The practice of corruption is becoming a cancer without cure at all levels in our society. The ruthless exploitation of public property and money by politicians is becoming a common phenomenon. Such illicit behaviour of politicians and public officials hampers our development efforts and prolongs our stagnation. Pervasive corruption has polluted our system of governance, and, despite all the talk about its eradication, there has been no positive result to show. On the contrary, the practice spreads day by day, and it has infiltrated the entire political and administrative machinery of the nation. We, the people, are being forced to witness malpractices happening day by day with no power to stop any of them.
Many national and international reports on corruption and the abuse of power have shown that Nepal now has the dubious distinction of being one of the most corrupt countries in the world. What is so disconcerting is that people at all levels from lowly officials to powerful politicians are involved. After over twenty years of so-called democracy, people’s experiences can be said to be quite the opposite of what they expected at the outset. ‘Pajero culture’ was but one example of excessive corruption and criminalization in our politics that even included the large-scale bribery of MPs in order to defeat their own government.
Such shameful episodes have contravened all professional, ethical and moral standards, and even in our elections, it has not been programmes and ideologies that ensured victory for the political parties, but money, guns, and the misuse of power. We have experienced abuses of power and rampant corruption committed by politicians and public authorities: to the Pajero scandel can be added the Dollar scandal, the Dhamija scandal, the Lauda Air scandal and, recently, the Sudan Ghotala.
A few weeks ago, the caretaker government approved an ordinance that established new criteria for the distribution of state facilities to VIPs, including our former President and Vice President. For each it becomes a life entitlement. The decision by the Council of Ministers to set new criteria that apply, not just to former presidents and vice presidents, but to former prime ministers, home ministers, chief justices and speakers clearly illustrates the current government’s priorities. As such it is shameful, and it clearly continues the malpractices that have been going on for decades. The question must be asked: Is this not a further example of open corruption and misuse of power by our politicians? Do they really have the right to do just what they like with the country’s assets? Does it not amount to open looting of public property and taxpayers’ money? Does self-interest prevent our leaders from speaking out against it? Should politics not be about voluntary and selfless service on behalf of the people and of the country? If so, why does the state have to provide politicians with lifetime facilities? What is the moral justification for that? Why are there not rules of conduct regarding this?
The Mafia Raaj and the Collapse of Democracy
Nepal is home to some of the poorest of the world’s poor. Over sixty per cent of our population still lives on less than $1 a day. Institutionalised corruption and creaking bureaucracy, meanwhile, are par for the course. We have a constitutional body, whose duty it is to fight against such atrocities, and we have NGOs, civil society and the media to monitor that fight, but the practice of corruption continues unhindered. Why? How can it be corrected? Why are we, the people, so helpless? Where are those millions of dollars that our country receives each year specifically to further our country’s development? Why is there so little on the ground to show as a result? It is time to seek answers of these questions and those in power must answer to the people.
Contrary to our people’s great expectations of economic, social and political change, corruption and the abuse of power by politicians and authorities in the country have continued unabated. Our political culture has remained largely unchanged even since the country became a federal republic. The politicians seem ever ready to sacrifice political agendas and ideologies for the sake of personal financial gain. Unlimited amounts of public money are distributed every day to relatives and supporters of our leaders in the name of politics. The criminalization of politics and the politicization of crime have become everyday realities. The relationship between politicians and mafia gangs has become a common phenomenon, and it is hard today to distinguish between politicians and criminals. Public contracts are let to criminal gangs as a bargain for len-den, and politicians and public officials profit by using their power to influence government financial decisions that suit the interests of criminals. We must ask ourselves an important question today: Is our country not turning into a mafia state controlled by a deadly nexus of politicians and criminals?
Critics argue that the lust for money and power drives politics just as much as it does crime and that politics and crime together form an almost symbiotic relationship. Politicians need money to win elections, and they may pay little attention to where it comes from. On the other hand, criminals need the protection of politicians if their continued enterprises are to flourish. At times, politics and crime semi-publicly fuse to form a single corrupt state, and that is just what appears to be taking place in our own country today.
It would appear to be not so much that the criminals are taking over the state by bribery or extortion, but that the state is taking control of the criminal networks, not to eliminate them, but to control and use them to benefit a criminalized government elite. From releasing jailed murderers and smugglers (and even clearing the latter’s confiscated property) to selling off government-owned corporations, our political leaders view each as an opportunity to make a huge profit. The criminalization of the state that is taking place in our country is like a cancer that has no cure.
Again there are important questions to answer. At a time when adults and children are dying in our country because they cannot afford a paracetamol tablet, and many are dying because of food shortages, should we not consider the recent move by the government to be the imposition of a mafia style grip on the economy, enabling politicians to share public money among themselves? Does it not amount to open looting of public property at a time when over sixty per cent the population is living in poverty?
The politicians have cheated our people so often despite their promises during election campaigns. Moreover, our bureaucracy is even worse: no public work proceeds without the bribery of officials at every level including even in the Court of Justice. The politics of patronage, exclusion and violence have been allowed to fester at the expense of people’s expectations for a better life. As a result, our hard-earned democracy itself is now in mortal danger.
Clean the Politics First
After the huge public outcry over the recent decision by the government to provide lifetime facilities for Nepalese VIPs, a few leaders rushed to hand in their state-owned vehicles while others declared that they would not be accepting such facilities. Nepali Congress Vice President Ram Chandra Poudel returned the Scorpio jeep that he was using in his capacity of former Speaker. UCPN (Maoist) Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, UML leader Madhav Kumar Nepal, and a few other so-called VIPs also returned their state-owned vehicles in the wake of growing public resentment. However, is that really enough? Does rejection of a lifetime’s worth of free dinners from the state or the return of public property to the state go anywhere near to solving the immense problems of on-going open corruption and ‘looting’ of public property and money?
At least the return of a few vehicles by the politicians concerned is confirming evidence of their involvement in the great share-out of the fruits of the state. However, where was the moral and ethical conduct of our leaders even to permit it in the first place? If morality and conscience had been awake, one probably would not have the widespread corruption that exists today. Is it not the time now to establish strong ethical and moral principles in the conduct of our politics? Is it not time to find a long-term solution to these recurring problems? Can simply returning a few vehicles to the state achieve anything beyond a few cheap newspaper headlines?
The mother of all battles is still to be fought in our country. The root cause of chronic corruption must be identified and a long-term solution adopted. Political commitment, strong legal instruments, and strong enforcement mechanisms are vital in order to bring about change. However, a strong civil society is the first essential if we are to fight effectively against corruption and the misuse of power. We need it now if we are to change and shape the incentives for our political leaders so that they favour a new regime of governance.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, the poet and philosopher, once wrote: ‘Power, like a desolating pestilence, pollutes whatever it touches.’ The first essential for us is to clean up our politics. If our politics remains dirty every sector of our governance will remain dirty. We need urgently to build towards the establishment of politics based on moral and ethical values. Selfless service must become the norm of everyday politics in Nepal, and the cycle of deadly bonds between politicians and criminals must be immediately ended. We must encourage ethically minded leaders to instigate the desired structural and system changes, and to promote a culture of integrity, transparency and accountability. The transformation of our state into a mafia raj must be halted without delay.