Member of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee and Nepali Congress Central Committee member Dhan Raj Gurung is a strong voice against corruption. But lawmakers from his own party are looking to amend electoral laws to allow even corruption-convicts to contest elections. What does Gurung make of this? Here are excerpts of his interview with Mahabir Paudyal.
Lawmakers from your party are openly advocating for graft convicted to contest elections. Why has Congress fallen so low?
It enrages me. It depresses me. It frustrates me and astonishes me. Nepali Congress is a party founded by great leader BP Koirala, who envisioned a social democratic state. Today voices are heard within our party that even leaders convicted of corruption be allowed to contest elections. Some lawmakers are openly advocating for this. This has dampened my spirit and degraded our morale. If we pass election laws to this effect, it will be tantamount to declaring that Nepal is now a country of the corrupt. Existing laws bar candidates of questionable moral character from contesting election. Despite this, political corruption is flourishing. If we allow corruption convicts to contest polls, most elected leaders of tomorrow will be corrupt.
I sometimes feel this is happening under the guidance of some top leaders. Some of our leaders have been convicted by the court for corruption. The thinking here seems to be: ‘I have amassed property through illegal means and I want to amass more. If I do not contest polls, I will be barred from this opportunity’. Such base thinking may be guiding this debate. The amendment being sought is cent-percent wrong and will make Nepali politics thoroughly corrupt. I do not believe such an amendment will be approved by the State Affairs Committee, nor will it be passed by the parliament. The kind of amendment they seek is against fundamental principles of rule of law and democracy.
But why hasn’t there been a strong opposition to this initiative by Congress rank and file?
For this you need to be able to rise above your petty interests. I don’t have to hide from you that there are many leaders who cannot do so. They are the cause of suffering of Nepali people. Some of us have been consistently speaking against these tendencies but we are not getting enough support, both from inside and outside the party. Many seem to be comfortable with status quo. Even top leaders from main opposition and our major coalition partner (Maoist Center) seem to be secretly wishing for this amendment to pass. This is why they have not spoken against it even while there has been big opposition by the media, civil society and general public. The amendment proposal is currently being discussed in the State Affairs Committee. It should be rejected by this committee outright. Sadly, this has not happened so far. If this bill passes, there will be no space for leaders like us in politics.
In your reading, what is the possibility of the committee endorsing this amendment?
How can we expect parliament’s committee to give nod to the bill that will submit the country’s politics to the proven corrupt? I don’t see this possibility because there has been huge resistance. We have been resisting, the media have been speaking against it and the whole public is against it.
How can you be so sure? Was Congress not the same party that decided to file impeachment motion against chief justice Sushila Karki for her stand against corruption?
Like I said, if the bill passes, Nepal will be doomed. That will be the day which will be remembered in country’s history as a black day, the day that will push the country into perpetual darkness. You are right to bring up the impeachment issue. We (Congress) have already earned a bad repute because of this. I had consistently stood against the idea of impeaching her. I spoke against this in our central committee meeting as well. I had told my colleagues that we, as democrats, must abide by court decisions. Despite such opposition, the impeachment motion was registered. The unthinkable happened. But I believe the State Affairs Committee won’t set another dangerous precedent.
It is said amendment has been sought to reestablish corruption-convicts like Khum Bahadur Khadka and Gobinda Raj Joshi.
I alluded to this earlier as well. This indeed seems to be the intent. Perhaps they want to bring corrupt faces back into politics. Or those advocating for this shameful cause may be thinking, ‘I am in politics for the sole purpose of making money. If there is strict anti-corruption law, my career will be in jeopardy’. How else do you explain this advocacy for the corrupt?
How are those advocating for this amendment even able to show their face in public? I believe even if the parliamentary committee endorses this amendment, it won’t be endorsed by the full parliament.
What will you do to stop this amendment then?
We will tell the members of State Affairs Committee to reject the amendment. We will put pressure on them, if necessary. I have been talking with some top leaders to stop this bill from going forward. I have been telling them that this will defame our party. But even top leaders seem unable to take a stand on this. We will hold discussions with ruling as well as opposition party leaders and ask them to ensure the failure of this amendment. I am sure there are many others like me who do not want this bill to pass. But they cannot take a stand as there is pressure from the leadership. A cross-party alliance is needed. When at least some leaders speak against misrule and corruption, top leaders will be bound to support our cause. The key is not to give up, or to speak up against it consistently, freely and fearlessly. At least I will do so.
There are a few MPs like you who have consistently spoken against corruption. Do you think it has done any good?
Those who speak against corruption face many risks and challenges. Let me put this into perspective. Lokman Singh Karki had run a terror regime from CIAA. He would prosecute any individual, even on fake charges. The person at the helm of the anti-corruption watchdog was himself thoroughly corrupt. The directives given to CIAA by the Public Accounts Committee would be used to extract bribes from the corruption-suspect. So we decided to impeach Karki.
Three of us—Gagan Thapa, myself and Shyam Shrestha—registered the impeachment motion against him at the parliament secretariat. It was then that I experienced pressure from various sources. First they tried to lure me. When I did not relent, I started to receive threat calls from unidentified numbers. They would first speak to me politely and then threaten me. They would say they are my well-wishers, that they did not want to see me in difficulty but also that I would be risking my life if I did not relent. For some time I was distressed. Then I decided ‘So what if I die for this noble cause? We all have to die one day anyway.’
Have you had other such experiences as well while carrying out your duties?
When I raise corruption issues in the Public Accounts Committee, I am sometimes put under pressure by leaders of my own party. “Dhanrajji, why are you after so and so? Leave him alone. He belongs to our party,” they say. Since I do not entertain such requests, some leaders stopped speaking to me. I am a disciple of BP Koirala. I will try to control corruption for as long as I live. On occasions, when I have advocated for removal of corrupt minister from cabinet, they have warned to finish my political career. Such threats are common. But I have not given up, nor will I ever.
You had spoken vehemently against complicity of top police officers in gold smuggling. Why were these officers not punished?
This scam had an interesting side. There is a system in the police department to give some money in commission to those who inform the police about gold smuggling. But the officials against whom I spoke had created fake informants to get the commission. Some persons projected as informants were relatives of police officers. This was a billion-rupee scam. We in the Public Accounts Committee first furnished all evidence, including audio and visual evidence. I was about to recommend for prosecution when I started receiving threats and pressure calls. “Why are you so aggressively pursuing this case?” They would say. I would say ‘I have all the evidence and I could show them to you as well.’
I said the officials implicated should be suspended and prosecuted. Then there was a strange situation. The day we were to make final recommendation, all members of my committee stood silent. Even those who had been advocating for action earlier began to mince their words. Finally, I was alone. The situation had completely changed. Yet I recommended action against the police officers and submitted the file to CIAA. I suspect that CIAA used this file to blackmail the suspects. Lokman Singh Karki was the head of CIAA at the time. This was one of the reasons he had to be impeached.
We have uncovered big cases of corruption involving chiefs of Nepal Oil Corporation and Sajha Publication. But no action has been taken against them as well.
I have been thinking that we in Public Accounts Committee should summon CIAA officials and ask them if the CIAA is the right body to investigate these cases. We have already issued directives for their prosecution. Other committees of the parliament are also closely watching these cases. For example, Consumer Welfare Committee has made a field trip to investigate NOC’s land purchase scam. I hope this committee will also recommend strong action.
Why do you think there is no cross-party consensus on anti-corruption?
Because the political parties are themselves corrupt. They raise big donations from businessmen and industrialists. Those who donate, donate black money. This is why they request the political parties not to disclose their names. When these parties use black money to contest and win elections, how can you expect them to speak against corruption?
Are you suggesting that all hope is now lost?
Not exactly. There is still hope. This hope lies in the ability of media, public intellectuals and civil society to raise voice against corruption. Your newspaper, for example, has been exposing many corrupt faces. You should continue with it. At one time, it seemed nobody could remove Lokman Singh Karki from CIAA. Sushila Karki’s verdict made this possible. Then there are people like Dr Govinda KC who is speaking for reforms in medical education and health sector. Thus we should not be pessimistic. There will always be those who speak against corruption. Even if political parties field corrupt leaders in elections, they will be defeated. Time will come when people will unite and speak against corruption. But for this media must not stop raising the issue. We must not give in.
We should develop this country in a way that attracts foreigners to come and work here. This could happen, only if we could invest in hydropower. Billions of rupees could be raised for this from the public. Our government ministers look to foreign investment because there is huge commission involved, which they would not get if government itself invests. We could invest in herbs. Nepal is a country with more 736 species of rare and expensive herbs. There is no incentive to invest in this sector because there is no commission. We need to launch a mega campaign against corruption. I sometimes feel like quitting party politics and devoting my life entirely to anti-corruption. I joined politics to remove the corrupt and feudal Panchayat system. Today they have made the new republic as corrupt.
Why do you think your party leaders have repeatedly bypassed you when it came to picking ministers?
Some leaders had said I should become a minister. I told them I will be one only if I will be allowed to fully devote my time to public welfare. I said I would try to make a difference even if I become a minister for six months. The reality is that you become a minister if you are a blind follower of one or other top leader. I am not one of them. I am a follower of BP Koirala’s socialist philosophy. Perhaps this is not what they want. But I have no complaints. I will speak for reforms and against corruption and irregularities, wherever I am and for as long as I live.