Dev Raj Dahal
Self-awakening, realising inner awareness is the basis of people’s empowerment. It nourishes one’s own belief, desire, interest, emotion and opinion and motivates to engage in legislative and practical affairs. The notion of "political" implies the public and thus participation in its activities is a route to their empowerment. Political power is a public trust. It flourishes with the public interests it serves. It is built on the process of education, election, public opinion and the system of rule of law. Social virtues of human nature spur the art of association with others and pull off positive effects on the multi-dimensionality of empowerment. Rational people are ethically responsible for their actions in matters of laws, rights and duties and show maturity in decision for self-improvement and worthy action for others.
The system of rights is the base of the state and also the legitimate order of democracy. Equal rights to all Nepalis, legal protection to them and fairness in representation in the polity enable political institutions to maximise the welfare of society. There are laws to foster the voices of the powerless so that they can engage in making the decisions that affect them. A life of political empowerment is deemed a life in which no Nepali is dictated either by necessity, ignorance, tutelage, prejudice, instinct, determinism or false doctrine but breathe free will, reason and deliberative choice. The conversational life of Nepalis in rural areas, public spaces or under the pipal tree or mango grooves enables them to discuss and share the matters of general interests.
The modern intellectuals of Nepal saturated in social sciences and politicians inebriated by the ideology of materialism are, however, less conversant with this tradition which is a source of information, opinion and empowerment. Their demand of absolute and uncritical obedience from the people affirming self-defence and self-justification alienate, isolate and deprive those having critical opinion and audacity to ask questions to satisfy their curiosity.
Cognitive competency tempts apathetic people into action reflecting ideas and reality thus making self-public and defining self-destiny. The adoption of modern science and technology has altered the concept of self. Now, the personal has become “political” having the ability to project self and participate in vital issues through digitised media invoking the principles of human rights. It helps combat the subordination of self and improve an understanding about politics, laws and development policies. But scientific advance is not an overall progress in itself if its outcome is selectively used while its canon goes against justice and morality for securing the public goods.
Similarly, without the social solidarity across various types of people and their ability to organise cooperative action, it is hard to achieve political empowerment of Nepalis. It entails the autonomy of national institutions under state-sanctioned polity so that they can act impersonally to regulate the play of dominant interest groups, step up efforts to espouse public integrity of cleaning the vices of society and unleash the nation’s usual conversational life so far thinned by instrumental rationality of authority who empirically divide the public, drain social capital and enforce a culture of silence.
Political participation overcomes alienation, circulates people in the political society and sets law and political power in a mutually reinforcing manner. In civic culture, no one flags the other and crosses the laxman rekha, the legally defined boundary of action. Yet, if the state lacks legitimate monopoly on power, participation becomes anomic. It cannot enforce rule of law and fortify the writ of democracy. Power politics often tends to fade the values and infrastructure of democracy, removes the stake of people in it and depreciates the lawful means of acquiring, using and transferring political power to each social class and generation of people.
Nepali leaders and intellectuals’ paranoid suspicion of people as ignorant masses and unlearning from their years of refined contextual and historical experience have thus shut up any hope of feedback about public matters. Only an open bond among them can furnish the scope for mutual learning and bottom up legitimacy requirements of democracy. The efficacy of governance rests on the constitutionalisation of the state, non-state and societal power and relative autonomy of their domain of functioning in specialised areas so that polity can nearly balance inputs and outputs. There is a direct connection between a series of sovereignty, liberation, assertion, empowerment and immunity rights of citizens, the organisation of state power and its ability to set coherence with non-state institutions.
Popular sovereignty embodies the will of people and, therefore, they coexist only in a sovereign state. Immunity of people is negative rights which mark the absence of restriction of freedom, protection against dependence and arbitrary form of authority. The constitution defines its polity with 31 rights and adopted policies of popular sovereignty, inclusion, participation, representation and shared and self-rule. Yet, many of these provisions are less institutionalised thus creating a tension between reality and norms.
A practice of reaching understanding among different political and social stakeholders, developing consensual norms and formulating the most legitimate means as per the spirit of the constitution help settle conflicts. The scale of power allocation in Nepali society and the nature of competition for power among different political parties, institutions and agencies and their checks and balances, constitute how the empowerment process is pursued in the nation. The political empowerment process is achieved through political socialisation —learning, involvement and occupying proper roles in political society.
Majority of Nepalis have not been able to acquire intrinsic power with the ability to influence the decisions at multi-level governance as political leaders utilise elections to come to power, not devolve power, resource and authority to make the “political” sufficiently public in orientation, education for reflective consciousness on human condition and mobilisation of collective energies for social change. Those at the bottom of progress require instrumental power of political agency and acquired power of civil society, public action or political parties for their empowerment as opportunity for them to participate in the national convention of parties is limited and leadership selection is largely made in a top-down style contrary to popular sovereignty, republic and democracy.
The way to overcome their powerlessness through acquired power seems narrow. In this context, Nepalis need both emancipatory knowledge to achieve political empowerment, conversational knowledge to constitute a live public sphere with the weight to shape public opinion and technical knowledge to sustain productive existence which liberates them from necessity, dependency and vertical life of hierarchy and patriarchy. Political empowerment is a process of realising objective and subjective human needs and rights -- security, identity and recognition at multi-scale governance. It is a means of fostering civic competence of Nepalis to increase their voluntary participation in politics, find rewarding roles in the national and local polity and cultivate civic culture.
In Nepal, political empowerment is associated with a number of indicators: condition of human rights fitting in three-fold existence of physical survival, social solidarity and moral imperative to realise the cosmic web of life affirming dignity of all living species. Other indicators are: civil liberties, right to dissent, equal opportunities and limitation on predatory intrusion. At the institutional level, it entails free and fair elections, representative legislature, rational vote, parties' competition, inclusion of minorities and peoples’ informed engagement in ecological, social, political, economic and civil society. These indicators are attainable if there is democratic accountability of leaders, responsiveness of the government to people, turning political power proportional to its representativeness, and transparent operation of authorities recognising interests of all.
This is possible in Nepal if a myriad of intermediary institutions working in the multiple spaces organise deliberate collective action. These indicators generate legitimacy of the polity to govern and ensure the increasing level of compliance of Nepalis to the rule. Yet, it requires addressing reformist agendas of political parties to restructure state-society relations and seek constitutional stability. High levels of voting turnout and the corresponding number of candidates in the elections offer competitive choices if they offer different policy alternatives. Otherwise, an exercise in the status quo only inflames the patience of people and stifles empowerment indicators.
Its core values embody: situating reforms around the principles of popular sovereignty, fulfilment of rights of Nepalis, robust legal protection guaranteed by independent judiciary, assuring fair autonomy of public institutions from partisan politics, turning administration and constitutional bodies impersonal, efficient and performing, judicial review, public scrutiny of governance, and the principle of the separation of state and society (market and civil society), not just the separation of powers between legislative, executive and judiciary nexus common in mono-centric governance. These measures help stabilise the behavioural expectation of leaders and people, rely on shared choice conforming public opinion and coordination of the action of governance actors where Nepalis as fully empowered persons interact to realise the constitutional vision of good society.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)