Business & palace intrigues in Nepal

MAKING IT BIG

Binod Chaudhary

Penguin

411 pages; Rs 399

Binod Chaudhary's story is fairly well known: he is the first person from Nepal on Forbes's list of billionaires, his main business is instant noodles (Wai Wai), he owns Nabil Bank, and he is a business partner of Tata. He runs factories, hotels, power plants and has interests in real estate.

The sturdily built businessman is of Marwari stock but let me tell you he is as Nepali as the south face of Mount Everest: in the presence of outsiders, I have often heard him converse with his sons in chaste Nepali; needle him about Nepal and he will come at you with all his might; and his name is Binod, as a true highlander would say it, not Vinod.

Mr Chaudhary's grandfather had a clothes shop in Kathmandu and was one of the few traders who had access to the royal palace. His father grew the business, started a string of factories, and in 1968 set up Arun Emporium, Kathmandu's largest departmental store. Under Mr Chaudhary, the business has grown manifold: he takes pride in saying that his group is run out of Kathmandu, Delhi and Dubai.

The most remarkable thing about Mr Chaudhary is his candour. I have never heard him shy away from a topic, or duck an uncomfortable question. His book, too, holds no punches; he names his adversaries, and recounts all his battles with them in great detail.

The book lifts the veil over how business was done in Nepal when it was a monarchy. One had heard that the then rulers were whimsical and bullied businessmen, big and small, into submission. The stories Mr Chaudhary narrates show how deep the malaise ran. All the stories of political intimidation that we hear in India sound like junior school pranks when compared to what Mr Chaudhary and other Nepali businessmen had to put up with in those days.

In Mr Chaudhary's words, businessmen in Nepal had to pay bribes twice: once to the government and the "second was exhorted from behind closed doors by those who held the reins of power". The rule was pretty straightforward: the businessmen would make all the investments and then the royals would walk in and decide their stake. Invariably, they took 51 per cent. "Anybody who would not accept such a deal was better off packing his bags and leaving the country". (The custom of the day was that the royals did not return greetings when they met people.)

In 1980, Nepal held a referendum to choose between the firman father and son couldn't refuse.

After the referendum, which went in favour of the panchayat system, Mr Chaudhary demanded three favours from Thapa: a licence to assemble National Panasonic radios in Nepal, another to import beer from Mohan Meakins in India, and a third to set up a paper mill in the country. Thapa agreed to all three.

However, the political opponents of Thapa, which Mr Chaudhary says was reportedly led by a prince, launched a visceral attack on him, which derailed the proposed ventures. (The venture with Mohan Meakins was a non-starter because Indian excise laws did not allow for the export of beer.)

Mr Chaudhary found a way out by aligning with the royal palace: he made Prince Dhirendra his business partner. All opposition melted away. And when he set up a steel mill, called Apollo Steel, Dhirendra agreed to settle for a 49 per cent stake. It was this closeness with the prince that helped Mr Chaudhary bag a hydro-power project in Nepal, even though the contract had been "unfairly" allotted to another consortium.

The relationship Mr Chaudhary had forged with Dhirendra opened the gates of the palace for him. King Birendra and his wife, Queen Aishwarya, would frequently invite him over. They visited his Wai Wai factory and even came to attend weddings in his family. But this came to an abrupt end in 1989 when Dhirendra, thanks to his affair with an English woman named Shirlie, had to leave the palace.

One day, Mr Chaudhary and his father were summoned by Prekshya Rajya Laxmi Devi, Dhirendra's wife, to her palace. There, in the presence of some courtiers, she told father and son that she was selling the 49 per cent stake Dhirendra held in their Apollo Steel's to a rival, Golchha Steel. This would have been disastrous.

Mr Chaudhary stood up to the bullying and refused: he produced a piece of paper in which Dhirendra had written that he had taken money from the businessman to buy the 49 per cent stake; selling these shares would have been unethical. The queen left in a huff; Mr Chaudhary sent her legal notices, demanding the money her husband had taken be returned to him!

He followed it up with a rights issue, to which the queen did not subscribe and which brought down her stake. Fearing for his safety, Mr Chaudhary became a vocal proponent of multi-party democracy in Nepal: nobody would dare harm a public person. After a while, the queen relented and returned the money to Mr Chaudhary.

Riveting stuff indeed.


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