When Hari Prasad Pandey came clean last week to declare that he was corrupt and should face legal prosecution, many people thought the former UML hydropower minister and industrialist had finally gone mad.
At a four-hour press conference in Pokhara 23 April, Pandey admitted to bribing officials to enrich himself, evading income tax, and covering up his misdeeds to project a clean image. "Now, I am willing to subject myself to whatever punishment the state deems fit," Pandey said. At a dramatic press conference in Kathmandu Wednesday, he blindfolded himself and said he was ready to go to prison. But 55-year-old Hari Prasad says he isn't trying to dare the government to come after him, or aiming for cheap publicity. "I am doing it to ease my own consicence," he said.
Pandey has even done the legal homework for the government, and assigned himself a fine of Rs 15 million, which he said he had already set aside to be handed over if the government could convince him it would be used productively. He added for good measure: "However, if the government should decide that it will confiscate the said amount from me at any point, I will abide by the decision."
It was inevitable that such a dramatic confession would hit the headlines the next day. And so Pandey became the butt of jokes, the subject of cartoons, and derisive public reaction came thick and fast. Some said the UML ex-minister had finally "gone off his rocker". Others thought it was smart of him to whitewash himself. Some were certain he was a religious fanatic of some sort.
But when we met him in Pokhara, we found a simple man who friends call a "Gandhian communist".
The cynicism was to be expected, and Pandey soon discovered that the media had got his story all wrong. But he doesn't seem to mind. In fact, he isn't in any particular hurry to correct the story, and he agreed to speak to us reluctantly with a oh-no-not-another-reporter tone to his voice. And when we did meet him in his Kathmandu home, he had the serene demeanour of an idealist at peace with himself.
One thing the papers got wrong, he says, is that he took bribes as a minister. "I never misused my position in the hydropower ministry in any way, in fact I am not even a member of the UML or any party," Pandey told us. He was made minister by the party for his honesty, and it was during his tenure in 1993 that the $400 million Arun III project was cancelled by the World Bank.
UML leaders haven't yet commented on Pandey's disclosures, and say they are still studying his report. The party brass is in a bind. After all, its central committee "disciplined" senior UML members of the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee for investigating of the leasing of a China Southwest Airlines jet for Royal Nepal Airlines three years ago.
Pandey has a long list of his own transgressions: "As a minister, I was distracted and didn't pay enough attention to the country's industrial development, as a member of parliament I didn't contribute as much as I should have, I negligently allowed the Arun III project to be cancelled without lining up any alternatives, and I was made a peoples' representative and minister even though I had given bribes, sinned against the motherland and tried to cover-up my misdeeds."
It is not surprising that anyone reading this confession would think that this was a rash act of an unstable person. But meeting Hari Prasad Pandey a visitor gets the impression of someone who is genuinely troubled by his past, and not a person given to impulsive self-publicity.
Hari lives with his wife Tulasa, five daughters and a son in Pokhara. Tulasa was 14 when she got married to Hari Prasad, and says her husband always had this intense love for his motherland. "I don't think anyone else has a husband like him. He never does things on his own, we discuss everything in the family first," she told us. In fact, Hari Prasad read all 42 pages of his confession to his family before going public, and family members reviewed it for six hours. Says Tulasa: "I had one objection: I didn't want him to call himself a criminal." But Hari Prasad tried to convince them that any wilful wrongdoing while in office was a crime.
Four of the Pandeys' five daughters are studying medicine in Pokhara. Tulasa (below) looks after the family's biscuit manufacturing unit and Hari Prasad manages his instant noodle factory. From accounts of his friends and relatives, Pandey started showing signs of a spiritual transformation in 1988. Those were the days of the Indian trade blockade and it opened Hari Prasad's eyes to just how much Nepal is dependent on the outside world for basic necessities. After that he wanted to show by example that it was possible to be self-reliant by living frugally and reducing consumption.
He was also inspired after a chance meeting on the street with a desperately poor woman in tattered clothes who taught him the meaning of responsibility and the importance of the motherland. Writes Pandey: "Your life, body, knowledge, history, future must necessarily be a part and parcel of your motherland. You cannot achieve fulfilment until you overcome subservience, misconduct and indebtedness." It is not hard to imagine that the woman in tattered clothes for Pandey is Mother Nepal herself.
After this, not only did Hari Prasad turn vegetarian, but he even reduced his intake of salt, sugar and rice. He carried his own food (roasted corn, radish and tsampa) when he travelled aborad. Earlier, he overdid this frugality and he fell sick because of under-nourishment. He was prescribed fruits, but told himself that rather than eat imported oranges and bananas, he would consume domestically-produced meat, and give up vegetarianism.
But isn't all this a bit extreme, we ask. "No, it's being pragmatic," answers Pandey. Expelled from the Butwal Technical Instutute for being a "bad student", he idolises Marx and Lenin. But those who know him well call Hari Prasad more of a "Gandhian communist". Does that make him an atheist? Pandey answers the question obliquely: "Gandhi puts god at the centre of things, but I think unless human beings struggle against all forms of injustice, vice and dependence here on earth, they don't have even the minimum qualification to approach god." So that means he is not an atheist.
He first approached the Commission on Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) as far back as 1995 after confessing to mismanagement, negligence and incompetence that led to losses during the sale of stock options in the Biratnager Jute Mills, and asked that he be prosecuted. Last week's self-disclosure is just an extension of Pandey's 1995 confession. But both times, nothing happened. A country in which corruption is endemic doesn't seem to have the legal mechanism to deal with someone who voluntarily confesses to giving bribes.
As a businessman in Pokhara, Hari Prasad has had visits from Maoists demanding "donations". Sick of threats and intimidation, he wrote an open letter titled "Take My Donation, But Answer My Questions First". He has set aside Rs 100,000 for the Maoists if they can answer these questions:
1. World opinion and the Nepali public are against your war. So why should it succeed?
2. Neither of Nepal's giant neighbours agrees with your policies. Even if you grab power, what makes you think you can hold on to it?
3. After decades, the Chinese have admitted that Mao's economic polices were counterproductive and have abandoned them. Why should it work with you?
4. Why should it be a crime even to ask you these questions?
Pandey denies that he is trying to gain prestige and fame, and absolve himself from future blame. He denies trying to preach or tell anyone to follow in his footsteps. "I am saving my soul. To do that I have to give back to society what I took from it. And I am willing to undergo any physical incarceration, pay any fine, and sacrifice what is left of my personal integrity," he told us, adding: "And if the government does not come forward, I will inflict the punishment on myself."