In 1979, then Finance Secretary Devendra Raj Panday resigned from his post after a dispute with Prime Minister and Finance Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa. Last Tuesday, Rameswor Khanal, Finance Secretary, allegedly tendered his resignation following a major disagreement with Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Bharat Mohan Adhikari. Between the two incidents lies a short history of Nepal's administrative service.
Nepal first drafted a Civil Service Act in 1957. By 1990, the act had gone through 29 revisions. Revisions were not meant to institutionalise the civil service, but to expand the discretionary power of top-level bureaucrats, ministers and the masters of them all, the Palace mandarins. During the Panchayat years frequent changes in the Act helped the Palace decide who was in and who was out among the ministers and, sometimes, among the bureaucrats. It was with the Palace's blessing that Thapa decided that Panday should be out, and out went Panday. Administrative procedure be damned!
Upon donors' advice, GP Koirala's government started the process of streamlining the bureaucracy in 1992. But as so often happens with technocratic advice applied without an understanding of the local context and capacity, the streamlining work soon mutated into an ill-thought out exercise. Laid-off civil servants sued the government, won their cases, and eventually returned to their jobs. Besides, the idea of creating a lean bureaucracy did not go well with political parties, who saw government as a painless source of many low to mid-level jobs for their cadres at the expense of taxpayers and donors.
With the stage set thus, the following 15 years saw party-political influence penetrating deep into the fibre of the civil service. Secretaries who agreed to help siphon funds to party headquarters or the pockets of politicians were tolerated and promoted. Those who did not cooperate were sidelined. Career paths for bureaucrats became unstable and unpredictable. For patronage, they started becoming fixtures at party headquarters and at politicians' homes. Trade unions with overt political affiliations started signing up civil servants as members, treating them as though they were wage labourers.
By the time of Jana Andolan II in 2006, the mood at government offices had become politically electric and polarised. In some way, that helped contribute to the protest movement against the king.
But the cost was that the virus of partisan politics became firmly entrenched in the fabric of the civil service. In the last two years, with stories of ministers assaulting civil servants and locking them up in bathrooms, Nepal's 'civil service' has become neither civil nor service-oriented. Years of political interference by democratically elected netas who outdid the Panchayat mandarins in weakening all potentially strong and independent institutions have meant that the civil service is now an 'anything goes' institution. As such, even if one were to start civil service reforms tomorrow, pushing the reforms through the system to make it independent and strong is not an easy task.
By most accounts, Khanal disagreed that the files on alleged tax cheats should be closed. The Finance Minister, apparently with the Prime Minister's backing, thought otherwise. Khanal therefore walked away from his job. And the optics surrounding a straightforward civil servant standing up to powerful vested interests make the government beholden to thugs who pass themselves off as businessmen who wear bespoke suits. In the absence of a sustained public outcry, Adhikari is likely to keep his head low for a few days and let the issue die out.
Something similar happened in 1979. Thapa stayed powerful. Panday went on to become a democracy activist. On Wednesday, Khanal's comment on his Facebook page was: "There is a wider civil society in which we can work together . . . for the change that our country needs."