Nepal’s is a checkered history punctuated far too often by corrupt leaders that plunder the country’s resources. Some successes in judicial enforcement have brought a tiny fraction of those guilty to account, but much remains to be done. The symbolic victories at the top are important, but the system can only be tackled when judicial action is backed by everyday individual reflection and correction.
After the notable convictions of criminals Govinda Raj Joshi, Chiranjeevi Wagle and JP Gupta in the last few years, once-perennial minister Khum Bahadur Khadka is now paying the price for his transgressions.
Nepali Congress’ support for disgraced Khadka has been rightly lambasted for showcasing the party’s undemocratic evolution. Their so-called defense does not even have the audacity to claim Khadka’s innocence, instead reverting to old-school politics of pointing fingers elsewhere, as if that were a viable defense. NC is right that there are corrupt leaders in other political parties, but efforts now should focus on bringing the rest to account, not protecting their culprits. This culture of nepotistic, unreflective acceptance has been extremely regressive for the nation, and must be addressed immediately.
ACCOMPLICES AT LARGE
While justice has been served, this verdict marks only one step towards greater accountability. A discourse on the accomplices to these crimes is entirely missing. Was Khadka single-handedly responsible for embezzling these funds, or was he aided by others? To what extent were his mother party, his aides, other bureaucrats, and national and international organizations complicit in these crimes? Until investigations cast a wide net across the corruption coalition, these convictions, while welcome, still fall short of dealing with the problematic nexus.
Corruption does not exist in vacuum but in particular socio-economic-political contexts. Low levels of corruption involve bureaucrats and petty officers who harass the general populace, particularly those with few political connections, for small bribes to complete their work.
High level corruption involves senior officers and politicians entrusted with protecting and representing the interests of the populace. Khadka did not amass his wealth through petty bribes but by grooming and returning favors in awarding and implementing “big money” projects. Those responsible for enriching Khadka are unlikely to be powerless victims but connected businessmen and “entrepreneurs” who used their muscle to amass further wealth. Their illegal donations were lucrative investments, and they hoped to be rewarded for their transgressions.
Khadka is rightly punished for being the facilitating minister, but the bishops, rooks and pawns should be brought to justice as well, because they are equally responsible in perpetuating a corrupt regime. The state could extend an olive branch to Khadka, commuting part of his financial sentence (the jail term is already short as it is) in exchange for information leading to the conviction of fellow corrupt individuals within his reach.
CHANGE FROM BELOW
Recent debates on federalism have emphasized the need for decentralized rights to empower people and their communities. Discussions about responsibilities from below, however, have rarely been addressed.
Dinesh Aryal argued recently that our political parties are undemocratic because our classrooms are undemocratic (Reap what you sow, August 18). In the same vein, different levels of corruption do not exist in dichotomy but feed off each other as well. We as a society are so complicit in acts of nepotism and corruption in our daily lives that we should not be surprised when our representatives pursue similar strategies.
Most Nepalis have no problem calling in favors from their relatives, friends, neighbors, well-wishers, and goru becheko sahinos (relative strangers) for our personal gain. Whether it is to avoid a traffic fine or to get a job or a doctor’s appointment or access to the international airport terminal, afno manche (well-wishers) are used and abused constantly.
A couple of years ago a neighbor had been caught under charges of smuggling drugs and illegal weapons across the Indian border. His friends and relatives were busy calling in favors from Chief District Officers and Superintendents of Police across the nation, trying to get this person out of custody, even as there was no doubt of his criminal involvement. If this story were an exception, it would not be a problem, but because such manipulations are the norm, it should come as no surprise that NC stands by its corrupt leader.
The urge to call in favors for near and dear ones is perhaps natural and universal. When I first went to the US, I witnessed that nepotistic practices—disguised in the form of networking—were extremely pervasive and entrenched in the system, and yet the system largely worked.
In the US, networking based on personal and professional relationships mostly serve as an extra point on your CV. Such friendly recommendations are usually enough to get you noticed or afford you a second thought in the assessment process, but the onus remains on you to then prove your worth.
In Nepal, such recommendations often form the sole basis for action. Regardless of your qualifications, or lack thereof, if you are the nephew or sometimes even neighbor of someone “important”, you can usually rest assured of being successful. Therein lays the difference: in the US your social relations give you a leg up whereas in Nepal it is often the only way up. Nepotism is thus not as destructive in the US as it is in Nepal.
Connections overwhelmingly outweigh credentials in our society, both at micro and macro levels. We applaud with gusto corrupt leaders who abuse their authority but rarely refrain from abusing our own nefarious networks.
Gandhi is credited with urging us to be the change we want to see. If we want greater rights while also demanding greater accountability from our leaders, we must hold ourselves to higher standards. Punishing corrupt leaders and making symbolic examples of them appease our public conscience, but the system will not change unless we refuse to participate in corrupt practices, regardless of the immediate costs of such action.
It is one thing to tell your near and dear ones about job openings, or even help them prepare for such openings, but quite another to call your uncle to land them the job. Our actions against corruption can be quite simple while also being powerful: next time our friend needs a job, we should not call our uncle to ask for a favor. If someone we know picks up the phone to abuse their networks, we must speak up and dissuade them. If someone asks us for a bribe, we have to refuse and report them. We have to be the change we want to see. It will not be easy, but it will be worth it.
If all of these fail but we still believe in a more just world, we should use our networks to speak up for those for whom no one speaks. We can help deserving strangers in need but without the right connections rather than relatives who already enjoy the fruits of privilege. We could turn one man’s corruption into another’s affirmative action. We must believe in our ideals with pride even as the doubters mock and dismiss us.
Only if we act in ways that we expect our leaders to act will we have the moral authority to hold them accountable. Otherwise, we will convict a few Khadkas to feel good about ourselves, but our society will inevitably remain corrupt.