It’s apparent. Prime minister KP Sharma Oli has no shame. And he hasn’t done anything to hide it. Had he felt even an ounce of shame, he would have resigned a long time ago: when his government was knee deep in the Airbus scam; or when one of his most trusted lieutenants, former communications minister Gokul Prasad Baskota, was caught red handed demanding bribes in the security printing press scam; or when his government was exposed for misusing the entire state apparatus to promote Yeti Holdings; or when his failing health was repeatedly affecting the nation’s health.
Oli being who he is, no such thing happened. Instead, he stuck to his guns, showing no qualms in preventing investigations into corruption while defending corrupt officials in his inner coterie who have repeatedly exploited their position for personal gains.
“Kavre is the birthplace for talents (like Baskota),” Oli said on 17 February, praising his close associate’s political strength which apparently outweighed that of all other politicians combined. Three days later, Baskota was forced to resign after getting caught on audio asking for a bribe from an agent of a Swiss firm over a multi-billion rupees security printing press purchase.
Oli’s shamelessness reached new heights when on 7 April, he addressed a nation besieged by Covid19 fears – not to lay out a concrete Covid response strategy, nor to announce the rescue of Nepalis stranded at the Nepal-India border, not even to declare aid and relief packages to those affected by an economic meltdown – but to defend the alleged corruption his team got embroiled in over the procurement of Covid19 medical kits.
“Regular processes applicable during normal times do not suffice in these abnormal times. Special arrangements, therefore, have been made to procure medical supplies,” the PM said, but not before going an extra mile to preach to his audience on the lessons taught by the coronavirus.
Oli denied all allegations of corruption, deflecting the blame on “invisible enemies” trying to upset the apple cart.
“It’s my request that we take note of how these allegations are not just causing difficulty, but also discouraging people trying to work in the midst of difficulties. I am attentive to criticism, remarks and suggestions being raised in media and social media platforms,” he added.
But it soon became more than apparent that Oli was not just ready to defend his top aides, but also to outright lie. Hours after his address to the nation, he told the ruling Nepal Communist Party secretariat that he was unaware of the deal.
According to media reports, the government was paying at least three times more than the actual price to the Omni Group, a private firm close to Baluwatar and with interests in numerous government tenders, to procure the kits from China. The contract was annulled after the delivery of a first installment amid widespread criticism, reportedly following Oli’s instructions. It was later revealed that the government itself had paid for the Nepal Airlines chartered flight to ferry the goods.
By turning a blind eye to the rampant corruption happening right under his nose, Oli has not merely bolstered the confidence of those engaging in such activities but, far worse, he has compelled the public to lose faith in the system when it matters the most.
Not long after Oli’s address to the nation, Keshav Prasad Prasain, an under-secretary at the health ministry who had flagged the likelihood of corruption in the Covid19 medical procurement deal, was transferred to the Department of Prison Management. On 10 April, the Ministry of Health and Population sent Prasain another letter, seeking clarification for his refusal to sign on the decision to award the procurement deal to the Omni Group.
On 17 April, the MoHP confirmed that it had recalled Dr Sher Bahadur Pun, the coordinator of a research unit at Teku’s Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital, for reportedly speaking his mind to the press regarding the handling of the Covid19 crisis. In recent weeks, Pun was not just dominating media headlines due to his highly relevant and incisive advice but was also beginning to overshadow health minister Bhanu Bhakta Dhakal.
For a prime minister who took the helm of Singha Durbar in February 2018 with the promise of “samriddha Nepal, sukhi Nepali” (“prosperous Nepal, happy Nepalis”), in actuality, Oli has delivered very little. Despite his ramblings about absolute intolerance towards corruption, his record as leader of the government has been disastrous, to say the least.
By all accounts, the first two years were the best for Oli. After steering an alliance of the communist parties and being elected with the support of more than two-thirds of parliamentarians, he had everything an administrator could ask for.
After a decade of war followed by another decade of political transition, despite some grievances over the new constitution, the country was finally on track towards relative political stability. By then, Oli had gained immense public trust due to his constructive role in the constitution building process and for leading the nation through the 2015 earthquake as well as the Indian blockade. Many also took note of the fact that Oli, unlike other contemporary leaders, didn’t have children on whose behalf he needed to accumulate wealth.
Fresh from a stinging defeat in three tiers of elections, the Nepali Congress looked more divided than ever and hardly a worthy opponent. What appeared as Oli’s nationalistic stance in his refusal to bow down to Indian pressure during the drafting of the new constitution increased his appeal as a leader drastically. At one point, Oli looked so powerful that many were comparing him to the likes of King Mahendra, BP Koirala and Madan Bhandari.
One possibility was for Oli to build upon those strengths and turn himself into a remarkable leader. What happened instead was a steady deterioration of his image as he exhausted all his political capital in defending the corrupt while neglecting the nation and its people. Now we are left with a premier who, after abusing the faith of two-thirds of fellow parliamentarians, is risking his reputation further by seeking the Nepal Army’s help when everyone knows it is the only institution without any accountability.
PM Oli, who still has two and a half years left in what will be an increasingly challenging tenure, now faces two choices. He can either make a disgraceful exit, or see this crisis as an opportunity to redeem himself in the eyes of the Nepali public. If he chooses the first path, he doesn’t really have to do much. If he chooses the second, he better brace himself for a fight against corruption within his own coterie, a disappointed public, a hostile opposition across the political spectrum, not to mention, a raging pandemic.