If recent media reports are any indication, the anti-corruption campaign that began with a bang is now set to conclude with a whimper. The strong measures taken by this government against perpetrators of all types of corruption and scams as soon as it took office received widespread public support, prompting the incumbent Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister to declare that steps would be taken to their logical conclusion and perpetrators would be punished without hesitation. He was brave enough to say that the administration would not spare anyone, even if the culprits were members of his party.
The same push sent ripples across political parties when big names began to emerge in recent scams that have dominated media headlines. Former prime ministers and political party leaders' names were expected to be scrutinised in several scams. However, due to pressure from the ruling alliance partners, the Home Ministry has encountered impediments in conducting a smooth inquiry against a few prominent leaders.
Two PMs’ statements
The Central Investigation Bureau (CIB), which is investigating the Lalita Niwas land scam as well as the false Bhutanese refugee controversy, has reportedly conducted its queries against two previous prime ministers who are claimed to have made cabinet decisions relating to the transfer of government-owned land to private hands. Initially, the CIB stopped short of registering the statement from the two former PMs, but it filed their statement at the last minute owing to the perceived public and media outcry. The statement may not ruffle any feather of two former PMs as it appears a formality for the CIB that apparently failed summon two former prime ministers, Madhav Kumar Nepal and Dr. Baburam Bhattarai for a lengthy period, though it has arrested and grilled many others in the same case.
It may be worthwhile to note here that a recent Supreme Court ruling has brought any cabinet-level decisions under the ambit of the nation’s probe bodies that can now investigate any cabinet decision that violate the nation's laws, policies, and regulations. Prior to this ruling, any cabinet decision was off-limits to the investigating bodies. The new ruling has opened new avenues for our investigating bodies to take up issues related to cabinet decisions that promote policy-level corruption in the nation.
Meanwhile, reports suggest that the probe bodies’ latest attempt to resume the registration of new charges in the phony Bhutanese refugee scam piqued the chief of the ruling coalition's main party, the Nepali Congress. The government has come under pressure from the NC president not to drag the refugee issue any longer, as there is growing concern that the president's wife, a Congress leader herself, along with others, could also be investigated and grilled. The NC Congress president is particularly upset at the detention of a key party member and his trusted fellow, former home minister Bal Krishna Khand.
According to some reports, the NC chief at a meeting of the coalition partners, slammed the Home Minister for sparing his party colleague Krishna Bahadur Mahara and his sons, who were discovered to have contacts with smugglers caught in connection with the current episode of gold smuggling at Tribhuwan International Airport. Mahara and his sons spoke with Chinese smugglers multiple times over the phone, and his sons sought the assistance of customs officers in releasing the seized gold. The Home Minister, on the other hand, attempted to defend the Maharas, arguing that no one can be arrested or investigated only on the basis of phone calls.
The aforementioned events demonstrate that the involvement of big names is to blame for the weakening of ongoing anti-corruption measures. To make matters worse, certain high-ranking police officials in charge of investigating the refugee scam and detaining some major figures as well as scammers have been transferred to other stations within the police department. The Chief of the Kathmandu Valley Police, who led the fake refugee inquiry, has been reassigned to another department in an attempt to weaken the continuing investigation into the refugee scam. Following the shunting of the police officers, the investigation and charges against big names are expected to lose their effectiveness.
Culture of impunity
Given the recent episodes, it is not an exaggeration to argue that the anti-corruption push in Nepal is a challenging prospect. The departments in charge of investigating corruption and scams may not yield concretely beneficial results simply because they are greatly influenced by the desires and grudges of the powers that be. Initially, it may appear that these departments have done wonders in conducting such investigations, but when the names of "big fish" begin to arise in connection with scandals, they are constrained in their efforts. Needless to say, such attempts often breed a culture of impunity that always undermines the ideals of good governance, transparency as well as equity.
Finally, what our leaders and parties appear to forget at present is - no leader or party that plays their part in weakening such crucial probes can escape the prying eyes of the public. In politics and beyond, the public scrutiny keeps on evaluating the work of leaders and parties. As such they must not betray the public trust and must be committed to acting according to the will of the people for whom good governance and nation building are two paramount concerns.
(Upadhyay is former managing editor of this daily.)