Nepali Times
State Of The State
Political pornograph


It's a bit like hard-core porn. There is a sense of illicit anticipation, but once you see that nothing is left for the imagination, the result is revulsion, not titillation. Reports about corruption scandals in Royal Nepal Airlines Corporation (RNAC) have started having a similar effect. When the national flag-carrier's dirty linen started getting washed in public post-1990, any deal the airline involved itself in was automatically perceived to have been sordid.

Deposing before a US Senate Committee in 1975, Haughton, Chairman of the Lockheed Corporation, had stated: "If you get the contract, it is pretty good evidence that payments had to be made." World over, the aviation sector is believed to be hotbed of high corruption. It only gets worse in countries like ours where the elite has very few avenues of making easy money without raising the hackles of either the donor community or the general public.

Donors do not bother much about RNAC because they expect it to die a slow and painful death. And the Nepali people will respond to chakka-jams, not jet-jams, because so few of them can afford to fly anyway. Civil aviation is for the elite, of the elite and by the elite. And it is the capital's elite who take vicarious pleasure in using Royal Nepal Airlines to hit each other with, while making a certain Austrian charter company a household word in Nepal, just like the name of a Japanese four-wheel drive became synonymous with corruption.

The same bunch of politicians who have run a perfectly viable airline to the ground by interfering shamelessly with its functioning are the ones who will suck it dry and use it to embarrass their rivals. Since its inception, RNAC has been the employer of last resort for the unemployable prot?g?s of Kathmandu's elite. Meritocracy, or social justice, has never been a criteria in the recruitment policy of this public sector enterprise. Mediocrity has. This means most employees are predisposed to interference by their benefactors. Interference in the affairs of the corporation is not just tolerated, but expected. You get less overt political interference with the Herbal Corporation simply because you can't make big bucks there.

The result: general sales agents who don't pay their dues are habitually hired, leasing aircraft is a hush-hush activity, even the renewal of the maintenance contract for 757s attracts the attention of the high and mighty. Following a grand tradition started during the Panchayat era (but not so blatantly) the powers that be will not let this milch cow alone. The only difference is that unlike during the Panchayat there is more than one centre of power, complicating things slightly. The notorious Dhamija scandal was the visible symptom of this terminal disease of institutionalised corruption. Chase Air was next: money was paid to a bogus agent who ran away with it, and only the vigilance of a lawyer of Nepali origin in New York saved some of the money. Today, even a contract to supply tissue paper or mineral water to the airline can be the source of fierce competition among political power centres.

The trouble is that scandals are fanned by rival groups that stand to lose if the deal goes ahead. And if this is the kind of dog-eat-dog competition that accompanies a leasing arrangement, wonder what would happen if the airline decided to actually buy brand-new planes. Governments would topple. No surprise, therefore, that the powers that be do not trust the airline with anyone except their near-and-dear. And everyone is in the act: tycoons with fingers in several juicy jars, intelligentsia at the beck and call of the aviation mafia, politicians beholden to big business houses, investigative journalists for hire-all attracted like bears to RNAC's honey pot. It would be highly unrealistic to expect Royal Nepal Airlines to be an island of efficiency when the rest of the country is so rotten. The airline only reflects the country's rot.

So, if the root of the disease lies in the governance of the country then there is a need to tackle it there, not just focus all our energies on the symptoms. The treatment (overhauling the national flag carrier) is so drastic that the elite rent-seeking class of the capital will never allow it. Why should they let go of this source of easy pocket money? The sooner this realisation dawns on the strategists of Nepal Communist Party (UML) the better. Poor Niki Lauda lost his job in Vienna, but he has become an excellent political weapon in Kathmandu. This cannot be part of an opposition strategy during the winter session of the parliament--there are too many more vital issues at stake.

KP Bhattarai meant it as a warning, but his recent public prognosis that the Nepali Congress may lose the next general elections may just turn out to be prophetic. If the ruling party does not succeed in getting its act together, and there is little indication that it will, then there is a very strong possibility that Communist Party of Nepal (UML) will form the next government. Even otherwise, the main opposition in a parliamentary democracy is considered to be a government-in-waiting. Cheap sloganeering should not become the main plank. The prime minister would need more than an airline leasing agreement to tender his resignation. This scandal may be a major preoccupation for the Valley elite, but it does not catch the imagination of the subsistence farmer in Dang. Most Nepalis are more concerned about their safety-physical and fiscal.

In the colloquial, the word Lauda has lewd implications. But obscene deals are best left for investigative agencies. The Commission for the Abuse of Authority, high-profile corporate lawyers, public interest litigation activists and nosy journalists are better suited to carry out an investigation. The UML should concentrate on more pressing issues instead: the complete collapse of governance, the worsening law and order situation, the danger of corruption becoming a way of life rather than just a fact of life.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)