The swiftness with which sceptics have stepped in to temper the euphoria triggered by the latest anti-graft offensive shows we haven't lost our equipoise during these tumultuous times. That the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) could strike with such clockwork precision less than 24 hours after it got new powers shows how prompt we can be when we feel we have to. The secrecy with which the operations were carried out testifies to our capacity for collective circumspection. If you still believe the anti-graft watchdog has more bark than bite, it wouldn't hurt to be a little cautious anyway.
By swooping under the cover of darkness, however, the CIAA has raised serious questions of propriety. No matter how tainted the property in dispute, women, children and pets should have been kept out of harm's way. What about the billions stashed away by those who bought off the accused? How wide is the CIAA prepared to throw its net? Is this a pre-election stunt not terribly concerned about the putrefaction surrounding those closer to the corridors of power? Why such rejoicing in a job the CIAA commissioners are paid to do?
CIAA chief Surya Nath Upadhyaya, a lawyer who served as member-secretary of the panel that drafted the constitution, must have mapped his anti-corruption battle plans with prudence. Since he seems concerned about his reputation, he can be expected to take us into confidence in due course. The crackdown wasn't entirely unexpected, though. We missed some of the hints Upadhyaya was dropping off these past months. When he gave that speech in Birganj in April exhorting the business community not to offer bribes, we thought he was on the side of politicians and bureaucrats. (How could public servants master the art of taking if there weren't so many people ready to give?)
Three months after that speech, a prominent industrialist began warning politicians not to count on the philanthropy of his fraternity during the upcoming elections. Those acclimatised to today's culture of impunity dismissed his threats of releasing explosive diaries as an outburst of an entrepreneur envious of the higher internal rate of return politics carried. With reports of Nepali political investments in gas stations in the United States having become the subject of inquiry, it's clear those 22 families were not the only ones in for a rude awakening on the night of 16 August. Don't be surprised if many of these suspects follow precedent by walking out of court with their reputations fully restored. Be less so if some of them turn out to be the most ardent campaigners of probity in public life.
The political undercurrents are equally instructive. When remnants of partyless decadence in the Rastriya Prajatantra Party become the first people to welcome the CIAA onslaught, you can easily understand how much the stakes have changed.
There is a more profound question here. Has the CIAA struck an alliance with a business community fed up with having to pay politicians what they feel amounts to protection money? Have officials decided to become state witnesses against a political class that has outsourced fund-raising to the bureaucracy? What immediate impact will all this have on our politics? Tulsi Giri is the name that pops up here, too. The former prime minister and key members of his cabinet and the bureaucracy faced charges of misappropriating Rs 60 million by manipulating the pricing of carpet exports in 1976. They insisted they were the victims of vendetta by a group of businessmen working closely with senior officials at the palace secretariat. Giri and the other "carpet scandal" co-accused would probably have landed behind bars if restive students hadn't taken to the streets in 1979. With their political credibility having been put to a referendum, the panchas rallied behind their chief ideologue and his allies and hit the campaign trail.
The CIAA's newfound assertiveness might provide the greatest incentive for the Nepali Congress factions to forge some kind of pre-election unity.