Wealth communismThat Gyawali’s asset declaration should surprise Nepalis itself is a surprise.
Reuven Rivlin is hardly a household figure. In fact, I can bet that nearly everyone on this planet of ours would look quizzically at his name and wonder who in the world that is. Which would be very surprising, since apparently unbeknownst to us all, Rivlin, the Israeli president since 2014, has been the main interlocutor on the Israeli side dealing with three American presidents in succession, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, as they struggled to find ways to resolve that most intractable of conflicts, between Israel and Palestine. At least that is what our outgoing foreign minister, Pradeep Gyawali, would have us believe.
Faced with a chorus of criticism for making our president, Bidhya Bhandari, go around with a bowl begging for vaccines, and particularly in reference to the call with her Chinese counterpart, the best Gyawali managed to do is come up with the disingenuous excuse that ‘a president cannot engage in talks with a prime minister’. This would come as news to both Rivlin and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister throughout the former’s tenure and one whose name is certainly quite familiar to us. Equally surprised would have been the Indian president upon receiving a missive from Bhandari as well as the old lady in Buckingham Palace who would have mused that it was three centuries too late to apply to her for anything related to what she could order of the British state.
Having to defend the indefensible has increasingly come to define what working under KP Sharma Oli has become. As a key ally of the prime minister’s, Gyawali, too, has had his share of awkward moments over time. To make matters worse, his record as the country’s chief diplomat appears to have been somewhat of a disappointment. One rather harsh assessment even claimed that Foreign Ministry officials had started ignoring him not long after his appointment, and the prime minister had begun to bypass him when dealing with affairs to do with his ministry. If true, it would have indeed been a sorry situation to be caught in, especially for someone who has played an apologist to Oli through the years.
At the same time, one also feels for Gyawali since for all his faults he does exude a sense of being a genuinely decent person. That decency was actually on fine display the day after he was removed from office when he promptly left the ministerial quarters, returned the vehicle allocated to him, and published details of his personal finances. In any advanced democracy, all of these would be run-of-the-mill gestures not worth paying any heed to unless there appeared to be some unexplained increase in fortune; the issue of vehicles would not even be considered. But, in Nepal, simply doing the right thing makes for news for the simple reason that it is so rare.
Let’s take the question of government vehicles. Every so often we read news reports about how some former minister or scretary has retained the use of so many vehicles. I remember one such item from 2009 which reported on Oli’s demanding an SUV be sent for his personal use from a government hydroelectricity project, on the very day his current nemesis, Madhav Kumar Nepal, became prime minister. The alacrity of the demand made it seem like the sole purpose of Oli’s virulent opposition to the Maoist government at the time was to ensure that someone from his own party took over so that he could luxuriate in a fancy SUV. If the purpose of such news items is to shame these worthies, they have so far failed spectacularly.
Then there is the legal requirement to declare one’s property details upon assumption of certain offices of the state. To begin with, not everyone follows the law. And its purpose is further undercut by the absence of any similar requirement upon remitting office. Thus, we have had ministers duly submitting particulars of their worldly belongings, and every time they come back for subsequent stints. And, unless someone has been keeping track of such declarations over time, there is no way of accessing government records to examine any changes over time. For changes there certainly have been in the case of more than a few of them—and for all to see.
In the case of Gyawali, it turns out he left office after three years with savings amounting to around 750,000 rupees, having also added a few household items and some 200 books. As mentioned above, we do not know what he started out with three years earlier but I cannot believe that there has been any untoward addition to his finances, a fact Gyawali attests to as well. What is interesting though is the nearly 1 million rupees he dutifully paid from his earnings, including savings from foreign trips, as levy to his party, which is possibly among the last remaining ‘communist’ characteristics in parties like the UML and the Maoists.
Talking of levies, one wonders whatever happened to all the wealth the Maoists supposedly collected in the early 2000s. That was when they were still revolutionaries and had grandly declared that the leadership would donate everything they owned to the party—as a prelude to doing away with private property altogether. From what I have heard, some of the really committed ones actually did that, and for their generosity have now been reduced to penury. Obviously, not everyone did likewise, as is clear from the substantial ownership of riches by some among the Maoist leaders. This can only mean one of two things. Either they lied to their party back then and squirreled away some of their wealth. Or they found ingenious ways to earn all of that in the 15 years they have been above ground, including picking up ‘bourgeois’ accoutrements they so loved to deride back then: fancy houses, fancy cars, fancy watches, fancy hospital stays, and so on.
In that regard, Nepal’s communists are certainly a class act. Whenever I see Prachanda or Oli ensconced deep in the huge leather couches that seem to be the de rigueur furniture of our communist party bosses, I cannot help recollect another Marxist leader who lived in very different circumstances. EMS Namboodiripad enjoyed the distinction of heading the first-ever elected communist government in the world. Having become Chief Minister of the Indian state of Kerala in 1957, he repeated the feat a decade later. He led the Communist Party of India–Marxist for many years thereafter.
The image stuck in my mind comes from an interview published in The Illustrated Weekly of India from the late 1980s. The two or three photos in the piece showed his humble dwelling and the ordinary woven wooden chairs that served as his furniture. The scion of an aristocratic family, Namboodiripad lived up to his beliefs while the scions of the peasantry who make up the bulk of our communist leadership seemingly cannot do without the good things in life. That perhaps explains why despite the common experience of communists alternating in power with bourgeois parties, Kerala leads India and South Asia in every socio-economic indicator while Nepal remains the regional laggard.