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Sunday, May 12, 2013

Nepal: Letting the cat to guard the milk

(Published by Asia Times Online on May 16, 2013 as 'Nepal charges towards total impunity')

Already traumatized by thriving corruption and lawlessness in a protracted transition, Nepalis were shocked by the choice of a tainted and controversial person by politicians to lead the anti-graft body in the country potentially making way for total impunity. More appalling was the acquiescence of 'less corrupt' leaders, the judiciary and the president in the scheme. The proverb 'letting the cat to guard milk' aptly describes the situation. Either way, accountability is the prime victim. 

When the first ever Constituent Assembly (CA) in Nepal collapsed on May 27, 2012 without delivering the constitution, it was tempting to predict grim scenario ahead. But no one was sure about the magnitude of the potential troubles. A year away from the end of CA, Nepal is nowhere close to holding new elections. The unduly lengthened transition period has invited a host of complications some of which may well cripple the country for decades to come.
CIAA Building (Source: Official site of CIAA)

To start with, the government led by the UCPN (Maoist) leader Baburam Bhattarai that was at the helm during the collapse of the CA was reluctant to shed power as demanded by the opposition. This led to a sharp polarization between the ruling alliance that also constituted the regional parties from the southern plains of the country and the opposition alliance formed by Nepali Congress, CPN (UML) and other fringe parties. 

The stalemate was ended only few months back when the major political powers in the country agreed to a compromise solution in which the sitting head of the judiciary of the country would also head the new election government. Even though many doubted the credentials of the new government to hold elections on time, others thought it to be the least evil of the options.

All along, however, the major preoccupation for Nepali people has been otherwise: failure of the state to deliver in terms of economic betterment of the ordinary people. This has been compounded by the rampant corruption and lawlessness that serves elites and vandals at the cost of majority of people.

As such, institutionalized corruption and brazen loot of state wealth through more subtle means has been the major trend for long in Nepal. Over time, while a tiny fraction of politicians and bureaucrats has been punished for corruption, the large majority has been able to exploit the loopholes in the legal system to remain unscathed. Even more worrying trends have emerged in recent years in which the politicians have been using new and effective tools to amass wealth and power with absolutely no possibility of ever having to be held accountable for it. This includes the creation of proxies by recruiting the musclemen who work with near-total impunity under political patronage and reciprocate by giving a substantial amount of wealth to the politicians, in a win-win arrangement.
Lok Man Singh Karki (Source: Official site of CIAA)

These musclemen affiliated to different political parties and leaders now govern huge chunks of informal economy in the country and they operate through some methods that have become so frequent that they are taken as 'usual' or 'ordinary', like asking huge sums of money as donations from the industrialists or being employed by one contractor to physically prevent others from bidding for a government contract thereby eliminating the factor of competition. Host of other private cartels (those in transport and medical education sector being the most notorious among all) also thrive under due political patronage. 

As a result, while the state wealth meant to deliver services to people ends up in the pockets of politicians and musclemen, ordinary people are deprived of both the economic betterment and dignity. 

It is in this backdrop that the latest appointment of Lokman Singh Karki, a tainted and controversial figure, to the top post of the anti-graft body of the country comes as a shocking news. Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) is the body meant to investigate any act of corruption in the government and prosecute those who are found guilty. Though the reputation of the body has not been same over the decades, there were periods when it was robustly effective and feared by those in power. Over the past many years, the leading politicians had found it convenient leaving it headless and ineffective. 

Nearly everyone was shocked when the news emerged that the four-party political mechanism formed to assist the current election government had proposed the name of Karki for the top job at CIAA. It was a nightmare for most who looked forward to an era of better accountability in Nepal sooner or later. 

To start with, Karki was held guilty of suppressing the people's movement-II (2005) when he was the Chief Secretary during the direct rule of ex-King Gyanendra Shah. A commission which was formed to investigate the atrocities during the movement had charged him with suppressing the people’s movement and the then cabinet had declared him ineligible for holding any public post in the future. This is, however, least of the concerns of people who had been agitating to avoid his appointment to the post. 

First of all, the decisive figures behind recommendation of Karki's name for the post are understood to be Prachanda, the chairman of UCPN (Maoist) and  K P Oli, leader of CPN (UML). While Prachanda is commonly believed to sit atop massive wealth gathered unscrupulously (that included but was not limited to siphoning of millions of rupees from the money that was reimbursed by the then governments to the Maoist combatants in the cantonments, over 5 years), most other leaders of the party including former PM Bhattarai and his wife are widely loathed for their utter disregard for rule of law and institutionalization of bribery and nepotism when in power. 

K P Oli, on the other hand, is believed to be one of the top beneficiary of the symbiosis between the politicians and the musclemen in the country, not the least because he explicitly displayed his fondness to the goons affiliated to his party who brutally assaulted a reporter two years back for daring to expose them. Today, only Bijay Kumar Gachchedar, third leader in the political mechanism heading the front of regional parties, rivals Oli in terms of having a hold among the goons and musclemen some of whom have prospered obscenely over the years.

The consensual opinion of most informed people in Nepal is that the appointment of Singh as chief of CIAA has come with a doubtless motive of letting the duo of Prachanda-Oli free to run the show as it is now, ensuring absolute impunity, at least for 6 more years which is the tenure of CIAA chief. 

Second, the fiasco of appointment has unraveled the worrisome ineptitude and hypocrisy of other less tainted leaders of political parties who have often rabble-roused against the appointment of Karki to the post. This list includes the apparently clean-imaged Sushil Koirala, president of Nepali Congress and Jhalanath Khanal, president of CPN (UML). In either of the political parties, the most brazenly corrupt leaders are having their way.

Third and most troubling is the dangerous collusion among all the powers that matter in running the country to a deplorable end. When Khil Raj Regmi, the then Chief Justice of the country, agreed to head the new election government, many had suspected his motives while others had chosen to question his credentials. Others including this columnist had warned that it would suit even more for the politicians to do all the nasty things under the veneer of an apparently apolitical government. Unfortunately, suspicions of every kind are turning into realities; some more comprehensively than others. While the supreme court has gone to embarrassing length of giving verdict in favor of the appointment and shunning the media from the court sessions, Regmi himself reportedly took strong stand for the appointment of Karki at CIAA.

At the end, it was the acquiescence of the apparently unwavering President Ram Baran Yadav to the recommendation of Karki that paved way for the Karki's swearing in as the head of CIAA in haste on May 8 only a day after the president had reportedly told the party leaders to take back Karki's name.

Now with the proof that even the presidents of two large political parties and the president of the country itself cannot withstand the pressure from the cartel of criminally corrupt people across the political lines, Nepalis look forward to a grim future with spiraling corruption, lawlessness and total impunity.

At a higher level, the question emerges as to why the politicians are risking their leftover appeal and support among the common people and intellectuals to a person as widely disliked by people as Lokman Singh Karki. Is the fear of being prosecuted in the future the only motive? It well may not be and many analysts in Nepal have been linking the appointment to the vested interests of other power centers. Only future holds the answer to this question.

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