Oli administration’s decisions court controversy for failing to abide by systemWhile a section in the ruling party is unhappy at Oli taking unilateral decisions, analysts say the government is promoting favouritism.
The Oli government’s decision to appoint the chief secretary and recommend two ambassadors has run into a controversy–both inside and outside the ruling party.
While within the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) a section is enraged with Prime Minister and party chair KP Sharma Oli for his utter disregard for the principle of consensus, observers and analysts have questioned the government’s failure to build a system when it comes to appointments and nominations and abide by the spirit of inclusiveness and democratic norms.
Immediately after approving the resignation of Lok Darshan Regmi as chief secretary, Thursday’s Cabinet meeting recommended him as the ambassador to the United Kingdom. Regmi tendered his resignation on Thursday, just two weeks before his mandatory retirement from civil service. The Cabinet appointed Foreign Secretary Shanker Das Bairagi as Regmi's successor, making him the second chief secretary from foreign service. The Cabinet also recommended Yubaraj Khatiwada, who resigned as finance minister earlier this month, as Nepal’s ambassador to the United States.
A former bureaucrat said the system is being destroyed by the day, and what the Oli government did on Thursday is an indication that the traditional way of making appointments and nominations still continues in new Nepal, which is today a federal democratic republic.
"Where is the cooling period?" said former chief secretary Bimal Koirala. "It looks like the government is bribing top bureaucrats.”
Regmi’s resignation just weeks before his retirement also indicates that it was already decided that he would get “some plum post”. As far as Khatiwada is concerned, Oli’s intentions were clear from the very beginning, as he has emerged as one of Oli’s most favourite “party members” lately.
“Appointing the same faces to various posts and bureaucrats taking premature retirements after making deals with political parties for lucrative posts are not healthy signs for stable bureaucracy,” said Koirala. “Such tendencies do not help build a system; they ruin the system.”
Nepali rulers for long have been following this trend of appointing retired government officials to various constitutional and ambassadorial positions. Reasons vary. In some cases, according to former bureaucrats and analysts, money directly changes hands, while in other cases, larger deals are at play.
For example, political parties often want to appoint someone of their choice to the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority, the country’s top anti-corruption body, hoping that the appointee will never launch any probe against them and “cooperate”, should any situation arise.
“It’s quid pro quo,” said a former bureaucrat who did not wish to be named. “When the party leading the government itself encourages such a trend, buracrats too try to make the most of it.”
Rameshore Khanal, who resigned as finance secretary in March 2011 over some disagreements with then finance minister Bharat Mohan Adhikari, said even after transitioning to the federal democratic republic, Nepal’s ruling parties continue to follow the same tradition the earlier rulers exercised, despite having fought against them.
“Where is the spirit of inclusiveness and federalism?” said Khanal. “Where is fair representation? Same people from the same class have always been given the chance to to be in power and position. This is tantamount to undermining the promise of making Nepal an inclusive and democratic state.”
Regmi, however, is not the first chief secretary to resign before his mandatory retirement. His predecessor Somlal Subedi had tendered his resignation days before he retired in 2017. He then flew off to Manila to assume the post of vice-president at the Asian Development Bank. Regmi then succeeded Subedi.
Leaders who are familiar with the party-bureaucracy relationship say after Oli became the prime minister in February 2018, initially he wanted to change the chief secretary. Oli, however, later decided to continue with Regmi as the chief secretary as per his understanding with Sher Bahadur Deuba, the leader of the opposition party, according to insiders.
Former bureaucrats who have worked with governments led by different parties say the problem is deeply entrenched as both ruling and opposition parties work in cahoots.
“If not anything else, at least the retirees and those who appoint them can give some thought to the cooling period,” said Koirala. “Everyone seems to be working hand in glove with each other. If people who serve at non-government organisations and other agencies need to follow the cooling period, why should this not be applicable to those in civil service?”
According to Koirala, the way the trend of appointing people on the basis of favouritism rather than merit is flourishing will ultimately promote sycophancy, which will sooner rather than later destroy the entire bureaucracy.
Questions were also asked on Thursday why Oli has been so enamoured with Khatiwada. Oli had first appointed Khatiwada in March 2018. Khatiwada was nominated by the President to the National Assembly. But under the lottery system, Khatiwada had picked a token that would mean his tenure at the Assembly would last only two years. After his tenure ended, Khatiwada resigned in March this year. But Oli reappointed him the finance minister.
The constitution says if a non-elected member is appointed minister, he or she has to take the oath as a member of the House of Representatives or the National Assembly within six months of the appointment. But Oli fell into internal party games and could not nominate Khatiwada to the National Assembly again, as he was forced to send party vice-chair Bamdev Gautam to the Upper House. Khatiwada had to resign.
Khatiwada, however, has served in top positions regardless of which party has been in power. The Record, an independent digital publication, last month wrote an extensive profile on Khatiwada, describing how he has managed to remain in power for years, irrespective of which party has been in power.
As far as Bairagi’s appointment as chief secretary is concerned, there has not been much hullabaloo over it, with a few exceptions where some bureaucrats have wondered how efficiently he can handle the country’s administration as he spent years in foreign service.
But if the trend is anything to go by, Bairagi too may resign before his term ends and get an ambassadorial position, which may not invite much criticism though, given his foreing service background.
The same cycle, however, will continue, say former bureaucrats, stressing that the problem in Nepal is not an individual per se and that it is the weak system.
“Our leaders say they fought against the feudals but they themselves have replaced them; they have become feudals now,” said Kishore Nepal, a senior journalist who writes analyses on contemporary Nepali politics and society. “No one gives two hoots about merit, system and procedure. Those who vowed to change the system, society and politics themselves have changed.”
Thursday’s Cabinet decisions have not gone down well with a section of the ruling party leaders also. Their gripe, however, is about Oli failing to forge consensus while taking the decisions rather than who all were appointed or nominated. When the ruling party achieved a truce last month after weeks-long negotiations, the understanding was there would be a fair deal among various factions while making appointments.
Apart from Regmi and Khatiwada, Thursday’s Cabinet also recommended Nirmal Hari Bishwakarma as Nepal’s ambassador to South Africa.
“The decisions were not made on the basis of consensus among top party leaders,” said Beduram Bhusal, a Standing Committee member of the ruling communist party, who is considered close to senior leader Madhav Kumar Nepal.
Senior leader Jhala Nath Khanal also said the prime minister did not consult party leaders for ambassadorial recommendations. “There was no discussion in the party prior to today's decisions,” Khanal told the Post.