My nomination is as much a breakthrough as Obama being president: Sukhdev Shah

March 6, 2009 at 4:03 pm Leave a comment

My nomination is as much a breakthrough as Obama being president: Sukhdev Shah


Until three weeks back, Sukhdev Shah was an unknown name in the Nepali media but he has became a hot topic after Foreign Minister Upendra Yadav announced on Feb. 11 that the government had picked him to represent Nepal in the USA as its ambassador.

From someone who used to herd buffaloes in his childhood to a plum job with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington DC to an academic at a university in Fiji , 67-year-old Shah’s life has been a roller-coaster. His special relations with Nepal’s political who’s who including President Dr Ram Baran Yadav, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Foreign Minister Yadav and Finance Minister Dr Baburam Bhattarai might have brought him into the limelight. But, as Shah claims, he has been quietly involved in Nepal’s pro-democracy movement since the 1980s while living in the US . This also led to his being boycotted by the Nepali community there and Nepal’s embassy in Washington. Now, once he is confirmed by a parliamentary hearing, he will head the same Nepali mission that boycotted him during the run up to the success of the pro-democracy movement of 1990.

After he retired from the IMF in 2002, this father of a son and a daughter served as a professor of economics at the University of South Pacific in Suva for about six years. He says Madhes and the mountain regions are the two wheels of the same cart and sees the Madhes movement as a civil rights movement.

The controversy surrounding his nomination for the coveted diplomatic post revolves around two issues: one, a court case involving him and a Nepali maid in the US in the late 80s; and two, his US Green Card. Still a mystery man for ordinary Nepalis, Prof Dr Shah spoke about his life and also his political feelings in an exclusive interview with, just days after his arrival in Nepal.

Excerpts: To start with, can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Sukhdev Shah: I not only visit Nepal every year but also my village, Ekrahi, which is near Janakpur. I was born and grew up there. During my childhood, I used to graze buffaloes like President Yadav. Up to the 7th grade, I went to a school (in Dhabauli) near the village. I had to move across the border to attend high school, since there was no such school in the village.

I had a first class pass in high school. My parents, who were illiterate, thought that I could do well, so they sent me to a college in Mujaffarpur, Bihar, where I did my Bachelor´s (honors) in Economics. Out of 10,000 students, I stood first. That encouraged my parents to send me to Kathmandu to do my Master´s in 1962. There was no scholarship available unless you got one under the Colombo Plan in technical fields like medicine or engineering. I had to struggle to get a master´s degree from TU. I survived with limited resources for six months. Kathmandu was much more expensive than Mujaffarpur. So, I had to discontinue my studies.

But, luckily, I got a job with the National Trading Limited (NTL) in December 1962. General Manager Gopi Madhav Devkota (brother of poet laureate Laxmi Prasad), admired me much. He sent me to Nepalgunj to open an NTL branch there. I was branch manager there for two years (1963-1964). I saved some money, resigned from NTL, came back to TU and re-joined the master’s program. I graduated in 1966 in first position.

People then encouraged me to apply for the East-West Fellowship at the University of Hawaii . I applied for the scholarship in 1966 and, at the same time, I also applied for the job of research officer at Nepal Rastra Bank (NRB). I got the NRB job and forgot that I had applied for the East-West Fellowship. Two or three months later, I received a letter calling me for an interview for the scholarship at the American Consulate. That is what brought me to the US .

I had to take leave from my job at the NRB. I did my master´s in Hawaii and fared quite well. When they opened a PhD program, I wrote to the NRB and asked for an extension of my leave but they declined. I resigned from the bank and completed my PhD in economics in 1973. I was the first individual to do a PhD in economics from the University of Hawaii . How did you land up in the IMF (International Monetary Fund)?

Shah: World renowned economist Milton Friedman, who had come on a one-year sabbatical from the University of Chicago, was professor at Hawaii . I did part of my dissertation under him. When I applied to the IMF, Friedman wrote my recommendation. My Ph D and mainly Friedman’s recommendation brought me to the IMF in 1973. I worked for the IMF until 2002. Was there any time when you were directly involved in politics?

Shah: Pre-1990, we organized rallies in support of democracy. On March 16, 1990, just a couple of weeks before the restoration of democracy, we organized gatherings, raised funds, talked to congressmen and senators and public figures in Washington . We established the Nepal Human Rights Committee in 1987. There, we brought the community together.

One sad thing that I experienced during my Washington days was that I was boycotted by the embassy and most of the Nepali community there. They were afraid of me because of my association with BP. How do you define or describe your relationship with present-day politicians? Has any meeting taken place during your current visit?

Shah: I met Mr Upendra Yadav, my old friend and finance minister Mr Bhattarai, Prime Minister Dahal and another old friend, President Yadav. I also met Vice-President Paramananda Jha and many in the cabinet secretariat like Chief Secretary Bhojraj Ghimire. I also intend to meet Mr JP Gupta, Jhala Nath Khanal, Madhav Nepal, KP Oli (who is a very old friend since the past 20-25 years) and former prime minister GP Koirala. Your nomination to the ambassadorial position was suggested by the Madhesi People’s Rights Forum (MPRF) and its chief, Upendra Yadav. Isn’t it?

Shah: I had expressed my interest in serving in whatever capacity possible. Because of my background, I can be effective in political and most importantly economic issues. Whom did you actually talk to?

Shah: I talked to Upendraji, Baburam Bhattarai and many people visiting Washington in the past six months. Most of the time, I talked to MJF (read “MPRF”) leaders, Maoist leaders and some UML leaders. Not only did I talk to them, I also wrote to them explaining that I am free to serve and highlighting my capabilities. I also wrote to the president, the prime minister and the finance minister, among others. Hence, all these people were involved, not only MJF. Why do you think you can deliver the goods?

Shah: Maybe I don’t have experience in standard and traditional diplomacy but that is not what one needs at the moment. One needs non-traditional diplomacy. That means knowing people and projecting an image of trust, credibility and impartiality. I am open-minded and can start something afresh because I don’t come from a traditional background. I am a neutral person, without any party affiliation. Neutrality is my biggest advantage. You mentioned that you will focus on economic growth. How will you do that?

Shah: That is the million-dollar question. Nepal is such a well-endowed country in terms of natural resources, natural beauty, climate and rainfall. It is so balanced. If we infuse some human talent, it can prosper, especially given its location between two emerging economies with double digit growth.

I will create a positive image about Nepal among aid donors in the US . I will request them for grants and loans while at the same time assure them that we are trying our best to arrest corruption and misuse of resources. My calculation is that 80 percent of the resources that come from abroad in the form of loans or grants has been wasted, willingly or unwillingly. I will tell them that the government will utilize this 80 percent efficiently. I will explain the possibilities to those who don’t know. My vision is to bring American economic help in many areas, not only in agriculture or industries and financial services. Because of our comparative advantage in labor cost and political neutrality, Nepal can function as a base for multilateral companies. Is that so easy considering that we have a radical communist party leading the government?

Shah: I feel that there are many ways to skin the cat. The assumption that foreign investors won’t come to us because there is a leftist government with a “Maoist” label is not true. Ideology, politics or political identity will not be a decisive factor in attracting foreign investment. The main attractions will be how peaceful the country is, taxation policies, a safe environment for investment and the kind of profit transfer mechanism. Remember, China, a communist country, is one of the safest places for foreign investment. But the problem now is that the ruling party is still treated as a terrorist organization in the US. Don’t you think that will create problems?

Shah: The US government’s direct investment in any country is very negligible. It invests in infrastructure mostly through international organizations like the WB, IMF, ADB, UNDP because it has major voting power in those organizations. It can affect, not directly though, the decisions of these organizations on whether or not to give loans or soft loans to Nepal . When they give aid, most of it is military aid and Nepal doesn’t need it. Hence, direct contribution to development aid from the government will not be high. Major part of the foreign inflow of capital is in the form of Foreign Direct Investment. That depends on the perception of the private sector about government policies in the host country. Won’t you face problems convincing investors since the ruling party cadres themselves are creating problems at factories?

Shah: Unless the labor force is disciplined and the investors feel that their investment is safe, they will not come here irrespective of whether it is a congress or a communist government. Will you return to Nepal once your term as ambassador ends?

Shah: That will depend on my tenure as ambassador. If I succeed there, I will request for an extension as I will be able to serve better with experience. Then I may come and join politics. Anybody can do politics. But not many people can promote Nepal from outside. As far as my judgment goes, I can work better as an external envoy. However, if there is definite pressure or a strong role for me here, I will come back. So, you don’t have a definite view about joining politics?

Shah: No. This job will be a test case for me. I will know whether I am fit as a politician or at something else once I take up this position. The door is open. For a couple of years, I don’t want to visualize what I will do. Where will you live after your term as ambassador expires?

Shah: I have property in all the places that I have lived, from Washington to Nepal . I have a house here in the village. I will build something in Kathmandu . That doesn’t mean that I have to live in any of these places just because I have houses there. I have bought the houses as an investment, partly from my own money and mostly from loans given by banks. Both my wife and I continue to hold Nepali passports. You are from near Janakpur, which is the epicenter of the Madhes movement. What are your views about that movement and the changes it has brought about?

Shah: Given this kind of charged atmosphere, talking about partisan things or regional conflict and political topics may not be advisable. But my feeling is that Nepal has essentially two parts: Madhes and mountains. Madhes has not been wholly integrated into Nepal . That has been one of the weaknesses of Nepal as a nation. The Madhes movement, I feel, was a right movement and it was overdue. It should have been done 10 or 20 years ago. NC has its base in Madhes. It should have started the movement 20 years ago.

It has nothing to do with regionalism. It makes philosophical and practical sense. We are a bullock cart. If one wheel is not functioning, the other wheel despite being okay can’t function. I have characterized the Madhes movement as a civil rights movement, not a political movement.

My nomination for ambassadorship is as much a breakthrough as Obama becoming president of the US. Both are significant in a historic sense. I am encouraged by whatever is happening in Nepal and the US. A section of the media has reported about a court case involving your housemaid. Can you tell us about the case and how it was settled?

Shah: We are saddened by false and misleading reporting in the Nepali media and on the Internet about the court case involving Ms. Sangita Satyal, who worked as our housemaid for about a year during 1988-89. The case was settled in court. The court documents settling the case states that “the matter brought before this court has been settled with mutual agreement of the parties and no party has been found guilty of any wrongdoing, The parties further agree not to discuss the content of the settlement with outside parties and doing so will be construed as contempt of the court, punishable by jail term.”

We are trying to get a copy of the court document from the Federal Court in Alexandria, Virginia. If permitted under the law, a copy of this document will be made available to third parties upon request. We need to add that if the case involved any wrongdoing, then the United States Immigration Service (USIS) wouldn’t have issued us Permanent Resident Visas (Green Cards), which it did in March 2004. The Green Card replaced our diplomatic visa (US G-4) that we held during my service at the IMF.

Her (Satyal’s) parents asked us: “Don’t give any cash to her. Put it in a bank account.” The money was deposited there so that when she comes back to Nepal she would have a lump sum to buy a house. If we gave her the cash, she wouldn’t know how to manage the money. What was the issue concerning misuse of an embassy vehicle as reported by the media?

Shah: I find it simply amazing and disgraceful that ex-Congress and some embassy “hopefuls” have resorted to such cheap tactics to oppose my nomination. The latest example is the Gorkhapatra report of Feb. 19th that said we made use of embassy facilities without me being formally appointed as ambassador. That is plain rubbish. A request that we visit the embassy, meet the staff and become familiar with issues that concerned the embassy before we left for Kathmandu came from Charge’ d’Affaires at the Embassy, Mr Kali Prasad Pokharel.



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