Why do Nepal’s political parties sideline experts?There are several cases of technocrats foraying into politics and not welcomed. Some are trying to explore their own political options.
On Thursday, Swarnim Wagle, a noted economist and former vice-chair of the National Planning Commission, announced his decision to quit the Nepali Congress party, a move that threw Nepalis on social media into a tizzy. In a message he sent to a few of his Congress colleagues, Wagle said he was dissociating from the party after finding himself at the receiving end of ‘constant condescension and disrespect’ from ‘Deuba-Arzu gang’—referring to party chief Sher Bahadur Deuba and his wife Arzu Rana Deuba.
Wagle’s lobbying to fight the November elections under a Congress ticket had yielded no return. Lately, he was on course to become the newly elected President Ramchandra Paudel’s ‘honorary adviser’, but that appointment was also foiled by the ‘Deuba-Arzu gang’. Wagle has now joined the Rastriya Swatantra Party and is contesting the upcoming by-election in a Tanahun constituency left vacant after Paudel became the President.
The episode has sparked a discussion on whether Nepal’s traditional political parties have provided enough of a chance for experts established in their professional fields to prove their mettle in politics.
Wagle is not the only professional acclaimed in his domain to feel ostracised by his party. In September 2022, former government secretary Kishore Thapa, who was also the mayoral candidate for the Sajha Party in Kathmandu in the 2017 local polls, quit the Bibeksheel Sajha Party.
Thapa argues that established professionals and experts act under certain professional ethics, calculating the right and wrong as they are trained and educated to do so. Thapa lamented that Nepal’s political parties have completely ignored meritocracy—“leaders are after cheap popularity and resort to emotional blackmail.”
Unfortunately, Thapa added, the public also votes for such persons.
“They don’t evaluate merit,” he said. “Our society does not want experts to become leaders.”
Rameshore Khanal, a former finance secretary, is another professional who said the party has given him the short end of the stick. He had joined the Nepali Congress in August 2013. At a function in which then-president Sushil Koirala welcomed him, Khanal said he had joined the party having been impressed by its democratic principles. He aspired to contest the parliamentary polls from his home district Palpa. But Congress didn’t give him the ticket.
Khanal then joined the Baburam Bhattarai-led Naya Shakti Party. But his journey with the new party didn’t last long either as he quit the organisation in March 2017, within a year of joining. Khanal, who had been given the portfolio of Naya Shakti Party’s financial department chief, tweeted, “I am not involved with any political party. It seems politics is not my cup of tea. What should I say?”
Last year, noted agriculture expert Madan Rai also ended his seven-year long political journey with Bhattarai’s party.
Former Nepal Rastra Bank governor Yubaraj Khatiwada joined politics through the CPN-UML and became the finance minister. But he has not been able to establish himself as an influential politician like he has proved himself in the economic sector.
Political analyst Lok Raj Baral said Nepal’s politicians think they do not need experts, only party cadres and loyalists. “They ignore experts with independent opinions and disregard constructive criticisms,” Baral said. “The country’s education system and economy are mired in problems, but politicians are not bothered to consult the experts to find a way out.”
But it is not that experts have always lived up to their expectations, some argue.
According to political analyst Pitambar Bhandari, there exist two sorts of experts—those directly involved in party politics for a long time and others who have taken their political journey and academia on parallel paths.
The second group is connected to politics at times, but their primary focus is on their professional career rather than politics, unlike the loyal cadres of Nepal’s traditional political parties, Bhandari said. “The second group has repeatedly gotten the opportunities, but in some cases they did not perform as expected. The political parties have, at times, given them the responsibilities and opportunities,” he said. “But I think it is their strategy to make their academic and political existence relevant by blaming the party and ditching one for the other.”
He referred to some instances of the Congress giving opportunities to Wagle as well. Nepali Congress had appointed Wagle first as member and later as vice-chair of the National Planning Commission. The party also entrusted him with the responsibility of drafting its election manifesto last year.
Another analyst, Chandra Dev Bhatta, said expertise and politics are different matters altogether. “Experts might want to do politics as per their expertise, but as traditional politics runs in a set manner—politicians seek loyalists—it is difficult to strike the right balance,” Bhatta told the Post.
Bhandari argues that those with expertise should be able to work independently, without being involved with political parties. “They don’t always need political parties to contribute to society,” he said.