Nepali Times
Democracy vs depravity


With the top diplomat of the planet's sole superpower having joined the international donor community in admonishing Nepali officials to curb corruption, we must add bite to our bark before the next watchdog comes out with its latest sleaze index. This confluence of global caution, however, must not be allowed to obscure our own politicians' contributions to raising anti-graft awareness.

Even at the height of the Lauda Air allegations he was battling as prime minister last year, Girija Prasad Koirala continued to exhort Nepalis to make a critical distinction: "People attack democracy by saying it brought along corruption. But if Girija Prasad is corrupt, Girija should be blamed, not democracy."

Around the same time, in his avatar as the chief Kangresi dissident, Sher Bahadur Deuba attributed the blossoming of bribery to the people's readiness to respect the rich regardless of the source of their resources. Coming from a politician, such candour could be considered the equivalent of biting the hand that feeds you. However, Deuba offered a forthright description of what many experts have been telling us through turgid theses: corruption is rooted in the continuing feudal nature of Nepali society.

The democracy-corruption correlation is something many Nepalis wished they wouldn't have to explore. Now that the task has been forced upon us, it is clear that neither Koirala's nor Deuba's rationalisation creates room for confidence. It's been six months since Koirala vacated Baluwatar darbar, but corruption continues to coarsen the political discourse as abrasively as ever.

Extending Deuba's expostulation, each change in the political system has spawned a new pedigree of parvenus. They may not be feudals in the strict sense of the term, but they do share most of the characteristics. The more transparent society is trying to be, the more conspicuous tainted money has become. To be sure, the networks of resource collection and distribution that drive organised politics have played a significant part in the inflation of corruption. While vote-bank politics has had an economic trickle-down effect, seeping all the way down to the village development committees, it reeks more of cronyism.

Every prime minister since Mohan Shumsher the Commoner has spoken of the need for a clean, fair and impartial administration. The restoration of multiparty politics has widened the vista of such vigilance bodies as the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority, parliament's Public Accounts Committee and the Special Police Department. Even in the midst of an increasingly assertive civil society, however, court convictions are rare. You can pilfer from the public purse and have a good chance of getting away with it.

Nepalis aren't alone in lamenting how rising costs of election campaigns have allowed commercial and criminal elements to influence the political process. The scale and subtlety may vary, but a coherent pattern of political fund-raising flaws is perceptible in instances from former German chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union to the soft money/hard money filibusters on Capitol Hill. It seems the price of democracy is eternal tolerance of corruption.

Today's politicians must find it intolerable having to listen to harangues against financial malfeasance and moral turpitude from remnants of the partyless order. But they can't respond because their politics depends on the monetary value they can put on patronage. Think of the scandals that took place during the Panchayat decades and jot down the faces that come to mind. Count how many are in active politics today. Is it just a coincidence that those who prospered the most during the partyless years happen to be the ones dominating the Rastriya Prajatantra Party today? Let's not be so adamant about the April 1990 cut-off when we talk about punishing the corrupt, unless we're ready to exculpate the referendum-era clique that denuded our forests.

Donors complain that scarce government resources that should be funding health, nutrition and education programmes are being squandered. But do they realise how expensive it is to acquire attributes like openness and transparency? Moreover, when foreign aid is still influenced by political and strategic considerations, how principled can the policy performance of the recipient nation be? Sometimes you're forced to wonder whether less corrupt governments actually receive more foreign assistance.

A prime minister who is forced to begin his day by counting his flock in parliament regardless of the size of his party's majority cannot be expected to probe subordinates with questionable integrity. Professional solidarity would demand that the chief point to corruption in the bureaucracy and other areas of life. Many people understand that, adjusted for inflation, a politician's net gain today is nowhere near what a pancha took home. But Nepalis still want the anti-corruption campaign to start with the people they elected.

One Nepali Congress youth activist wants the healing process to begin with the imprisonment of half a dozen leaders of his party. In a season of conciliation, we need to devise an anti-corruption campaign that would satisfy everyone. Many politicians under clouds of suspicion today languished in dark panchayati prisons for the cause of democracy. But, remember, they opposed the system knowing that it was illegal to do so. Perhaps the state could order politicians accused of financial misconduct to post bonds equivalent to what they received in prison allowances, pending a full investigation.

This dragnet would also catch politicians who found themselves in the gaol in the 1960s until they recognised the value of becoming panchas. As for those who thrived in the partyless decades without having gone to prison, well, you always could shame them as sinners of an abominable epoch.

The funds raised from this mandatory reimbursement scheme would be modest, but it could help break the culture of impunity in which corruption thrives. Of course, the alternative would be to wait for Koirala to start blaming democracy for depravity. But where would that leave the people, especially those who have tried five systems in 50 years?

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)