In the past two weeks, we have seen social media being flooded with people’s perspectives on the declaration of personal wealth made by the prime minister and other members of the government. This is not the first time that this issue has been turned into a big joke. The requirement by law to declare one’s personal wealth has been made a mockery of in the past; and this practice will continue because, like in many democracies, there are people who think they are above the law. In a society where transparency, value and integrity are not something that is respected, it is quite natural that political leaders can get around this without attracting any public outcry. There will be public outcry for a while, but it will die down.
People will look at themselves in the mirror and ask, “If I am to ask the prime minister to declare his wealth, am I declaring my own to the tax authorities? Am I declaring my wealth or my income to my family members? Am I declaring how much I lost during that last game of marriage to my family or how much I chipped in for booze when I went out with my friends?” If transparency is not one’s way of life, it is difficult to continue to push the agenda of transparency for a long period of time. An outcry once, but then, how to sustain it?
Money and Power
Feudal structures were created to ensure that the people who governed the people were also owners of the assets of their kingdom. Wars were fought for territory. In Nepal, the royal family owned the assets and could give away national assets to the subjects. People talk about how a certain piece of land had been given to them as ‘bakas’ or a gift by the royal family, and which has now become their residence or how they have rented it out as a source of income. Post-1990, political leaders started equating themselves with the erstwhile royals and began giving away land as if they owned it. Post-2006, the process escalated. Leasing of government land or land owned by schools or other institutions became the prime business of many people creating a big new spin to ‘rent-seeking’. With land prices increasing nearly 10 times on average every 10 years in urban centres in Nepal, political power and the ownership or lease of land became a concoction for both money and power.
With the control and influence of the judiciary, working with disputed land, settling disputes, taking sides, making governments decide and so forth became ways of being more engrained in the land business. And where the force of law did not work, there were other ways of muscle flexing that could clinch deals. All this required protection from the law. It is not that Nepal is the only country where such things happen. But it is a country where we could have reduced these instances. One hears many stories about the antecedent of a particular politician from some village. We are told about how that school teacher from that little village today lives in some fancy house in Kathmandu. They talk about his multiple houses in different parts of Nepal, the jewellery that his family owns and the change in lifestyle in a few decades.
In politics, wealth acquisition generally does not come with the required change in the mindset. Like any addiction, it just gets out of control very soon. Now, we are seeing second generation leaders who are generally children of the leaders perpetuating the business and profession of politics. Patrick French, in his book India: A Portrait, talks about how young leaders in India are nothing but people perpetuating dynastic politics.
In Nepal, too, we will see children of federal leaders being groomed for bigger positions within the party or government. The children, who have been raised in a manner where laws are to be broken and rules are not meant for the rulers, will find it hard to keep themselves disciplined and will continue to follow in the footsteps of their parents. Perhaps, the issue of declaration of wealth is one of the pointers that give us an indication of the politics to come and how the rule of law may not ever be adhered to. So what needs to change then? From where will the change emerge? How does the culture in a society change so that bigger transformations can happen? What could be the starting points? Hope there are some people who want to take the lead. We are willing to follow!