy in everyday life—from simple things like preparing identity documents to getting a heads up on a contract coming up, taking advantage of bureaucratic loopholes, and even which brand of Scotch a top politician is fond of. Having seen the performance of a ‘meritocratic’ system for 70 years that awards people like Koirala over and over again, I doubt anyone can seriously argue it would turn out any worse.