Nepal Prime Minister Bhatterai is widely respected, even among his political opponents, for his intelligence and personal probity. But political necessities forced him to name ministers to his cabinet who do not share that public respect. Their behavior is now causing him serious difficulties.
In a heavy handed attempt to curry favor with the press, Health Minister Rajendra Mahato distributed greeting cards for the Dashain holiday to several dozen reporters. Recipients found cash in the cards – from $40 to $100 in each case. Three of the journalists reported the story and returned the cash. The other forty-plus apparently kept the money.
Mahato denies the story even though further reporting says that the cash can be traced back to the ministry budget, funded by international donors, that is earmarked for public awareness health campaigns. Perhaps that is what he intended the favored members of the press to use the funds for. Perhaps not… The journalists who kept the money are staying mum on the issue.
Small potatoes, that. But when the defense minister, Sharat Singh Bhandari, was quoted as saying that no constitution could keep the southern districts of the country from seceding, a firestorm of protest broke out. Bhandari is from the southern region and was chosen by Nepal’s fourth political block, comprising several parties from that region. The southern block is in coalition with Bhatterai’s Maoist party in the present government.
The center-left and center-right parties not in the government have branded the comment “sedition” and are calling for the minister’s resignation or for Bhatterai to sack him. But without the southern block, Bhatterai’s government would fall overnight. The minister has “clarified” his remarks without denying the quote and is expected to keep his post.
From his own party Bhatterai appointed Prabhu Sah as land reform minister, even though Sah was under investigation for complicity in the murder of a rightist youth leader, Kashinath Tiwari, last year. Last week police announced that they had enough evidence against the killers, and against Sah for ordering the murders, to send the case up for prosecution.
But Sah is not only a Maoist cadre and Bhatterai loyalist. He is also the only prominent Maoist leader from the southern district. Prosecuting him would enrage the southern block as well as the party. Two days later Nepal’s attorney general, also a Bhatterai loyalist, quashed the charge sheet against Sah while allowing the other prosecutions to move forward.
Tiwari’s widow was called to the home of the chief administrator of the Birgunj district that day and offered, she says, 800,000 rupees – about $10,000 – to recant her allegation of Sah’s involvement and drop the case. Instead she presented the cash at a news conference and asked for a public investigation of its source. An inquiry is unlikely to happen since it would require the attorney general’s recommendation.
Political pressure to exempt prominent politicians from responsibility or prosecution for their acts is nothing new in Nepal, and the phenomenon is surely not confined to the Maoists. But the public laundering of his cabinet’s dirty linen and the apparent lack of shame for his choice of ministers will cost Bhatterai. Nepalis understand well the metaphors of the rotten apple and “birds of a feather,” and his reputation has suffered from these incidents.