Fresh off the Mahara and Poudel affairs, yet another scandal engulfs the ruling party

KATHMANDU, Nepal (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) - Gokul Baskota, one of Oli’s close confidantes, negotiating a ‘commission’ on audiotape could change the existing power equation within the party, say party insiders.

The KP Sharma Oli administration, which has been reeling from a series of scandals involving high-profile officials, faced yet another setback on Thursday after a sitting minister was caught on audiotape negotiating a “commission” for the planned security printing press.

After facing down accusations of attempting to protect one of its senior leaders in the Baluwatar land grab and the acquittal of another senior leader on charges of attempted rape, the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) now must deal with corruption allegations against Gokul Baskota, the minister for communication and information technology and a close confidante of Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli.

Ruling party members, however, doubt that there is a strong condemnation of corruption from within the party.

“Leaders refrain from speaking out when party members are dragged into corruption cases as they fear it will threaten the existing power equation in the party,” said Mani Thapa, a Standing Committee member.

However, Standing Committee member and chairperson of the Province 3 party committee Asta Laxmi Shakya spoke out strongly against Baskota, saying he had betrayed the trust of all leaders.

“Due to his shocking act, the whole party is ashamed and such persons should not have any space in the party,” Shakya told the Post. “This is not a minor issue. I am shocked to hear this about a leader who has been continuously speaking against corruption. All those involved in the Rs700 million scandal must be revealed.”

The allegations against Baskota come at a time when Oli finds himself cornered, especially since the other party chair, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, has managed to extract the Speaker’s post for one of his lieutenants—Agni Sapkota.

With Dahal holding a majority in the nine-member secretariat, now that he’s managed to rope in some senior former UML leaders, allegations against Baskota could further weaken Oli’s position in the party.

For the Oli camp, which has made “zero tolerance for corruption” its refrain, the new development could prove to be a litmus test.

According to a ruling party leader, who did not wish to be named, Oli will come under direct pressure, not only from the public but also from party members, especially from the Maoist faction.

Just last week, while addressing the House of Representatives on the completion of his two years in office, Oli said that the battle against corruption is a priority for his government. He had also listed how his government had been successful in holding the corrupt to account.

But the case involving Baskota, whom Oli has long favoured, will prove Oli’s commitment to controlling corruption, say leaders.

Amid calls for resignation, including from the main opposition Nepali Congress, Baskota stepped down on Thursday.

But given how past cases of corruption involving high-profile politicians have gone, Baskota’s case too could be swept under the carpet, say anti-corruption campaigners.

Baskota is just the most recent case; the rot has already set in, they say.

“If you ask me what the process should be for Baskota, the anti-graft body must take him into custody and launch a probe,” said Gauri Bahadur Karki, former chairman of the Special Court, the first court to look into corruption cases. “What more evidence do you need when you have the audio record for attempted corruption.”

The Post could not independently verify if the voice purportedly of Baskota is indeed his. But Baskota has not refuted any claims and has stepped down. While resigning, Baskota said on Twitter that he had tendered his resignation to the prime minister as “questions have been raised about me”.

“By stepping down, he has already admitted that it was him in the audio recording,” said Karki.

Some anti-corruption campaigners, however, said that the case likely goes beyond Baskota and up to the prime minister, given the rapport the two have.

“It’s now the turn of the prime minister to resign, but it depends on how strongly Dahal raises the issue,” said a former judge who has heard corruption cases. “It was the prime minister who cancelled the tender process and started looking for a government-to-government deal to set up a security printing press.”

Party leaders also said that if media reports were anything to go by, the prime minister was aware of the audio recording about a month ago.

“The prime minister, who has said time and again that he does not desire anything for his personal benefit, must be pitiless when it comes to leaders who do wrong,” said Lekhnath Neupane, a central committee member and avid critic of the government and the top leadership. “People will start pointing fingers at the prime minister if proper action is not initiated against Baskota as the media has already claimed that he knew about developments a month ago.”

The ruling party has yet to come up with an official position on the issue.

Amrit Bohara, chair of the ruling party’s discipline commission, which is entrusted with looking into party members’ involvement in corruption, refused to comment on the matter.

“My commission has yet to get full shape,” Bohara told the Post.

During the recently concluded Central Committee meeting, party members had strongly questioned how leaders had amassed disproportionate property and why there was no probe into them.

Bohara said that the discipline commission will soon start looking into leaders’ properties and that if corruption complaints are filed, those too will be investigated.

Anti-graft campaigners say that corruption has been so normalised that politicians, irrespective of the party they belong to, never raise questions about their morality and image. According to them, in most of the cases, politicians employ legal loopholes to get off scot-free.

The last time a politician was caught on tape soliciting bribes was in September 2010.

In a leaked audiotape, former Speaker Krishna Bahadur Mahara, who was cleared of attempted rape charges last week, could be heard seeking Rs500 million from a Chinese person “to buy lawmakers”.

But that case too failed to get traction and soon died down. Mahara, on the other hand, rose through the party ranks. Almost a decade later, he became the House Speaker, only to be forced to resign after a woman accused him of attempted rape.

Shree Hari Aryal, former president of Transparency International Nepal, said that parties need to start a clean-up campaign from within.

“Parties have their discipline committees and they must be empowered but that requires the will of the top leadership,” Aryal told the Post.

Ultimately, as leader of the government, the prime minister is also responsible for the actions of his minister, said Aryal.

“In our existing governance system, a minister cannot do anything without the consent of the prime minister,” Aryal told the Post. “The prime minister had signed a performance contract with ministers and Baskota was one of the best performers. This shows what kind of ministers he has appointed.”

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