Bhatta’s appointment despite criticism puts a spotlight on problem inherent in the systemOli’s decision to appoint Sushil Bhatta the IBN chief has run into controversy, but analysts say it comes as a continuation of Nepal’s parties’ trend of handpicking people of their choice disregarding merit and process.
The KP Sharma Oli administration’s decision to appoint Sushil Bhatta as the chief executive officer of the Investment Board of Nepal has once again shone the spotlight on appointment processes in the country and how individuals’ proximity to the political leadership prevails over merit.
According to former bureaucrats and experts on administrative matters, Bhatta’s appointment is just a continuation of the ugly trend that the country has seen since the restoration of democracy in 1990.
“Controversial appointments were made in the past too, but people with conflict of interests were rarely chosen,” said Bimal Koirala, a former chief secretary. “That’s why this recent case has received more attention.”
Before his appointment at the IBN, Bhatta was serving as a member of the National Planning Commission. An engineer, Bhatta also holds a master’s degree in business administration. Apart from his own public image, he is more known as the younger brother of Deepak Prakash Bhatta who has close relations with some top leaders of the ruling party.
The Bhatta brothers, according to some reports, face charges of securing various development projects working as local representatives of international companies and then leaving the projects in limbo.
According to reports, they were working in cahoots with political party leaders and securing large projects for foreign companies they represented. They are also involved in several businesses in Nepal in infrastructure sectors, supplies of arms and ammunition and supplying ration to the Nepal Army and Nepal Police, among others.
Insiders in the Oli administration say Bhatta was handpicked by Oli.
Bhatta’s appointment as the IBN chief in the interest of Oli comes months after Oli appointed a little known personality named Guru Bhattarai as the general manager of Nepal Railway.
Analysts say while the recent appointment is problematic, there is a need to look at the root cause of the problem, rather than viewing such incidents in isolation. After multi-party democracy was restored in 1990, politicians started chasing money and power, according to them.
“It is also tantamount to corruption, as every controversial appointment involves some kind of dealings,” Khemraj Regmi, a former government secretary who also headed Transparency International-Nepal, the Nepal chapter of the Berlin-based anti-graft watchdog.
Earlier the Nepali Congress and then CPN-UML were competing to share the spoils. When the Maoists joined mainstream politics after the decade-long war, they joined the party, said a former bureaucrat.
“But what happened today or a few years ago is not an issue; the issue is how politicians have nurtured this trend of making controversial appointments,” said Rameshore Khanal, a former finance secretary. “If the trend continues, I am afraid it won’t take long for Nepal to turn into a rogue state.”
Some appointments made over the decades show how politicians have gone to any extent to install “their” people in various posts for their benefit, and blithely disregarded merit and due processes, say analysts.
After the restoration of democracy, during the Nepali Congress rule under prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala, aircraft were leased from companies whose local agents were close to the regime at great cost to the national flag carrier.
According to Koirala, the former chief secretary, the trend of handpicking people further flourished in recent years, especially after the country became a republic.
For example, all parties agreed in 2013 during the caretaker government of Khilraj Regmi to appoint Lokman Singh Karki as the chief of the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority.
Karki, a controversial figure, was accused of suppressing the second people’s movement in 2006 that ushered in republicanism in the country.
The Supreme Court later stripped him of the role, ruling that he was not qualified for the post.
According to Khanal, Oli’s decisions of late have been erratic.
Given the Bhatta brothers’ involvement in various projects, analysts say Sushil Bhatta’s appointment could give rise to a conflict of interests.
The Investment Board Nepal is a high-level government body established to facilitate economic development in the country by creating an investment-friendly environment and mobilising and managing domestic and foreing investments.
“In the past too, some politicians blatantly ignored merit and handpicked people close to either business houses or one particular influential family. At times they would also make a compromise on qualifications while appointing people of their choice,” said Koirala. “But what makes Bhatta’s case spectacularly different is there is a clear case of conflict of interests.”
Analysts say politicians from across the spectrum are even today bent on sharing major posts among themselves in various agencies, including constitutional bodies. Only recently, Prime Minister Oli and Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba held several rounds of talks to find a deal on appointments in various constitutional bodies.
Some in the ruling Nepal Communit Party (NCP) have expressed dismay at Oli’s decision to pick Bhatta as the IBN chief.
At least two leaders from the ruling party said that Oli could have taken a decision as suggested by Deepak Bhatta.
Deepak has emerged as a major power broker in our party, a Nepal Communist Party leader told the Post on condition of anonymity. “Deepak’s influence in the party started to grow after the Pushpa Kamal Dahal government handed over the construction of the Budhi Gandaki hydropower project to China Gezhouba Group Company Limited.”
Deepak was the local agent for the company.
The government led by Sher Bahadur Deuba, however, had scrapped the deal with China Gezhouba for failing to meet financial transparency while signing the deal.
According to party insiders, Deepak was actively involved when a rift grew between Oli and Dahal after the latter started piling pressure on the former to step down.
A central member of the ruling party said that of late Deepak has been quite close to Oli and that it looks like he influenced Oli to appoint his brother at the investment board.
“Earlier, when questions arose or when the media cast doubt about certain appointments, the governments used to backtrack,” said Khanal. “But these days, no one cares. There is no accountability.”
Appointments of controversial people to lead important government agencies also amount to utter disregard to people, according to Regmi.
“Appointments of tainted or controversial people to important posts and positions hurt the sentiment of people,” Regmi told the Post. “Appointment of Bhatta, despite criticism from various circles, shows that Oli is heading towards totalitarianism. The job of the prime minister is not to sanctify tainted people.”