If you're fed up by just how low the business of politics in this country has fallen, take a look at the business of business. The same story, but the actors are in pinstripes. It's election time at the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI): there are three contestants vying for the top spot, and one embittered group that thinks it is all a farce. The cast is as follows:
l Ravi Bhakta Shrestha First vice president at the last election two years ago, he agreed not to run for president in favour of Pradeep Kumar Shrestha. In return, Pradeep promised to support the VP in his bid for the presidency in the upcoming election. Ravi Bhakta, wanting to play it safe, asked Pradeep to make a constitutional change to enable this to happen, but it wasn't made. Now Ravi Bhakta, the Nepali partner of Nepal Lever, is campaigning to become a president of consensus, but if that is impossible, he will take on any competitor.
l Pradeep Kumar Shrestha The incumbent president, from the Panchakanya Group, says he'll stand by this understanding, but is prone to double-speak. He often says he's just learnt the ropes of running the organisation, enough hint that he would not mind a second term.
l Mahesh Lal Pradhan A former president and still a proponent for the protection of Nepal's failed textile sector, where his business interests lie. He argues that there is no alternative to an election.
l Associate members Large corporate groups and joint ventures say they are fed up with the politics at the FNCCI. Mainly they are unhappy with its election system, which places most of the onus of selecting leaders on the district and municipal chambers, whose members are mostly small businesses. Associate members say this means they don't really have a voice in the election or the federation's decisions. Associate members ask that the federation reform, or they will form their own organisation.
"All this has happened because the FNCCI has been hijacked by office bearers promoting their own interests," explains Suraj Vaidya, of the Vaidya's Organisation of Industry and Trading Houses (VOITH). He supports finding a consensus president but on the condition the new chief revamps the organisation and its structure.
Others say that is not an option, because the 35-year-old FNCCI already has a network of district and municipal branches that has taken years to build. The 84 district and municipal chambers elect 50 percent of the executive committee, the 48 commodity groups 20 percent, and the 425 associate members 30 percent. This, say business leaders, is where the problem lies. The district and municipal bodies are vote banks and whoever has the time to campaign-and the money to hand out-wins. The president then becomes hostage to the demands of these constituents and cannot focus on national policy. And yet it is the associate and commodity members who contribute two-thirds of the funds needed to keep the FNCCI going. "Because you need district support to become president, the associate members and commodity organisations have been reduced to second class members," says Pravakar Rana of the Soaltee Group. That someone like Rana-who runs what is perhaps Nepal's most successful and professionally managed business empire-has been on the sidelines of the FNCCI is itself telling.
The office of FNCCI president is obviously attractive given its prestige and the doors that open to the incumbent. And occupying it is a question of balancing personal gain with institutional interests, something those at the top forget. Another reason the organisation ends up being dominated by one lobby or another rather than focusing on long-term policy beneficial to all. But there was a time when the FNCCI looked like an organisation that meant business: Binod Kumar Chaudhary (president from 1993-95) of the Chaudhary Group installed it in permanent quarters-a posh building on the banks of the Bagmati in Teku. Padma Jyoti of the Jyoti Group succeeded Chaudhary and led the FNCCI to lobby for the preferential trade treaty with India. Jyoti's successor was Anand Raj Mulmi, who won the elections. When he wasn't hobnobbing with the powers that be, he managed to pull off a term that was business-as-usual at best. Pradeep Kumar Shrestha promised to change that but now he is under criticism for doing just as much politicking as Mulmi did, possibly more. "Look at the newspapers and you'll know exactly what Preedep has been up to in the past two years," says a FNCCI insider. "All he did was go on junkets and promote himself and his own businesses." The July election looks like it will be a repeat of what happened before Jyoti nudged out Chaudhary in 1995. Like Pradeep, Chaudhary had agreed to work for a term and pass the baton to Jyoti. But when the time came to go, he wanted a second term. Jyoti challenged him and voted him out. Pradeep has not yet said he will not contest. If he does, the odds will likely favour Ravi Bhakta, who won't stay away. He would like to see a smooth change of leadership based on consensus, and says that since people's "word" is what business is all about there should be no elections. Still, Ravi Bhakta isn't taking any chances and has been politicking in the districts to strengthen his chances, no matter what. He denies he's panning for votes, saying only that he wants to understand the organisation to be able to run it better. Pradeep, between organising trade fairs and going on junkets, has not yet let anything slip except that he believes Rabi Bhakta's actions "threaten to disturb the consensus." The major charge against Pradeep is that he has failed to be more than a figurehead, a charge he doesn't so much answer as deflect. "How can you expect the FNCCI to be different when government has not been serious and stable?" he asks.
Rajendra Khetan, who heads the Employers' Council, says much remains undone at the FNCCI. One of the key behind-the-scenes "kingmakers" at the FNCCI, he says the institution has not done enough to lobby for improved industrial security and relations, or to build an environment to attract investment and prepare for Nepal's eventual entry in the World Trade Organisation. It isn't surprising then, perhaps, that about 50 percent of the FNCCI's associate members have not bothered to renew their memberships in the last four years. Many other successful and new industry groups-hotels, tourism, and information technology-have also stayed away. Now there is a group that wants to form a new Confederation of Nepalese Industries (CEN), similar to the Confederation of Indian Industry. Proponents say the CEN would look into larger policy issues and let the chambers engage in petty politics over licenses or other concessions. An anonymous four-page document received by NT names Binod Chaudhary as one of its founder-sponsors. FNCCI sources say the associate members hope to use this threat as a bargaining chip for more power in the federation-perhaps to ensure that the first vice president comes their corps.
The machinations this situation is inspiring are numerous and varied. Binod Chaudhary, who has scores to settle with Padma Jyoti (who backs a consensus Ravi Bhakta as president), had a one-to-one with Pradeep Shrestha at a posh city hotel last Thursday. The next day, he met the backers of the new to-be-formed CEN at another five-star location. Kathmandu's top hotels are filled with whispering groups convening meetings, and cells phones ringing relentlessly. Until July all the business community will talk about is politics. At the end of the day, they will have to ask what the role of the FNCCI is, and whether it is running on empty.