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Thu, June 13, 2024

THE PRAGMATIC POLITICIAN

Anurag Verma
Anurag Verma April 10, 2024, 11:48 am
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SUMANA SHRESTHA
MINISTER OF EDUCATION, SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

“A leader must know why they are in that position. I think it is morally corrupt to occupy your position and not do anything that the position is meant to do. I have taken an oath; the bureaucracy has taken an oath to serve the nation and people. So, if I were not to work on laws that would then ultimately impact your life or the country’s future positively, then it is the highest form of corruption. It is moral corruption, ethical corruption. It is worse than financial corruption, because with financial corruption, at least we have laws that say you can investigate. But with this kind of non-action, what are you supposed to do?”

Before entering politics, Sumana Shrestha had a career as a management consultant, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. She has previously served as Head of Global Operations and Strategy at Fusemachines Inc, Founder and Community Moderator at Carpool Kathmandu and Medication for Nepal, Consultant at Boston Consulting Group, among others. Shrestha was also previously member of the Startup and Innovation Committee at the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Board Member at the USEF Fulbright Commission in Nepal, Chairperson for Office Management at Kasthamandap Reconstruction, and an Initiator at Covid Alliance for Nepal.

She joined the newly formed Rastriya Swatantra Party and became a Member of the Federal Parliament in the House of Representatives in 2022. She holds the position of Central Committee member and serves as the Chairperson of the Education Department and the Science, Communication, and Information Technology Department of the party.

In a short but focused and successful political trajectory, Sumana Shrestha’s voice was heard loud and clear asking relevant questions at the parliament. This caught the attention and the praise of the public. And today we find her as the Minister of Education, Science and Technology.

In this edition of Business 360, we caught up with Shrestha to learn about her transition to politics and what matters to her most in her political career. Excerpts:

You have been in business management previously. You have also been an entrepreneur. Why this transition to politics?

There are a lot of things I have done since 2015 that have been in response to certain social needs in the country. I have also seen that there is a gap in leadership in Nepal. I have been involved in initiatives like Medication for Nepal and Covid Alliance for Nepal, among others to fill gaps that I believe were hurting a lot of Nepali people. This particular jump to politics is also in response to the fact that there has been no change in the representatives that we have been getting in the parliament. To be honest, it has always been the same faces. It’s always the same people who give very fluffy speeches but without very concrete measures. As a citizen, I felt it was not what we had signed up for. So, when an opportunity arose to support a new platform, Rastriya Swatantra Party, to challenge the status quo, I took up the challenge.

What are some strengths as a professional that have helped you transition to this new field?

I think the first thing was the recognition that you cannot do everything all by yourself. The other is that you always need a team with diverse opinions in how you approach a particular problem and also think about certain issues that bring in the best solutions with the given evidence. I think that particular aspect is very common in the corporate world and that is something I have been practising throughout my career.

The other thing that I have been practising is to make sure there is something concrete. We need to earn our worth in the corporate sector and it is the same in politics as well. I have received the votes but I need to actually earn them. I guess that concept has carried through in this transition to politics.

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Initially, when you joined politics were there any self-doubts?

For me, the first few days in the parliament were like the first few days in a classroom. I was ready to take notes when politicians were speaking. However, it soon dawned on me that I have to charter my own course and figure it out for myself. I had also created my own terms of reference. Once I learned I was a member of parliament, I knew I needed to make sure that I do justice to all the votes that were cast for Rastriya Swatantra Party. I have entered the parliament through the proportional route. Initially, that sense of responsibility also morphs into a state of anxiety a bit.

What do you feel is the major difference between working for a business entity and a political party in management aspects?

In the corporate world, the scope is much smaller and your sole goal is to ultimately make profit. In the business world, you need to deliver value to your customers; you need to create a specific set of values for the clients that you are working for. However, in the public sector, it is about optimising for the largest number of people where the reward comes from the knowledge that you have done something good, that you have made somebody’s life better. The question is, will a baby being born today have a better future five years down the line (the tenure of the parliament)? So, the reward mechanism is a bit different. However, if you ask me from the ultimate value system, it is about creating value for the society. That does not change.

How do you view the current economic landscape of the country? What is your party’s economic vision?

The right person to ask that question would actually be Dr Swarnim Wagle because he is an economist. But clearly there is a big divergence in macro indicators and micro indicators. This is something which I have actually spoken of in the parliament as well. We have not taken care of our micro indicators. We have just talked about macro indicators and we never think about it in industry specific terms. The first question I asked the then finance minister was about the kind of stimulus package we would be providing to our businesses because in the absence of that, our employment numbers are going to plummet. If we do not have entrepreneurs working, if we don’t have businesses that sustain, then how is any entity or how is the country going to survive?

Could you elaborate on the concept behind the bill hackathon?

Bill hackathon is a concept that has been borrowed heavily from the tech sector. In the tech industry, if you have a problem that you need to solve, you get a group of bright people who understand the problem and who can articulate the problem. People who know what the pain point is and can think about creative ways of solving it. So, bill hackathon is a concept where if there is a bill being tabled, then collectively we can make it better. It is also a concept about the need to democratise democracy. Right now, it has been completely taken over by the bureaucracy and is limited to the members of parliament. This is one thing that used to make me unhappy even when I was not in the parliament. For instance, when laws related to the economy were introduced, I used to feel they were drafted by people who did not understand economics properly, who had never opened a business or have never done anything except come and tell us what we can do and what we cannot.

As a parliamentarian, I wanted to make sure I was not carrying that same trend, which I would say is like a feudalistic society. I want to make sure people have a say in the laws that are being drafted. People need to understand the laws. If people have a say, there is ownership and they also become a part of shaping society. So, bill hackathon really is a concept of democratising bills.

To be honest, I am not yet fully satisfied with what I have achieved because it is still limited to people who have access to the internet. Ideally, it should float in community radios and be discussed in the fields by farmers. It should be expressed in a very common language without using legal jargons. Once the bill gets passed, people should know what it means for them.

You have always been logical in your arguments in parliament and you always come to the point. How do you pick issues that you want to address in the parliament?

There are a lot of issues which, as a citizen, I am not happy about in terms of service delivery. These issues obviously come from the experience as a common citizen. There are also issues that people mail me about. I also learn about certain issues when I am interacting with the public. There are times when I learn about certain issues when I am trying to resolve another issue. I realise there is a connection between the issues and there is a problem there. This is how issues get picked. At times people write to me as well. It basically comes from the various interactions I have with the public.

Is there any issue you want to take forward personally?

I am really passionate about processes. Unless we fix the process, things will not move forward the way we want them to. For example, there is one related to the budget. The big ask I had was, which I am going to ask again this year, why don’t we get data in editable format? The reason behind this is that it should not just be me or the members of parliament but everybody should be able to run an analysis. Why don’t we follow a simple framework of making sure there is collaboration between ministries? Why don’t we follow simple budgeting tools so that multiple layers of government can collaborate together? It feels like a lot of things happen in silo and a lot of policies are drafted without evidence. These relate to the process and I am very passionate about it. If the processes change, hopefully we will have better policies that actually address our problems.

What are your thoughts about the leadership crisis that the country is currently facing?

I believe we need to make a massive move from this Jack Welch era of leadership to the leadership that is required now, which is more like ‘servant leadership’. As a leader you are expected to serve the people. The whole purpose that leaders exist is to serve the citizens. I think that is a big challenge and until we move to this service form of leadership, there will still be a very top-down approach. It will always be a situation whereby we do something because ‘I think so’ versus we have to do this because ‘this is what evidence shows’, and this is what the majority want. So, it is a different type of leadership that we need and I think that is the vacuum at present. That is the crisis area.

You have often talked about using the Nepali diaspora for the country’s development. How do you plan to engage them?

One way to engage them is by developing our outreach. There are a lot of different organisations that the diaspora community has formed and we need to reach out to them. The diaspora community does come together when Nepal faces crises like floods and other disasters. I have seen them making contributions even if it is a small amount. They want to give back. I have been a member of the diaspora community for more than a decade and one of the things I can say with certainty, with my hands on my heart, is everybody who has grown up in Nepal, who have any affiliation with Nepal, love Nepal. So, it is about harnessing that love and compassion.

From a political perspective, what are some of the things you feel are standing in the way of good governance or policymaking?

The biggest hurdle we have in terms of good governance is we have never really explained a lot of things to the people. When we talk about the administrative state, it is the bureaucracy that is the permanent government and nobody has really put in any effort into shaping bureaucracy to become more service oriented. It has always been about governing rather than providing service. I think it is very important to look into that aspect. When you look at the politicians, except for a few who have passed away, they have always talked about ‘I am going to change’. What I would tell them is ‘it is not about you’; you need to tell me how you are going to change the bureaucracy. But in order to change the bureaucracy, you first need to change the laws. You need to instill a culture in the bureaucracy whereby they are more service oriented.

Ultimately, democracy is not just about the right to vote. It is about the society where we live in where we have mutual respect for each other, and we talk to each other with reverence. I feel that is completely missing. In general, we are a very nice society but we have not elevated ourselves when it comes to interacting with the state as state individuals.

For example, I have a big problem with the term ‘honourable’. That is the first change we need to make – closing that gap between the lawmaker and for whom the laws are made.

The other area we need to focus on is figuring out how we can change the laws so that the bureaucracy treats the people in a proper way and they are incentivised to innovate. One very simple example would be if you went to the Industry Ministry with a very new idea, are they going to say you cannot work on that idea because it is not in the law or are they going to have a team meeting that talks about this very new idea that has come up and how they are going to help this particular idea gain traction?

People might say this is very naive, but that is the Nepal I want to create and I will put in my heart and soul for it. You could look at the Tourism Bill for example. I think it was first introduced in 2035 BS and it has been amended six times but three of those amendments were not material. The amendments only focused on replacing some words with more pleasant terms. That is nice but did we talk about insurance for the porters that could provide them with some certainty in life? We need to be talking about such issues and not just replacing the terminologies.

The politicians need to first evaluate whether the Tourism Bill or Tourism Act is according to our aspirations. The bill has listed the activities that are considered touristic but has not included kayaking or skiing. We do not have anything that is new. So, without that, what is the bureaucracy going to do if you approach them with something new? For instance, if you go and talk about launching base jumping, the first thing they will tell you is that it is not in the law. And then you would be required to find a politician who would then broker that arrangement that somehow all of a sudden it becomes legal, or you can do it. This is how I feel the bureaucracy has not evolved.

Do you think the influence of business on politics and vice versa, a culture of rent seeking so to speak, can be minimised and how?

It is important for representatives to work for the people they represent without any additional cost. For example, if you had a business idea and you were stuck, you should be able to walk up to any of your representatives and ask for help and they should not ask you for kickbacks. That is the first thing we need do, to reduce the cost of making things happen to zero. That would be the market approach.

The other issue is that the monetary corruption that we have right now does not happen in a vacuum. It happens due to the excess of the bureaucracy, politicians and businesses. It is more like crony capitalism. The narrative has to change. I want every Nepali to be rich but in a legal manner. I want every Nepali to have an amazing quality of life because when they have an amazing quality of life, then that is when our society becomes better. And that is when I become successful as a lawmaker, as a representative. We have got a very wrong narrative which does not encourage entrepreneurs. Profit-making is somehow considered bad. We have some laws that need massive amendments and we have got a bigger hurdle of upgrading our narrative.

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How would you rate corruption in the government?

I have not been in an executive position and it is hard for me to say. However, what I do evaluate it by is the experience I have had as a common citizen when I was trying to do something. I often hear stories about the kickback rates that contractors have to pay. They say there is something called ‘PC’. Initially, I thought it meant ‘politically correct’ but they explained that it means ‘project commission’. So based on these stories, it feels like we have really decentralised corruption, which means you don’t even know who you need to bribe to get the job done.

We have new people like you coming into the system. Is there any way we could have a system or a mechanism whereby we can have more effective and empowered parliamentarians?

People need to start working more with their parliamentarians. This is something I have said in every platform. Any time you need to get something done, you go to a politician thinking they will issue a whip and everybody will follow the line. The other thing that happens is people visit the ministry and then they realise the secretary of that ministry has changed. You spend so much time to educate a secretary or a joint secretary, and then they get transferred. Or you spend a lot of time educating a minister and that person changes. But your much more stable and permanent position are your parliamentarians. So, if you were to educate your parliamentarians, if you were to work with them for specific changes, for evidence finding, to reach more people, that is a lot more stable way. I think we need to work more with parliamentarians and private sector needs to heavily invest in supporting think tanks.

Right now, as I have said before, a lot of laws get made without evidence. There is no rationalisation of punishment too. For example, if you breach certain laws then for some the fine is in the thousands and for some a few lakhs. E-commerce bill is an example. How can you think about putting an entrepreneur in jail? I do not see a method in this madness at all. And these things will change if somebody conducts research. Researches require resources either in the form of supporting a Master’s student or a PhD thesis financially or supporting a think tank. Unless the private sector starts realising they need to invest in these researches, you will always be at the mercy of politicians. And that is bad.

How do you define leadership and are there any non-negotiable qualities that a leader must possess?

A leader must know why they are in that position. I think it is morally corrupt to occupy your position and not do anything that the position is meant to do. I have taken an oath, the bureaucracy has taken an oath to serve the nation and people. So, if I were not to work on laws that would then ultimately impact your life or the country’s future positively, then it is the highest form of corruption. It is moral corruption, ethical corruption. It is worse than financial corruption, because with financial corruption, at least we have laws that say you can investigate. But with this kind of non-action, what are you supposed to do?

Talking about ethics, supposing there is a conflict of interest related to ethical values between you and the party that you represent, what would you do?

This is a big question. Assuming that there will be a divide itself is an assumption I would like to challenge. One of the things we do in our party is that we discuss a lot of things. So, I do not actually envision a situation where I will be on this side and party will be on the other side because I am involved in shaping the party’s standpoints on a lot of issues.

What is your opinion about Rule of Law in Nepal?

Well, again, this is a question you should really ask somebody who has researched heavily on the topic because that person would be able to explain in much more detail than I can. From my perspective, we need to work on this aspect quite a bit because if you do not have the right intention, no amount of law is going to be able to capture that. If I were to send a wrong person to an executive position and the person does not do anything then what kind of law are we going to have? There could be no financial corruption but if that person does not live up to people’s aspirations, then what kind of law are we going to have?

Currently, we are facing challenges in the education and healthcare sectors. Given the limited resources that we have, how would you advise the best utilization of resources?

The first thing we need to realise is nothing is free. A very popular practice in the political sphere is to dangle a carrot of ‘I will give you this thing or that for free’. How are you going to make things free if you do not have the resources to support that? The first question that the public needs to ask when politicians talk about providing something for free is how are they going to support it. Because what that politician will end up doing is introducing that law or policy which will just end up borrowing from your future generation to pay. And you will not be any better off because your kids will be in huge debt as soon as they are born. So, we need to accept that nothing is free and we also need to accept we want to create a society where the most vulnerable are taken care of.

Therefore, what I would say is we need to think about what is the best way of reaching to that segment of society that absolutely cannot afford rather than saying everything is for free. If we had a tree that grew money or gold then we would be able to provide things for free. But we don’t have that tree. We need to work very hard for that and this is a part where I feel politicians have been very unethical about. It would be nice for everyone to have free healthcare but they cannot deliver on that. So, I would rather know what I should work for, what I can expect. And because they say everything is free, the social safety net is so thin. Would you not want to have a safety net that you can actually rely on?

What are the priority areas that you want to address immediately or you want addressed?

I have started working on those and I would like to evaluate this. I don’t know if this is exactly what you are getting at but a lot of policy-level corruption happens when we determine the rates, for instance the customs rate. I have been asking for data in an editable format and I went to the Finance Ministry to ask for it but they have not yet provided me the data. I even wrote a letter on February 5 this year to ask for it. That is one thing I would really like to stop.

If we are saying we are a socialist oriented nation, we need to be clear on what items are considered luxury and what are considered non-luxury, and what the tax regime is going to be. Ultimately, that is the manifestation of a society that is considered socialist oriented. So, that is my first priority right now because we are currently having budget discussions.

The second is to start having very healthy conversations on what higher education means, because I think it has been completely hijacked. Whenever we talk about success the only thing that comes to our mind is a professor or a doctor, among others. Is that all? I would say that is not what higher education is about; to produce people with ‘Dr’ in front of their names. It is to produce people who will critically question the decisions we are making so that we are more evidence based in our decision making. We need to get that started because in the absence of such people coming out of higher education, then those who will later man our agencies like Nepal Tourism Board or Nepal Telecom or any other agency, will not succeed. We need capable people at the top and that human resource is going to be produced by higher education. So, I am very concerned about higher education.

The other area that I really want to work on immediately is making sure the diaspora remains connected, be it via remote voting. That is important also for domestic workers who migrate internally. I think 30% of the labour force migrate internally and they are unable to vote because the cost of travelling back home to vote is so high. We have citizens who go to Qatar or Malaysia or Korea who are sustaining the economy and they should be able to have a say. They should be able to vote for their future and their children’s future because it is for that future they have left the country now. It is the lack of opportunity that has pushed them out. It is a forceful migration for a lot of people. They need to have a say, they should have a say. It is a basic human right.

What is your vision for the country?

I left Nepal 20 years ago in search of better education and better job prospects. My grandmother at 94 kept calling for her eldest grandchild who is in the United Kingdom. I envision a Nepal where that is not the case. I envision a Nepal where people have a fair shot at life and if they are going to move out of the country it should be because of their choice, not because they do not have any opportunity here.

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