Every year, Canadians eagerly await for the summer to arrive. During a family visit this summer, we went to see the Canadian parliament in downtown Ottawa. After visiting the House of Commons, we went to the temporary Senate Assembly nearby. As the new parliament building is still under construction, an underground tube station has been transformed into the Senate–the upper house of the Canadian parliament.
During a free, guided tour of the Senate building that was on recess, an American tourist in our group asked our guide how the Senate called witnesses for hearings. He was, however, not happy with her answer. ‘Truth is the casualty of politics,’ he said. His utterance, perhaps, resonates more true in the present day Nepal.
A parliamentary probe committee recently completed its probe into the allegations that Finance Minister Janardan Sharma sent some unauthorized people to decide about the tax rates on the eve of his annual budget speech on 29 May 2022. When a Nepali national daily broke the news, after much hullabaloo, Minister Sharma resigned from his post and the House of Representatives formed a probe committee. Both Sharma and senior officials of the Finance Ministry claimed in front of the Committee members that the incident had never happened. The Ministry also claimed that the CCTV footage of the said incident has already been deleted. As expected, the committee said that it didn’t find any conclusive evidence to prove that unauthorized people were in fact involved in altering the tax rates.
Interestingly, when the probe committee was summoning senior government officials (including then former Minister Sharma), student activists affiliated to the ruling alliance organized a protest in Kathmandu demanding that Nepal Rastra Bank (NRB) Governor Maha Prasad Adhikari resign from his post. The demand came in the wake of media reports that Mr Adhikari in fact was the person named as ‘M Adhikari’ in one of the committees of the main opposition CPN (UML). The NRB Act prohibits any person with political party affiliation to hold the top position of the central bank. Both Adhikari and the UML refuted these reports. Interestingly, student protests subsided as soon as the parliamentary probe committee made its report public.
So, was there any quid pro quo between the ruling alliance and the main opposition in these two recent controversies? As the country is heading towards elections for the federal as well as provincial legislature, many believe that the UML did not want to antagonize the CPN (Maoist Center) party. Finance Minister Sharma (who was reappointed to his post early this week) is a senior leader of the Maoist Centre.
In a country like Nepal where civil society as well as most of the media are said to be close to one political party or another, making government officials accountable is a huge challenge.
This is not the first time that truth has been a casualty in Nepali politics. When asked by reporters what happened to arms and ammunition held by his comrades (that were not disclosed to UNMIN-a UN agency), Maoist supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ said casually that they were swept away by a river. Nobody in the government or opposition asked him any further questions.
In a country like Nepal where civil society as well as most of the media are said to be close to one political party or another, making government officials accountable is a huge challenge. So, what should be done?
According to the Institute for Government, a London-based think tank, accountability lies at the heart of democratic government. Strong accountability matters–and when it works–it benefits everyone, the Institute says. In a recent report, the Institute has made seven recommendations to improve accountability in a democratic government. They include 1) improve transparency around the feasibility of major projects, 2) provide stronger oversight of the civil service, 3) clarify what public services citizens get for their money, 4) ensure that government policies have strong accountability arrangements built in, 5) strengthen scrutiny of the links between local public services, 6) support earlier investigations of possible failures and 7) improve the scrutiny that Parliament provides.
‘Heads must roll’ when there are major failures in governance, the report says. But in Nepal, members of civil service or junior officials are held accountable in cases of corruption while politicians usually go scot free. To change this culture, voters must take the reins in their hands. The forthcoming elections on November 20, 2022 provide that opportunity to Nepali voters.
Bhagirath Yogi, a former BBC journalist, is the Consulting Editor of Nepal Live Group.