Nepal is now seriously troubled by a concern over the national integrity of its polity. The integrity concerns its qualities of being non-corrupt, fair and just. The condition of national integrity is rooted in legitimate, transparent and accountable governance and civil society which makes corruption a high-risk venture. An exit of authority from the accepted and expected behavioural standards in pursuit of illicit private gains cannot make many Nepali leaders comfortable and escape by blaming each other. Those in authority must act collectively with a sense of public responsibility and eradicate the great malaise of Nepali politics— corruption. It can tarnish the nation’s image and increase costs for civilised life of Nepalis. The nation’s adoption of neo-liberalism associated with adjustment, conditionalities, privatisation and deregulation, not democratisation, considered the “state” as a problem and market as a solution.
Neo-liberalism deemed the Nepali state as a source of authoritarianism, centralisation and development failure, pushed vigorous liberalisation of the economy, broke bureaucratic hierarchy, discipline and control and deregulated rules for good governance apparently to improve institutional performance, greater transparency, accountability and effective oversight. But ironically, it has incubated a political culture lenient to odious corruption. The capacity deficits of Nepali state has enfeebled all the constitutional organs of integrity, regulation and discipline and eroded their professionalism. Corruption becomes a low-risk and high-profit business if it is escorted by vicious pathos of political protection, social tolerance and international legitimacy.
In a less institutionalised regime like Nepal where people have to tailor their demands to political and bureaucratic officials, not the other way round, democracy becomes a top-down game where the latter exercise is no choice to boost the index of political development. What values Nepali politicians have generated which they would like to protect for themselves and cure the malaise of politics?
It is vital to put a damper on organised corruption, crime and extortion aimed to confiscate Nepali state’s capacity to create security and public order, manage multi-level governance, deliver justice and public goods and resolve the problems of society. The heap of malaises arising out of prejudice, ignorance, arrogance or egotism of leadership is imperilling Nepali democracy and creating a gap between its grand promise and the experience of people. Remedy of these maladies demands the government an open access to empirical knowledge, science to work in areas of human values, prevent the onslaught of populism and extremism, de-civilising Nepali society and get the nation back to its feet. Nepali people have started natural conversation among themselves about the condition of the nation which is essential for democracy to stay alive.
Ironically, Nepali leaders are lenient to plan for some reforms, not the legitimacy of representative and participatory politics and the operation of a robust public sphere which enforces their transparency and accountability. They must stand above politics operating mechanically regardless of its costs for the people and address their concerns. This means Nepali citizens’ education on constitution, their rights and duties, politics, policies, leadership and institutions of production is a central aspect to enliven the energy underneath society. The current model of Nepali polity has only converted people into migrant workers, consumers and voters, but not citizens to remedy the malaises, help attain good life and cultivate an ability to think from citizen perspective.
Empirical indicators spotlight the pervasiveness of corruption in Nepal. The tendency to reduce Nepali politics to unrelenting accumulation and patronage devoid of constitutional, democratic and humanitarian ideals has subverted the efficiency of aid, production and trade and turned the populace into compulsive consumers which no longer produces even to meet the survival needs. The undue dependence of the nation on external investment, loans, technology and management stymied the vision of an independent economy crucial to reclaim national self-determination and surmount the marginalisation of Nepalis and their state in the global affairs.
Donors’ pious interest in multi-party democracy, economic liberalisation, corporate social responsibility and civil society to reduce corruption has remained largely deceptive. Persistent government instability has marred the execution of the constitution while party leaders’ control of public institutions skewed the democratic principles of transparency, accountability and equity. Doing ethical business in Nepal has thus become expensive as informal transaction costs are huge and rent-seeking culture at all levels of governance has undermined the image of the state whether it can support welfare policies and truly nurture democratic regimes. Nepali media have revealed the entry of criminals and corrupt into parliament. Financial irregularities, impropriety and debt are rising at phenomenal scale each year imposing burden on future generations.
The tax exemption of businessmen is obviously linked to bribe taking by leaders. As a result, Nepali citizens are buffeted by a chain of grand corruption—the latest one is organised conversion of Nepalis into fake Bhutanese refugees to be sent to the United States for huge financial gain. Now they are stranded, unable to choose their national identity. Nepal Police has suggested taking action against all those involved in “crime against the Nepali state, organised crime, fraud, money laundering and cheating.”
The fermentation of monstrous crimes are the results of the erosion of legitimate power of the state, weak rule of law, impunity for the privileged classes at the top of the power pyramid and personalisation of power. In a society eternally suspended in political transition, powerful elites only bargain for defining the rules of the game where the choice for the people is not the best. In such a situation, social peace rests not on universal values but shifting power equations and exchange of power to extract economic rents and distribution of patronage to one’s own clients. The recurrent elite collusion for power irrespective of political identities and ideologies has thus created an incentive for factionalism, political fluidity and leadership fierceness across various layers of organisations and groups thus unable to press the government to become responsible to provide public goods and services to people beyond clientalism. Obviously, pervasive corruption, cronyism and other crimes pose a threat to Nepali democracy, citizens, the state and the economy whose convergence in national space is vital for effective governance.
The scale of grand corruption has weakened the macroeconomic performance and the role of the state to support small scale industries and the poor while diverting resources from them to the powerful, organised and entrenched political class thus undermining the rationality of economic entrepreneurship and activities for people-centric development. One deep-seated malaise is Nepal’s unfinished transitional politics, unable to set up constitutional rule. A lack of trust among top leaders arising out of their mutual betrayal and inability to adopt rational, norm-based behaviour is the reason. The social welfare state needs a liberal regime capable of balancing the demands generated by civil society and its responsive capacity. What made corruption at the higher ups easy is the centralised and personalised formation of political parties, a politicised police, bureaucracy and judiciary, flawed political and economic practices and self-absorption of leaders in habit-driven mode of action.
One can cursorily adduce relevant solutions to overcome the malaises of Nepali politics. First, only the checks and balances of power in the polity can ensure the government’s integrity, transparency and accountability in fair dealing with the high-profile crimes and corruption and raise revenue for development. There is a libertarian truth in the notion that individuals deserve to possess what they create only when they have autonomy and choice. This means there should be well-defined boundaries for institutions, proper regulation and greater incentive to avoid the inherent conflict of interests among the branches of governance. The regime of governance seeks the synergy of various stakeholders—the state, market and cooperative sectors as Nepal’s constitution has also visualised.
Second, as the Nepali state has greater legitimacy on the ground of its interest to serve public good and, therefore, it can intervene in case of market distortions, negative externality in case of systemic risks to environmental and social justice, constant maneuvering of interest groups for undue advantage inside and outside the polity and externally-driven social engineering projects of Nepali civil society along fault lines causing democracy dysfunction. The introduction of minimum wage, social protection, social security and affirmative actions are precisely embraced by the constitution to respect social peace in the face of ferocious market competition that socialises the risk and privatises the profit.
Third, the Nepali state can also intervene to protect the constitution, democratic principles and general humanitarian norms from the small group of top elites monopolising power without accountability, absorbing the countervailing power of civil society and capturing public institutions through the partisan distribution of spoils. It is important to create firewalls against corruption and abuse of power, reward civility and encourage cooperation at various scales of community, deploy revenue for development and generate incentive for a shift from the patronage-based political culture of the nation to achievement-driven one.
Fourth, the Nepali state can also intervene to keep political parties to stay with their statutes, political mandate and rule of law. The shifting coalition politics does not foster either political competition required in multi-party, a move toward democratisation of internal life of the political parties or contain lure to accumulate unearned income through the personalisation of power. It reduces any incentive for service delivery. To restrain the unravelling of the state, foster the renewal of the economy and fulfilment of essential rights of Nepalis require taming cycles of corruption and malaises and engaging in mutually beneficial production and exchange, the essence of the economy of peace.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)