Monitoring the monitorsOn February 13, the Nepali media was rocked by a Rs7.8-million bribery scandal involving Raj Narayan Pathak, a commissioner of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority.
On February 13, the Nepali media was rocked by a Rs7.8-million bribery scandal involving Raj Narayan Pathak, a commissioner of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority. Within 48 hours, as a video of the scandal went viral, Pathak resigned, obviously to evade an impeachment motion that was going to be filed in Parliament. The news came as a severe blow to Nepal’s constitutional anti-graft agency, which is already tarnished and demoralised after the debacle involving then chief commissioner Lok Man Singh Karki in January 2017. The comical drama that unfolded within the Commission reminds us of a game that we all played during our childhood. It is called chor-police in which participants playing the part of thieves hide, and the police seek them.
If there is any reliable indicator of public distrust of the Commission, it is the continuous decline in the number of public complaints lodged with it. Corruption complaints, which peaked at 31,213 in 2014-15, declined to 19,488 in 2017-18. Without drastically revamping this near defunct and demoralised body, seeking to control corruption through it will be like re-enacting the same old chor-police game in real life.
Pathak tendered his resignation to evade an impeachment motion, but the public is already asking a moot question: Will the act of resignation free him from criminal charges? Could this be another glaring case of impunity? It is understandable for the public to be sceptical since one can be exonerated from corruption charges simply by refunding the bribe money. If you do not believe in the state of impunity, take the case of Lok Man Singh Karki. The Supreme Court disqualified him, but the leaders, who first hired him to that position, still remain qualified.
What is so intriguing about Pathak’s scandal is that, as reported in the media, the bribe money was paid to him in instalments starting in August 2017, and the scandal was known to the prime minister months ago. The important question being asked is: Why was the act revealed today and not before? Were there behind-the-scenes bargaining and negotiations? The rumour market is already rife with the names of the would-be commissioners for the vacated position at the Commission. Could it be that the backroom negotiations and bargaining for his resignation failed, and the sword of an impeachment motion was displayed? Had this not been the case, why was the motion not filed before he resigned?
As debate rages over the uncertainty of the action to be taken against the commissioner who resigned, another issue has emerged. The Commission sought legal advice from the attorney general regarding possible courses of action. One should know that the Commission is an independent constitutional body, not part of the executive branch, and the attorney general is a mere legal advisor to the government.
There is one more dimension to the bribery scandal: What is the responsibility of those who bribed the commissioner? The scandal is being revealed simply because Pathak double-crossed or failed to fulfil his illegal contract. Would the public ever have come to find out about the crime if, say, he had kept his promise? The scandal is about the chairperson of Nepal Engineering College, Lambodar Neupane, bribing Pathak to hold the corruption complaints against him as he was attempting to usurp a huge plot of land owned by the college. In fact, other than the involvement of the commissioner, there is nothing unique about the case. This is a mere extension of the ongoing, daily business of the education mafia in Nepal.
The real person who is in trouble is not Pathak, but the prime minister himself and his policy of zero tolerance against corruption. People are closely watching how the prime minister will react to the situation. Will he too shirk his responsibility by saying that the matter is beyond the purview of the executive? Given the complexity of the case, it is expected to drag on for a while.
Questions like these will be raised during the course of the Commission’s investigation: (1) Will the scope of the investigation be limited to the present bribery case or extend far beyond and delve into the whole gamut of Pathak’s decisions since his appointment? (2) Will the ambit of the investigation also cover bribe giver Lambodar Neupane and the mismanagement at Nepal Engineering College? (3) What will be reliability of the sting operation in a court of law? The bigger question is the resolution of the conflict of interest clause, that is, the establishment of independence and transparency in a court of law, of the Commission’s investigation into one of its commissioners. Clearly, we have a problem of monitoring the monitors, or auditing the auditors.
Manandhar is a freelance management consultant.