Sun, Oct 13, 2013 - Page 14 News List

Nepal’s sole billionaire mulls turning hand to politics

Binod Chaudhary wants to apply his business acumen to help one of the world’s poorest countries become a manufacturing, tourism and trading success — just like he has

By Frank Jack Daniel  /  Reuters, KATHMANDU

Chaudhary Group chairman Binod Chaudhary poses in front of a portrait of his younger self at his office in Kathmandu, Nepal, on Oct. 4.

Photo: Reuters

Binod Chaudhary, Nepal’s only billionaire, made his name selling instant noodles, but has now got an eye on running the young Himalayan republic.

Chaudhary, recently valued by Forbes magazine at US$1 billion, says he would give up business for a shot at governing one of the world’s poorest countries, but not yet. Nepal’s politics are just too messy, even for a man who was able to build a business empire during a civil war.

Wedged between two of the world’s largest markets — India and China — and home to its most spectacular mountains, Nepal should be a manufacturing, tourism and trading success.

Chaudhary is testament to the possibilities. Having started out selling noodles to India, then all over Asia, his family-owned conglomerate Chaudhaury Group includes a bank, a telecommunications business and dozens of resorts, including two in the Maldives in partnership with India’s Taj Group.

Yet Nepal is one of Asia’s most unstable countries, despite seven years of peace since the end of a Maoist war that helped topple a centuries-old monarchy. It has had five governments since 2008 and politicians have not been able to agree on a constitution that will lay out the contours of the state.

Elections due on Nov. 19 for a new Nepalese Constituent Assembly are expected to go ahead despite threatened disruption by a significant faction of hardline Maoist parties.

That is too soon for Chaudhary, who wants the political parties to finish writing a new constitution before he takes the plunge into full-time politics.

“There is no point in getting caught in between in a situation that you can’t resolve,” he said from the top floor of his headquarters in Kathmandu.

The tycoon, whose mansion is decorated with leopard-print furnishings, busts of black stallions and a fresco reproduction of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s The Banquet of Cleopatra, said he would like to jump squarely into politics when the impasse is resolved.

Chaudhary said he would then apply his business acumen to create jobs and fix infrastructure, ending power cuts that keep the lights off for up to seven hours a day.

Chaudhary does business from Thailand to Tanzania, a hedge against the uncertainties of his landlocked country.

Amid the political churning, hundreds of thousands of people leave for jobs overseas every year and businessmen are wary of investing. Growth slumped last year to 3.5 percent — the slowest pace in five years — and inflation was above target at 9 percent.

With successive short-lived governments barely in power long enough to fill posts, there has been little clarity on what type of economic system the country will follow.

“Every six months you have a new prime minister, a new government, so how can people invest?” said Chiranjeevi Nepal, the Nepalese Ministry of Finance’s top economic advisor. “Whether to follow the liberal, open economy or the mixed economy, that is the confusion here. Investment needs clear policies.”

Nowhere is that confusion more apparent than at the Nepal Stock Exchange (NEPSE).

Located in a squat, brick building by a rubbish-strewn stream, the NEPSE feels a long way from Wall Street. Its hoarding is hand-painted, its electronic ticker blank since it broke five months ago.

Inside is an abandoned trading floor, frozen in time since the exchange replaced open-outcry trading in 2007. Rows of dust-covered computers remain, as do the prices from the last day of trading, scrawled on white boards.

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