Calls are growing for Finance Minister Sharma to quit, as he fails to come cleanPrime minister’s reluctance to take action raises suspicion if there are too many skeletons in the closet.
Calls that Finance Minister Janardan Sharma should resign have grown louder, with not just main opposition leader KP Sharma Oli making such a demand in Parliament but also Gagan Thapa, general secretary of the ruling Nepali Congress, saying the same.
But Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, also the president of the Nepali Congress, has ignored the calls.
Sharma, the finance minister in the Deuba Cabinet from the CPN (Maoist Centre), a key coalition partner, has been in the headlines for the last few days for all the wrong reasons.
He has been embroiled in controversy for failing to address the economic woes the country is facing, attempting action against Governor Maha Prasad Adhikari and inviting unauthorised persons to fix the taxes just a day before he presented the federal budget for the fiscal year 2022-23.
He has refused to budge, while the prime minister has maintained an uncanny silence.
On Monday, speaking in Parliament, UML chair KP Sharma Oli said that Prime Minister Deuba appears to be absolutely helpless as he has failed to sack Sharma despite serious allegations against him.
“Is saving the ruling alliance the only priority of the prime minister? Has he reached a position where he cannot do anything?” Oli asked.
Oli alleged that the prime minister has remained a mute spectator even as the finance minister, who used outsiders and intermediaries to manipulate tax rates and refused to provide the CCTV footage of May 28, a day before he presented the budget in Parliament.
The UML had demanded a parliamentary probe into the reported incident that Sharma had invited two “unauthorised persons” to change the tax regime on the night of May 28, something which experts say is tantamount to financial crime.
In a response to the demand for the CCTV footage, the Finance Ministry said on Sunday that that the CCTV footage “had been erased.”
“Based on the capacity and camera of the CCTV installed at the ministry, it can record the footage of maximum past 13 days only and the footage of the previous days has been automatically erased,” the ministry said.
The response itself has raised more questions over Sharma, who has claimed that there were no wrongdoings. Experts and political party leaders, however, say the way Sharma has been manipulating things gives rise to suspicion that not everything is alright and that the prime minister is complicit in whatever is going on as he has failed to initiate any action.
Meanwhile, Finance Secretary Madhu Marasini, who was said to be present when the tax manipulations happened at the behest of some unauthorised persons, has maintained silence. The Post’s repeated attempts to reach him over the past weeks, including on Monday, failed.
When then finance minister Bharat Mohan Adhikari prepared the budget outside the ambit of the Finance Ministry in 2011, then finance secretary Rameshore Khanal had resigned.
“After I received six different drafts on the budget one after another which were prepared outside the ministry, I decided to resign as such an act would simply mean financial crime,” Khanal told the Post on Monday. “What we are hearing today from colleagues at the Finance Ministry amounts to financial crime so the finance minister should resign… immediately.”
According to Khanal, if the finance minister does not resign, the prime minister should remove him.
“But will Deuba do it?” he said. “I doubt. It seems Sharma has become more influential after becoming finance minister and enjoys full support of the coalition.”
Deuba is known as a politician whose governance track record has been poor, even though he has managed to become prime minister for the fifth time. This time around he has to manage the Maoist Centre, as he does not want to break the current coalition until the upcoming polls, hence he is refraining from initiating action against Sharma, insiders say.
“The prime minister is fully aware of what is going on with regards to the finance minister. But he is trapped,” said a Nepali Congress leader. “Sharma is the key ‘financial’ vehicle for the prime minister. Some sections of the Nepali Congress, some businessmen and some leaders of the ruling party are benefiting so no one will dare to remove him.”
What the Congress leader says indicates is a gallimaufry of skeletons is in the closet, as no one from the ruling coalition, which is composed of five parties, is willing to speak against Sharma.
After a long silence, Thapa, the Congress general secretary, said on Monday that Sharma should resign.
“Several questions, inside and outside the House, have been raised against the finance minister. So he should resign,” Thapa told reporters on the premises of the Parliament.
“If he does not step down, the prime minister should remove him and start a probe against him.”
Thapa added that since the finance ministry has said that the CCTV footage has been deleted, a probe is required.
“I think the prime minister should take immediate action. My understanding is that the finance minister should resign now,” said Thapa.
On Monday, three civil society members demanded Sharma’s resignation.
Issuing a statement, former chief justice Sushila Karki, former vice chancellor of Tribhuvan University Kedar Bhakta Mathema and orthopaedic surgeon Govinda KC, who are known as the champions against corruption, said that Sharma must resign if he cannot prove that he had not involved unauthorised persons while finalising the budget.
“Those ministers who have lost basic morals, if they continue to remain in their posts, will tarnish the dignity of their offices and this will further damage the image of the government," they said in the statement.
“Our serious attention has been drawn to the economic and judicial chaos created by various officials and leaders of the ruling parties.”
Bimal Koirala, a former chief secretary, says when questions have arisen over Sharma, the ministry should have provided the CCTV footage.
“The finance minister still has the opportunity to come clean on the matter if he wants as people are saying that erased footage can be retrieved,” said Koirala, who has also served as a finance secretary.
Koirala termed tampering with tax rates to serve the interest of certain people amounts to treason and that it should be investigated.
“The prime minister should sack the finance minister and initiate investigation,” said Koirala.
According to police officials and experts, old footage can be erased automatically based on the capacity of the memory chip of the CCTV.
“The duration of the footage depends on how many CCTVs have been connected and the capacity of the memory chips,” said Superintendent Shyam Kumar Mahato, a spokesperson at the Central Investigation Bureau of the Nepal Police. “When the memory is fully occupied by video footage, old footage is automatically erased gradually.”
But whether the footage was erased automatically or deliberately can be determined only after a thorough investigation, according to experts.
Some experts say a technology is available also to determine how the footage got erased.
“The Nepal Police has its own digital lab where whether a footage was erased deliberately or automatically can be determined,” said Pramod Parajuli, a cyber security expert.