Off the Record 058: What makes an independent?
Issue 058 • 24 June 2022
It’s June 24, 2022, and you’re reading Off the Record, the weekly newsletter from The Record. We are an independent, ad-free, digital news publication out of Kathmandu, Nepal.
I’m Pranaya Rana, editor of The Record, and in this newsletter, we’ll stop, take a deep breath, and dive into one singular issue that defined the past week.
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Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening from rainy Kathmandu. The monsoon has arrived in full force and the rains are wreaking havoc on the city.
While cities like Kathmandu might suffer from the ravages of the rain, the monsoon still remains a critical lifeline for farmers around the country and South Asia itself. This is going to be especially important this year as a shortage of chemical fertilizers has placed farmers in a bind. There is a global shortage of essential fertilizers like urea and diammonium phosphate partly due to sanctions on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s own export sanctions. Russia produces 20 percent of the world’s nitrogen fertilizer and is also a key supplier of natural gas, which is primary raw material for the fertilizer.
With India itself reeling from the fertilizer shortage, Nepal has few places to turn. The Nepal government’s efforts to procure fertilizer from India have gone in vain and farmers are getting more and more desperate as paddy plantation season has begun. On Saturday, a video of farmers looting two trucks of fertilizer sacks went viral on social media. The trucks were reportedly smuggling fertilizer across the border from India and had been taken into custody by the Department of Revenue Investigation. When farmers in Dhading learned that the trucks were being escorted to Kathmandu, they barricaded the highway, stopped the convoy, and looted the trucks.
Even without the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Nepal faces shortages of fertilizer every year, fuelling a large cross-border smuggling racket. Farmers desperate for agricultural inputs are fleeced by smugglers who charge twice or three times the cost of a sack of fertilizer. Although the federal Parliament has directed the concerned agencies to ensure fertilizer supply by “any means necessary”, nothing seems to have progressed yet. The World Bank has already warned that a food crisis is looming, especially in developing countries like Nepal.
In other news, Nepal has decided to not proceed with the US’ State Partnership Program (SPP), the subject of last week’s newsletter. A Cabinet meeting on Monday decided not to move ahead with the SPP and to duly inform the US government of the decision. And so, it looks like another ignominious chapter in Nepal’s contemporary diplomacy comes to an end. Like I said last week, this entire debacle says much more about Nepal’s capricious incompetency than it does about the US’ military and imperialistic interests in the region. This is what happens when deals that could potentially impact national security are struck behind closed doors with no discussion among the elected representatives of the people.
While the US hasn’t said much, China appears to be having a field day. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson welcomed Nepal’s decision to reject the SPP, just like it had ‘noted’ Nepal’s decision to accept the US’ Millenium Challenge Corporation’s Nepal Compact.
I imagine the Chinese are very pleased with how things have evolved in Nepal. It wasn’t happy that Nepal had accepted the MCC but the rejection of the SPP is certainly in its favor. Nepali politicians appear to be attempting a balancing act, counteracting the acceptance of the MCC by rejecting the SPP. This is a dangerous game. Nepal cannot always attempt to make its neighbors and partners happy without evaluating independently the benefits and costs to Nepal itself. The foremost rule in foreign policy is self-interest. Nepal must do what is best for Nepal, not what China or India or the US prefer. This means assessing each partnership independently as to its benefits for Nepal by non-partisan actors and think tanks, which will lead to wider public discussion and debate over such partnerships. Only then should the government decide whether or not to pursue any MCC or SPP agreement. Our politicians are so used to ruling the country like kings, making unilateral decisions based on their own personal whims and alignments, that any kind of public discussion in Parliament appears to be anathema. Indeed, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba appears to consider the Parliament to be beneath him, as he continues to dodge meetings called by the Parliamentary International Relations Committee. Like I said last week, foreign policy should be conducted in the national interest, not partisan party interests or foreign interests.
One more point of discussion before we move on to the deep dive. On Tuesday, News24 aired a damning audio recording of a conversation between Kathmandu District Court judge Raj Kumar Koirala and lawyer Rudra Pokhrel over the release of Ichchha Raj Tamang, a former lawmaker arrested by the Nepal Police’s Central Investigation Bureau on charges of embezzling Rs 5.59 billion of public money. The audio leak has Koirala and Pokhrel discussing Tamang’s release on Rs 100 million bail as long as Koirala receives a Rs 20 million cut. As the clip is believed to be from last year, it appears that the proposed deal soured as Tamang was eventually not released on bail.
The leak has prompted the Judicial Council, the oversight body for the judiciary, to institute a three-member probe committee with a 45-day mandate to issue a report. Judge Koirala has also reportedly been removed from rotation and will not be overseeing any cases while the investigation is underway.
The leaked clip comes as yet another blot on Nepal’s judiciary, after the debacle surrounding Chief Justice Cholendra SJB Rana, who remains suspended after an impeachment motion was filed in Parliament last year. At the time, judge Koirala had opposed Rana’s impeachment, according to The Kathmandu Post. Lawyer Pokhrel, meanwhile, had argued in favor of UML chair KP Sharma Oli’s dissolution of Parliament before the Supreme Court in 2021. While it had long been believed that the judiciary, much like all the other organs of the state, had been compromised by political and business interests, leaks like this only provide more evidence to buttress that belief. Sadly, it appears that court judges too are up for sale.
That’s about it for this week’s wrap-up of notable events. Now, on to the deep dive where this week I’ll be taking a closer look at the new wave of independent candidates for the upcoming federal elections and what they say about Nepal’s continuing quest for an ‘alternative’ to the mainstream political parties.
The deep dive: What makes an independent?
On June 16, last Thursday, popular television personality Rabi Lamichhane announced that he was resigning as managing director of the Galaxy 4k television network to enter politics. It was an announcement that many, including myself, had been expecting for some time now. Later, on Tuesday, Lamichhane announced the formation of a new political party — Rastriya Swatantra Party or National Independent Party. The party, which has Lamichhane as its chair, will contest the upcoming federal election and has asked all independent candidates to join in.
But what exactly is an ‘independent’ party? What is it ‘independent’ of? It appears that I wasn’t the only one asking these questions. On Wednesday, a day after Lamichhane announced the party, a complaint was filed at the Election Commission by the Independent Candidate Campaign, a loose coalition of candidates for the general election unaffiliated to any political party. The campaign alleged that independent candidates from around the country wanted to contest the election on their own terms and not affiliate themselves with any party. By naming his party ‘independent’, Lamichhane was attempting to derail the independent movement, they said.
And I sympathize. An independent candidate, as I understand it, is non-partisan and unaffiliated with any political party. Any political party, by virtue of being a party, cannot be independent because what is it independent of? It’s an oxymoron and to me, a cheap attempt to capitalize on the independent wave that appears to have swept the country.
Lamichhane would fit in any political party as he’s never really shown any political leaning. His television ‘journalism’ is largely apolitical in that it focuses on individual cases, not systemic ones. I am not aware of any of his stances on hot-button political issues like federalism, secularism, the monarchy, socialism, geopolitics, etc. So what exactly does he mean by independent?
I know, his supporters will say that it is too early to comment and we should wait for Lamichhane to release more material that will solidify his stances. Yes, we should do that and I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Lamichhane is a hugely popular man and if he plays his cards right, he should certainly get elected. But what will his victory even mean?
The argument that has long been leveled against a directly elected prime minister is that direct elections can lead to the rise of a populist dictator. The multi-party system prevents that from happening as the party can simply recall the prime minister if they get too dictatory. That’s a good argument in theory but we’ve seen that it clearly doesn’t work as it has been envisioned. KP Sharma Oli made that very clear during his time as prime minister. But we are still a multi-party democracy and that means a single person like Lamichhane, no matter how popular, cannot sweep elections and form a federal government.
Unlike the mayoral race, federal elections are not about one person but an entire party. Recent entrants to the party scene, like Bibeksheel Party and Sajha Party, have learned that the hard way. Both these parties were centered around one charismatic figure, Ujwal Thapa in Bibeksheel’s case and Rabindra Mishra for the Sajha Party. Both parties failed to make any real mark on Nepali politics. But recent wins by independents — Balen Shah in Kathmandu, Gopi Hamal in Dhangadhi, and Harka Sampang in Dharan — have galvanized an entire cohort of independents. Ranju Darshana and Pukar Bam, both formerly of the Bibeksheel-Sajha party, have announced that they will be contesting independently in Kathmandu as has Suman Sayami, a heritage activist and Kathmandu mayoral candidate.
Currently, the federal parliament has just one independent candidate — Chhakka Bahadur Lama, who won from Humla-1. His voice is lost among the tumult of the political parties that have hundreds of members. Lama advocates for his constituency but given that Nepal is now a federal republic, how much can he help his region from Kathmandu?
This is what I’ve been wondering too. Independent candidates for local elections are great because local leaders are like CEOs who have the run of the office. Their policies and actions have immediate impacts on their areas of governance. But on a federal level, there is only so much that independent candidates can do, unless Parliament has an independent majority. Let’s assume that 10 independent candidates win seats in the upcoming election. Faced with 265 others from the political parties, what effect can they hope to have beyond ‘sending a message’? The Parliament runs on a majority and party whips are almost always in effect. Beyond pure optics, I fail to understand what impact independent candidates can have on federal politics. Perhaps I am being too pessimistic or perhaps I’m missing something big here. To me, it appears that anyone desiring change would run for local office.
But let’s come back to Lamichhane. His popularity will likely translate into votes. People will vote for him just to vote for someone else other than the party candidates. But if he wins, what next? What will he work towards and will any of it ever materialize? Passing bills and overseeing the executive are the primary roles of the federal legislature. Lamichhane cannot campaign on populist slogans like “ending corruption” simply because how would he go about that as one man? Perhaps that’s why he’s started a party. But for a new party to gain significant votes from across the country, enough to make a sizeable dent in Parliament, is a very, very tall order. Ask Rabindra Mishra, he’s been trying for years now and still hasn’t been successful.
Maybe I am being too cynical but being a Member of Parliament carries a certain cachet to it, more than that of a local mayor or ward chair. Someone as bombastic as Lamichhane would never be satisfied with a mayoral post, unless it was the mayor of Kathmandu. His choice is thus in keeping with his personality. He will become a mananiya because it affords social and political capital, even if it might not afford enough power to really change things.
Let’s also not forget that Lamichhane once conceived of a game show called ‘The Leader’ where contestants would compete against each other to become a ‘political leader’. The show, hosted by Lamichhane, would be judged by former chief justice Sushila Karki, Janata Samajbadi chair Baburam Bhattarai, then Bibeksheel-Sajha chair Rabindra Mishra, Nepali Congress ideologue Pradeep Giri, and Unified Socialist member Pradeep Nepal. The winning prizes were Rs 2 million cash, a car, an apartment, and a “chance to join national politics”, whatever that means. Thankfully, the show never aired.
I will give Lamichhane a chance but given his record, that will be difficult to do. His journalism has been characterized by boiling down complex institutional issues to a few bad people. He has been more vigilante than journalist, wielding the camera like a baton, berating wrong-doers into submission. In contrast, policy work is tough and not at all glamorous.
Still, there is time before the general election in November. I am willing to wait and see.
On The Record this past week:
Tom Robertson on how to improve academic writing
Sajeet M Rajbhandari on why Nepali writers still can’t make a living off of writing alone
Prasansha Rimal on if it is possible for Kathmandu to turn its waste into energy
Happenings this week:
Sunday - The Special Court acquitted all 21 individuals, including former minister Bikram Pandey, accused of corruption in the Sikta Irrigation Project. The Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) had filed a corruption case against Pandey, who owns Kalika Construction, for shoddy construction of the main canal for the irrigation project. The canal had collapsed multiple times during testing. All accused have been given a clean chit by the Special Court.
Monday - Fuel prices continued to skyrocket as a liter of petrol hit Rs 199. The Nepal Oil Corporation jacked up prices once again, leading to a knock-on effect on almost all other prices. Transport fares and commodity prices all rose sharply in response, resulting in some of the highest levels of inflation Nepal has ever seen.
Tuesday - An audio recording of a conversation between Kathmandu District Court judge Raj Kumar Koirala and lawyer Rudra Pokhrel over the release of Ichchha Raj Tamang was published by News24. Tamang, a former lawmaker, was arrested by the Nepal Police’s Central Investigation Bureau on charges of embezzling Rs 5.59 billion of public money. The audio leak has Koirala and Pokhrel discussing Tamang’s release on Rs 100 million bail as long as Koirala receives a Rs 20 million cut.
Wednesday - The CIAA filed a corruption case against former Nayab Subba Ganapati Jha and four members of his family. On a salary of just around Rs 37,000, Jha has managed to amass parcels of land in 17 places and at least seven houses, all worth millions, according to the CIAA.
Thursday - Senior Nepal Airlines Captain Deepu Jwarchan was named general manager of Nepal Airlines Corporation by Minister for Tourism, Culture and Civil Aviation Prem Ale. Jwarchan is currently under investigation by the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority over a host of complaints, including illegal acquisition of property, financial irregularities, and discrimination in the pilot roster.
Friday - Metropolitan cities and municipalities across the country presented their annual budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Unsurprisingly, Kathmandu’s budget was the biggest at Rs 25.41 billion. Unveiling the budget, deputy mayor Sunita Dangol said that over 43 percent of the budget, Rs 11.08 billion, would go towards infrastructure development.
Article of the week:
‘The social construction of Balen Shah’ — By breaking down his personal brand and the ideas he’s expressed, Pragyan Thapa Ghimire deconstructs the phenomenon of new Kathmandu mayor Balen Shah.
That’s all for this week. Off the Record will be back in your inboxes next Friday. I shall see you then, in your emails, for the next edition of Off the Record.
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