The issue of grave controversy that Finance Minister Janardan Sharma has been mired is no longer limited to the Finance Ministry. The main responsibility for accountability definitely is Minister Sharma’s. But the buck stops with Prime Minister (PM) Sher Bahadur Deuba as chairman of the Cabinet and Chairman of Sharma’s party Pushpa Kamal Dahal now that Sharma has run away from accountability.
It is now PM Deuba’s responsibility to either prove that Finance Minister Sharma has not committed any offense or to immediately fire him and conduct an investigation. It is CPN (Maoist Center) Chairman Dahal’s responsibility to take initiative for that or at least support it as Sharma is minister from his party.
We don’t know whether the grave allegations against Sharma that unauthorized persons entered the Finance Ministry premises in the midnight and corrected the tax rates in the budget to serve vested interests are true or not.
But after the closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage episode we firmly believe that the issue should not be resolved without judicial or parliamentary investigation. Sharma can return to the ministry if he is proved innocent but he should be liable for legal and political punishment if his involvement in this grave crime is established.
The issue for investigation is simple and clear. Had any unauthorized person entered the Finance Ministry in the midnight a day before the budget was presented in the federal parliament or not?
Minister Sharma has publicly claimed that no unauthorized persons entered the Finance Ministry at the time of finalizing the budget. We can give him benefit of doubt, if it can be given at all, only until the investigation on CCTV footage is completed. The investigation will find him innocent or guilty.
The irresponsible response that the Finance Ministry has given stating that the CCTV footage can be retained only for 13 days in the right to information (RTI) request filed by a citizen seeking footage of the ministry at the alleged time of crime has made this issue graver.
There are two sides of the CCTV footage episode. The first is the right of citizens for access to and surveillance of the works done by the state. The second is the responsibility of the Finance Ministry to keep the CCTV footage safe for at least three months.
Nepal has formulated law related to RTI. The spirit of that law is clear—the citizens have the right for surveillance of any work done by the state, any state organ or any official in that organ in a democratic country. They can seek information related to that in writing.
The right of such surveillance of the politicians elected by the people and who are remunerated by the taxes paid by them is fundamental in a democratic system. It is the duty of every politician to be sensitive toward the right granted to the citizens by the law and comply with it. They cannot shirk from their responsibility.
The RTI has been granted considering that politicians or any authorized person can take decision in a dark room against public interest for self-interest of them or others to ensure that they can make such decisions public and resist against those decisions.
The citizens have been fulfilling their responsibilities toward democracy by electing politicians through their votes even in the most adverse conditions on the one hand. They have also been bearing the financial burden of keeping the state functioning by paying taxes despite the financial difficulties they face on the other.
It is, therefore, necessary to imbibe that the rights of citizens for surveillance of the state and politicians is inviolable.
How important the issue of a citizen seeking CCTV footage of the Finance Ministry automatically becomes clear once one accepts this basic tenet. It is legal and moral responsibility of the Finance Ministry leadership to provide the footage sought completing legal procedures. The ministry has shirked from this responsibility by giving a written response that the ministry’s CCTV footage can be retained only for 13 days.
The Home Ministry’s guidelines about installation and operation of CCTV requires footage of CCTV cameras be kept safe for at least three months and adds that the district administration office concerned can investigate about the CCTV footage. The footage of May 28, therefore, should be kept safe at least until August 28.
The gravity of allegations against Minister Sharma has increased further after the ministry’s response that it does not have the footage of the final night before the budget was presented in the House. He should not be exonerated of this episode without investigation which should start by immediately removing him as minister.
Technological experts can retrieve the footage even if it has been lost. The wrong intentions would be automatically proved if the footage has been deleted in an irretrievable manner.
PM Deuba and Maoist Center Chairman Dahal do not have the luxury of ignoring this episode. Their support for Sharma, if not implication, will be clearly established if they do so.