PM’s closest, yet controversial, ‘shadow player’ behind scandals

Asgar has been alleged of dragging the government into controversies.

Gajendra Basnet

April 3, 2020

13 MIN READ

PM’s closest, yet controversial, ‘shadow player’ behind scandals

Asgar Ali, Prime Minister's IT consultant, (Photo: Asgar's Facebook)

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KATHMANDU: It, perhaps, wouldn’t be wrong to label Prime Minister KP Oli’s IT consultant, Asgar Ali as officious. Not a belligerent personality, but considered shrewd in making clandestine and behind-the-scene dealings, and drag the government into controversies.

Asgar, since he was appointed PM Oli’s IT advisor, has courted controversies particularly making murky deals – the latest being the awarding a tender worth Rs 1.25 billion contracts to Omni Business Corporate Group to procure medical equipment in an inflated rate and that too without competitive bidding process from China this week.

He looks reclusive but has been an influential actor behind the scene to drag the government into controversies, sometimes taking into confidence his influential ‘commission buddies’ in his team to grow his business and fulfill his vested interest.

Peeking into Asgar’s activities, he plays a convincing role behind the scene in bringing businesses in his favor, and awarding tenders and contracts to his preferred companies and individuals, something which is linked with ‘bulky commission’. That’s why Asgar has remained a controversial figure.

The reason why we have tried to raise this issue here is not an attempt to hype up the recent incident to smear the Prime Minister personally and his untiring efforts to control the spread of coronavirus in the country, but because Asgar meddled by using the power and influence to put things in his favor.

This could be one of the reasons why Asgar, who runs the popular eSewa since 2011, an online payment gateway, is alleged to have hands through its subsidiary by removing a news item by hacking the backend of a Kathmandu-based news portal that published a news report of his collaboration in the medical items procurement deal.

Senior advocate Dinesh Tripathi says, “Attack on freedom of the press has been flourishing these days. Media, too, should decide what to publish and what not. Anyone who infringes upon the freedom of the press must be brought to book.”

Meanwhile, PM’s press advisor Surya Thapa refuted his involvement in exerting pressure to the news portal to remove the news content.

Another issue, which needs to be taken into consideration, is the collection of funds for the PM’s Relief Fund through Asgar’s e-Sewa. Now, it is not unusual for over 2.1 million customers, who park billions in this digital wallet, to worry about their data on the platform.

A question: Is or isn’t Prime Minister Oli aware of all these behind-the-scene bustles? If yes, why and what exactly is arm-twisting the Prime Minister?

Experts are of the view that the ‘Nepali Port’ currently installed at the TIA has not been effective. Immigration officials say the ‘Nepali Port’, which was constructed in haste to prevent the PISCES from being installed, has failed to function properly and lacks international quality.

The reason why we have tried to raise this issue here is not an attempt to hype up the recent incident to smear the Prime Minister personally and his untiring efforts to control the spread of coronavirus in the country, but because Asgar meddled by using the power and influence to put things in his favor.

PM Oli’s confidante, Asgar’s activities do not end here. He had awarded a contract, with or without PM’s knowledge, to Santra Network, a subsidiary of Omni Group, to set up a ‘war room’ for organizing a video conference at the Office of the Prime Minister in 2018.

Asgar Ali (2nd from R) during a video conferencing with PM KP Oli and others.

In 2017, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Chairman of the then Unified Maoist, after becoming the country’s Prime Minister for the second time, had decided to install an American software ‘Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evolution System (PISCES) in the immigration at Tribhuvan International Airport aimed at preventing possible terrorist activities and human trafficking.

The government had then decided to install PISCES in all immigration points which the US government was providing for free.

However, the decision was not implemented after Asgar later intervened arguing that Nepal can develop and install advances software with biometrics itself. He intended to award the contract to a company of one of his relatives. The “Nepali Port’ developed by the F1 Soft International Pvt Ltd company and installed at the immigration, however, lacks international quality.

Installation of PISCES would identify, trace and stop suspected terrorists or people traveling with fake passports could be easily held and to better secure the country’s borders. However, the Nepali Port software, which was constructed in haste under the influence of Asgar failed to address the problems.

When Khabarhub tried to contact the Spokesperson at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Kedar Nath Sharma, his phone was switched-off while Information Office at the ministry Uma Kant Aryal expressed ignorance on the issue saying, “I am aware of the fact that the immigration has installed the Port at the TIA. However, it being a technical issue, I would rather suggest you to ask the Director General at the Immigration Department or spokesperson.”

PISCES system employs cutting-edge technology that enables authorities to screen travelers against authoritative biographic and biometric databases.

This was in line with the UN Security Council Resolution 2396, which compels all UN members to halt travel by terrorists through the use of tools such as watch lists and names of the passengers.

However, the software installed by Asgar and his associates neither ensures security and reliability, nor it has a connection with the INTERPOL and other international bodies because of which the number of travelers, mostly Iranians traveling with European fake passports is on the rise.

PM Oli, in a meeting with the US Embassy officials, had assured of installing the PISCES at any cost. However, PM Oli recoiled from his stance after Asgar piled pressure on him not to go for the American system.

Now, the installation of Nepali Port has paved the way for Asgar to easily access the immigration data.

This is evident that Asgar has been abusing his authority and influence particularly in the IT sector, which ultimately has dragged the government into controversies.

Experts are of the view that the ‘Nepali Port’ currently installed at the TIA has not been effective. Immigration officials say the ‘Nepali Port’, which was constructed in haste to prevent the PISCES from being installed, has failed to function properly and lacks international quality.

Though not an expert in IT, Asgar, who did his BE in Software Engineering from Pokhara University in 2007, came to the limelight after he established the eSewa in 2011 and later became PM Oli’s IT consultant. He now owns more than half-a-dozen IT companies. Before this, he was a Java instructor at Nepal College of Information technology.

Asgar Ali (standing) at a Cabinet meeting. (Photo: Asgar’s Facebook)

Interestingly, Asgar is also alleged to have access to the encrypted laptops of the cabinet ministers, which means that he is hell-bent on ‘controlling’ the country’s digital world.

Sources claim that he is the architect behind the setting of the laptops and other electronics in the cabinet meeting – considered highly sensitive as there are possibilities of information being leaked.

More than this, Asgar handles all software and IT-related proceedings and technicalities of the Hello Sarkar, call center for labor application, provinces management system, among others.

That’s not all. Asgar, who is considered close to Chinese telecom Huawei, is also alleged to awarding a contract to set up a video conferencing system for the ‘war room’ at the Prime Minister’s Office to Chinese company Huawei by breaching public procurement laws in December 2018.

The Rs 54.2 million contract was awarded to Huawei, a Chinese company without competition, with the intervention of Asgar. It should be noted that China Communication Services, an agent of Huawei, was awarded the contract on December 21.

Asgar, who completed his ISc from Amrit Science Campus and SLC from New Horizon Boarding School, was also alleged of abusing his position to exert pressure on authorities to provide private and sensitive information concerning the people at large in 2018.

A high-level army source told Khabarhub insisting anonymity that this tendency will put the nation’s security at stake.

Asgar had earlier allegedly managed to cancel a tender call to construct and operate the ‘Video Forensic System’ of the ‘war room’ as the requirement failed to match the specifications of the company he favored.

It was this very man, who was responsible to set up the video conference in Singha Durbar during the video conference organized among the SAARC member states on coronavirus in March.

It also becomes evident that Asgar has ‘good ties’ with Omni Group as he had played a role to award a contract to ‘Joint Venture’ in the tender of Nepal Telecom Authority to establish IT labs in all the schools across the country last year.

Other companies, including Ankhu Enterprises Pvt Ltd, World Distribution Nepal, OBCI, Max and Nepal JV (Omni Business Corporate International, Max International, and Nepa Hima Trade Link) had competed for the tender to establish IT labs in schools.

The same Omni Group had got the contract of worth Rs 240 million (24 crores) tendered by the Election Commission during the 2017 local and provincial elections. The company had succeeded in winning the tender to print the ballot papers at an inflated rate. Here too, the same theory of ‘pre-plan and setting’ had worked, a source claim insisting anonymity.

Asgar, who completed his ISc from Amrit Science Campus in 2002 and SLC from New Horizon Boarding School in 1999, was also alleged of abusing his position to exert pressure on authorities to provide private and sensitive information concerning the people at large in 2018.

The operator of Omni Group, Tulhar Singh of Gulmi, is in good terms with Asgar, the source said adding that the Omni Group’s office is at the same building of Bhatbhateni Super Store in Patan. Meanwhile, the owner of Bhatbhateni Superstore, Min Bahadur Gurung, too, is a sleeping partner with Omni Group, which was established in 1996 in Lalitpur.

The Omni Business Corporate International (OBCI) is still not registered at the Department of Commerce, Supplies and Consumers’ Protection.

It should be noted that the MoHP purchased 75,000 medical kits through the Omni Group. The government paid Rs 702 million or US$600 thousand at a rate of $8 per kit.

Asked why the ministry gave way the contract to a company that is not registered at the Department of Supplies to procure medical equipment, Director General at the Health Service Department Mahendra Shrestha brushed aside the query saying: “It’s your duty to find out whether the company is registered or not.

Asked whether the ministry would blacklist the company, Shrestha said the ministry made the deal after ensuring that Omni Group was a registered company. “I gave the contract only after going through all the necessary procedures.”

The Ministry which had prepared for the acquisition of the kits 3 months before, signed an agreement with Omni Group after the lockdown. The quotation was sought on February 8, and 19 medical suppliers had applied for it. However, the process was later deterred.

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