State of perfidyIt says a lot about the state of our country that the headline-grabbing news a few days ago was that those convicted of corruption (and various other crimes) would not be allowed to contest the upcoming federal and provincial elections.
It says a lot about the state of our country that the headline-grabbing news a few days ago was that those convicted of corruption (and various other crimes) would not be allowed to contest the upcoming federal and provincial elections. That such a possibility was even contemplated, and held hostage the adoption of the two bills essential to conducting the already announced elections, does not bode all too well for the future of our country.
For now, we can thank the media, civil society and various others who spoke out again the Nepali Congress (NC) proposal to allow felons the possibility of a rebirth as our representatives, proving once again that public opinion can certainly be effective—at least some of the time. Thanks are also due to all the Nepali Congress (NC) lawmakers who stood resolute in the face of all kinds pressure that must have been brought to bear on them to go along with the amendment sponsored by 19 of their colleagues; people like Dhan Raj Gurung, one of the consistent voices against corruption in the parliament, who said in an interview: ‘[I]f the bill passes, Nepal will be doomed. That will be the day which will be remembered in [the] country’s history as a black day, the day that will push the country into perpetual darkness.’
And, certainly no thanks to two NC stalwarts, former Deputy Prime Minister Bimalendra Nidhi, and one of the main sponsors of the amendment, Ananda Prasad Dhungana, who reportedly had the gall to tell the parliament’s State Affairs Committee that they were withdrawing their proposal as it was incumbent upon their party to help in the passage of the bills so that the polls could proceed. One presumes they were trying to find a face-saving way out for their party but it would have been so much better for the health of our democracy had they admitted that public sentiment is overwhelmingly against them.
Promises and more promises
‘Twenty-four hours after being summarily dismissed as prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba appeared visibly shaken tonight, nervously playing with his wedding ring and lighting up a cigarette to calm his nerves.’ These are the opening lines from a New York Times story, reporting on the 5th of October 2002, the day after Deuba had been sacked by King Gyanendra. The setting was the erstwhile UML headquarters at Balkhu where Deuba had turned up in an attempt to garner support against the king’s move. There were hordes of people hanging around and the media was desperate to talk to Deuba. Along with reporters from the NYT and CNN, I somehow managed to worm myself into the room where Deuba was holed up with his close associates. I remember clearly how in the deepening shadows of the unlit room Deuba puffed away as he blabbered on in an adrenaline rush.
The NYT piece had only two quotes from Deuba. In the first, he begs excuse for smoking. But, it is the second one that is worth repeating here: ‘One makes mistakes; human beings make mistakes. I will do things differently in the future.’
One never knows for sure what he meant by doing things differently. It could have been an allusion to not placing blind trust in the king and the army; not splitting the NC, and so on. It could even have been a personal resolution to keep the interests of the people and the country foremost. Following the takeover by Gyanendra, the latter was certainly something political parties had time to cogitate over for a long time. In the years thereafter, they repeated it ad nauseum as the the mantra that would enable their return to power.
One constant throughout was the anti-corruption message. In June 2003, for instance, the five major parties (the Deuba faction of the NC was being treated as a political pariah and hence was not invited) which had convened a ‘special meeting’ of the House of Representatives dissolved a year earlier, adopted the ‘18-point Common Agenda for Progressive Reforms’. Point 18 of the agenda stated: ‘Corruption shall be effectively controlled. No one shall enjoy immunity from it. Corruption control laws and mechanisms shall be made more effective and active.’
Not to be outdone by the anti-king parties, in November 2003, the palace-appointed Surya Bahadur Thapa government acknowledged that in ‘order to defeat the Maoists effectively and to maintain continuously the confidence of the general public, there is a necessity for effective and good governance. Towards this end: i) The administrative mechanism will be made clean and effective; ii) An anti-corruption work plan will be executed firmly...’ The next year, Deuba was back in power but there was no indication that he was doing things any differently. At one point, he merely referred to the ‘anti-corruption work plan’ put in place by the Thapa government and gave his government’s commitment to ‘implement it effectively’.
Of course, everything changed when Deuba was booted out a second time by Gyanendra in early 2005. In May, the political parties, now with the Deuba group also in the fold, formed the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) and agreed on a future platform that would guarantee good governance, transparent fiscal dealings, and effective corruption control. In November the same year, the 12-point understanding between the SPA and the Maoists had the following clause: ‘Making a self-assessment towards the mistakes and weaknesses committed while staying in the Government and parliament in the past, the seven political parties have expressed their commitment for not repeating such mistakes and weaknesses now onwards.’
Again, one cannot be sure if curbing corruption was considered to feature among the said mistakes but going by the various pronouncements that preceded and followed this understanding, it most certainly appears so. Following the success of the 2006 People’s Movement, the major breakthrough talks that led to the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) in early November 2006 included the following: ‘Policies shall be adopted to take strict actions against those who, occupying governmental positions of benefit, have amassed huge properties through corruption.’ The CPA repeated the commitment verbatim.
For most of 2007, the Maoists were still trying to figure out their approach to competitive politics. Yet, in one of the many meetings they held with the SPA, they managed to remind the government of the above provision in the CPA and also demand that ‘a special body must be formed to take action against corrupt individuals’. In 2008, the Maoists came to power.
Ten years later, corruption seems to have seeped into every pore of our polity. Newspapers over the past week or so have been focused on corruption involving the National Medical College, Nepal Oil Corporation, Gautam Buddha International Airport, the Customs Office in Bhairahawa, and, of course, the proposed reprieve to politician-convicts. Unfortunately, all the major political parties appear implicated in these scandals one way or another, and hence, it has been politics as usual.
Asked why there is no cross-party consensus against corruption, Dhan Raj Gurung said it loud and clear: ‘Because the political parties are themselves corrupt. They raise big donations from businessmen and industrialists. Those who donate, donate black money. This is why they request the political parties not to disclose their names. When these parties use black money to contest and win elections, how can you expect them to speak against corruption?’
If there is any hope, it lies with people like Gurung, for certainly there are others like him in all the parties. For now, money has the upper hand, and reportedly enough power even to threaten lawmakers like Gurung and those probing the Nepal Oil Corporation mess. If only someone could remind Deuba that now is the time to ‘do things differently’!