Has meritocracy died in Nepal? Political leaders control appointments in top offices, flouting competence criteria

Nishan Khatiwada

  • Read Time 4 min.

A worrying scenario, of late, is that the political parties are distributing powerful public positions to their cadres, relatives, and supporters. And pitifully, meritocracy is biting the dust. 

Capable and competent people are deprived of chances as the powerful positions are in the grip of political leaders. Nepotism and favoritism are rampant and leaders, it appears, are not in the mood to correct the course anytime soon. 

Some recent incidents

Recently, the Nepal Government recommended ambassadors for 11 countries the world around, flouting the criteria the Ministry of Foreign Affairs itself had issued a couple of years ago. Only two out of 11 proposed ambassadors are from the foreign service; that clearly violates the established norm that 50 percent should be from the service.

However, this is not the first case. Nor is it going to be the last one, it seems. On June 11, 2020, Guru Bhattarai was appointed as General Manager of the Department of Railways despite the outcry from the public, and the appointment brought criticism to the forefront. 

Bhattarai is known for all bad reasons–aggressive, violent tweets–open praises for Prime Minister Oli and scolding his opponents, basically journalists who write critically of the PM, even by using foul, abusive words.

The mockery of meritocracy is evident in the Constitutional Council which appoints officials in constitutional bodies. The recent case illustrates this. 

Leaders of political parties are rarely ever heard to advocate meritocracy in public offices. Instead, they openly lobby for and demand ‘quotas’ for their respective parties.

A day before PM Oli lost the vote of confidence, the council’s meeting recommended 20 names for appointment in 11 constitutional bodies. The rushed meeting was called despite the heavy criticism and absence of the opposition party’s leader and the Speaker of the House. The same controversial meeting recommended the names including the Secretary of the President’s office and Madhav Prasad Regmi from the Sher Bahadur Deuba quota.

Opposition leader Sher Bahadur Deuba has also gained notoriety for continuing his relatives in the position of ambassadors while many other capable ambassadors were called back after the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) led government was formed. 

Fatal consequences 

The selection and recommendation based on political inclination of the candidates have left those with skills, capacity, capability and experience in frustration as they are not affiliated with political parties or are not close to any leaders. 

Regimes changed, political systems changed, governments changed, yet this fatal tradition of picking candidates based on political affiliation to appoint in top posts has remained intact.

Needless to say, an ambassador without any skills, expertise and experience in diplomacy cannot defend Nepal’s interest in the global forum. Many people who are holding powerful and responsible positions have failed to run public office in the desired manner. Despite the rhetoric of ‘vision’, public institutions have suffered due to lack of vision of the political appointees. 

Bhojraj Pokharel, a former Chief Election Commissioner says that such a practice keeps the people of integrity out. “The result of such appointments is that the people without credibility, and who are notorious in society, get appointed in the sensitive posts of the country,” he said.  

Outcome of such appointments will only be negative. Less competent people often tend to follow what the leaders say instead of showing expertise in the thematic areas. According to Pokharel, we are witnessing the impacts. “Institutions are being weaker and losing their credibility. It is demoralizing the national atmosphere,” he said.  

Samikshya Baskota, a leader of Bibeksheel Sajha Party, which has advocated for meritocracy in political debate, said such political appointments, nepotism and favoritism are demotivating the competent people. “The competent and skillful people with capacity to handle top and responsible positions in the country are demotivated, frustrated and compelled to leave for abroad,” she said. According to her, incompetent political appointees never think about development, leading the society backward, generating mistrust towards the system. 

Collective silence

Surprisingly, the leaders of political parties are rarely ever heard to advocate meritocracy in public offices. Instead, they openly lobby for and demand ‘quotas’ for their respective parties–which goes by names such as Deuba quota, Madhav Nepal quota, Prachanda quota, KP Oli quota and so on.

Because every party is into it, there is a collective silence about selection, recommendations and appointments of politically inclined candidates. Nobody raises a question. “If a leader raises questions about the appointment done by the opponent party, it is sure that someone from the opponent party will raise questions about the appointment by that particular party too,” said Pokharel. “So they stay silent.” 

If we stay mum and let meritocracy die, it is going to generate frustration among the skillful and talented people and will be detrimental to the entire system, experts say.

Baskota pities our system demands political leaders and parties’ blessings for anyone to move forward and get selected for the public posts. And, collective silence is a factor boosting this culture in the system. She explained: “Major opposition parties are stuck in the games of power struggle and are silent during such appointments. They themselves are hungry for power. So, powerful positions are divided among political parties and no one raises voices.” According to her, the media, civil society and public are also collectively silent. “Some voices are raised but they are soon oppressed.”

Parliament is supposed to raise its voice in favor of people. Political parties are supposed to do the same. But this has not been the case in Nepal. Rarely has any parliamentarian raised this matter in parliament meetings. The vicious cycle continues. 

Meritocracy is the solution

To ensure that only competent people are in top posts, meritocracy must be promoted. 

Professor Kishore Mahbubani, an expert on Asia and world affairs who served for 33 years in Singapore’s diplomatic service, in an interview with Infrastructure Channel said that a reason why Singapore is exceptionally successful is because its leaders tried to get the best possible to join them in government.

The quality of minds of the leaders matters, but the quality of the minds of the people that are around them is equally important. 

“The main solution is the right people in the right places,” said Pokharel. “Which means when we incorporate meritocracy, the right people will get into the top and responsible posts.” 

For her part, Baskota also thinks meritocracy can bring positive changes. “If meritocracy is followed, it can bring positive changes in bureaucracy and political leadership too,” she added.   

However, in Nepal political inclination completely dominates talent, skills and competency. Pokharel argues that Nepal has failed to incorporate meritocracy. Baskota believes the same. She laments meritocracy is not getting a chance to flourish.

Both Pokharel and Baskota say that if we stay mum and let meritocracy die, it is going to generate frustration among the skillful and talented people and will be detrimental to the entire system.