Empowerment is a process of lifting up the capacity of citizens to achieve the goal of good society. Its standard rears the civic ability of Nepalis to improve their fearless participation in productive activities and enable them to find rewarding roles in the polity favourable to freedom, equality and opportunity. It flourishes a number of key indicators: inner vigilance, civil liberties, equal opportunities and limitation on the government intrusion on their just pursuit. At the institutional level, empowerment entails free and fair elections, representative legislature, competitive political parties, voice and visibility of minorities, free press, autonomous judiciary and awakened citizens capable of actively participate in ecological, social, political, economic and cultural matters.
These are key entry points to enforce first, democratic accountability of Nepali leaders who can conquer their own passion and spur responsiveness to the people; second, turn political power into the public power, and third, transparent use of political power recognising and mitigating the challenges faced by the nation. Democracy does not reduce legitimate opposition to impotence.
Its points of view about the left out populace enable it to craft inclusive policies and aid to national integration. In Nepal, it demands authentic civil society, ethical business and a myriad of macro institutions working in multiple spaces and disposing collective action so that citizens become final arbiters of public affairs thus making empowerment effortlessly resilient.
The concept of rights is the basis of a political community, the Nepali state. It is the locus of legal order of sovereignty and democratic polity. Equal rights to all Nepalis and their legal protection are allied with the autonomy of judiciary under state-sanctioned polity, not omnipresent executive. But without enough civic skill, education, solidarity and economic resources the rights of Nepalis simply become non-actionable. Civic education on a mass scale helps them realise their self-worth, choose the right worldview and find the solution to the clash of irremediable leadership cults. Critical Nepali media regularly gauge the actions of leaders or their non-democratic actions and build citizens’ capacity for valuation and moral judgment of adversarial politics intoxicated by the might of the majority where strong leadership egos defy stable cooperation.
The mutual defence of law and political power in the nation is vital so that one does not flag the other and unbound anarchy. Weaning politics off violence can allow people to secure their life. Yet Nepali state is weak, deficient of a rightful power monopoly to enforce rule of law and make democracy robust to produce and distribute sufficient public goods. If the cognitive template of the nation, constitution and diplomatic code, are defined by top leaders it is hard for Nepalis to collectively exercise their right to self-determination. Political power is a public trust built on the democratic enlightenment, election, consent of the governed, public opinion, civic organisation, public sphere and the rule of law.
Efficiency of democratic polity rests on the ability of Nepali state to normatively govern political parties, non-state and societal actors beyond frog mentality. Without any esteem to their autonomy in productive business the rising inflation, scarcity and decline of development indicators can easily hit the constitutional order. There is a direct connection between democratic rights of Nepalis and the capacity of state and its ability to set coherence with non-state institutions including political parties. Any clear reflection of empowerment of Nepalis requires justice against fate, enabling the leaders to perform their duties and citizens breaking their primitive impulse to a lean circle of clients.
The wellsprings of Nepali Constitution — 31 civic rights, four duties, popular sovereignty, inclusion, participation, representation and shared and self-rule do not correspond with the predominance of parties in every sphere of life. Many of these provisions are less animated. It is creating a tension between human condition and constitutional norms prompting critical mass media to awaken citizens from their deep snooze and free their spirits to fight for a life-furthering welfare state.
Political power grows with constitutional law, a power upon which law-making, law enforcing and law adjudicating functions are set to their mutually binding duties. A hereditary art of commanding and obeying citizens without critical reflections, deliberation, negotiation and consensus in party politics has diluted these binding duties and detonated the swamp of muscular sensation, not revealing the right path of nation building. As a result, the fortitude of the constitution seems less stout. The skewed power allocation in Nepali society and the artificial nature of party competition without policy, institutions and agencies and weak checks and balances, choke the empowerment process.
The perfect remedy is civic education of citizens — learning, involvement and occupying proper roles in the art and science of politics. It is a constant process of transformation of each generation of people into Nepalis and the mindful public capable of making the right choice for leadership. A great majority of Nepalis, however, does not have intrinsic power with the ability to influence the decisions at multi-level governance. Political leaders utilise elections to come to power, not devolve power, resource and authority to make the political sphere sufficiently public in orientation, education for reflective consciousness on human condition and liberate themselves from the infertility of ideology and public policy so that Nepalis are capable of discharging their duties.
Citizens use their belief system to criticise their leaders’ deviation from raj dharma (statecraft) under the invisible spell of market forces expecting to produce public goods out of personal self-interest and clout of geopolitics, and indulge in making and breaking party politics as an eternal trial of Don Quixote. The deceitful signs of politics beyond democratic measures have engulfed the nation into a maze of geopolitics. Nepali think tanks are mapping the changes in world politics in a Cartesian image, with the conceptual angles of bipolarity - the USA and China. It is hopelessly wrong.
Global politics has become multi-polar which requires smart policy and strategy to think outside the old geopolitical box and explore new possibilities, formulate matching frames to optimise the interests of various poles of power, escape suffocating dependence on only one or two powers and attain diplomatic manoeuvrability in the whirling flow of crosscurrents. Frame is not a solution of Nepal’s foreign policy dilemma but a right means to find common cause with other powers, diversify its relations and keep its nonalignment flexible and fit for insufferable zeal.
Gautam Buddha’s middle path as a metaphysical synthesis is safe and sound for the nation to escape from the fight of empiricists and rationalists, realists and idealists, constitutional determinist and ideologues, and geopolitical voyage against the rule of law and the nation’s pivotal space in the perception of changing world. Many Nepalis living at the bottom of society lack political agency, civil society, public action, business and media for their empowerment. For ordinary Nepalis liberty amounts to the absence of necessity, alienation, dependency and immaturity in deciding matters of public importance, not just freedom of speech.
There is, however, pathology of Nepal’s political development that the very political culture leaders have bred poses a risk to the source of their own failure generating a deepest stilt under their feet. The tragedy of Nepali politics is: it is markedly driven by partisan zeal, not reason, feeling and concern of ordinary citizens. This is why the Supreme Court and public protests have to rectify many of their misdeeds.
The way to overcome Nepali citizens’ helplessness through efforts from outside forces seems limited except joining the global labour market. In this context, Nepalis need honest leaders who can disseminate civic awareness to citizens to achieve political empowerment, discursive understanding to make up a vibrant public sphere with the weight of public opinion, specialised knowledge to continue productive economic life and avoid the trap of dependence. Empowerment manifests in the realisation of objective and subjective human needs and rights at multi-scale governance. Some of its vital indicators are: human rights and ability to become efficient in three-fold life of biological survival, social coexistence through the expansion of labour market opportunities and the ethical necessity to augment international cooperation.
Good voting turnout and mushroom candidates in the election may offer competitive choices provided they offer policy alternatives, reduce election costs and enhance integrity. Otherwise, it amounts to an exercise in the status quo which only blunts the conscience of citizens and cannot become an indicator of their empowerment. The critical questions are: Have positive economic indicators generated legitimacy of Nepali polity to govern and ensured the compliance of citizens? If they have, why are political parties fearful of the attrition of the status quo? Is there sufficient civic competence of Nepalis to make political power morally responsible to generate civic renewal of its democracy? These are the areas that require separate inquiry.
Situating wide-ranging reforms around the principles of popular sovereignty, fulfilment of citizens’ rights, legal protection guaranteed by the autonomy of judiciary from partiocracy, turning administration performing, judicial review, legislative scrutiny and the principle of the separation of state and society entails more than the division of powers between legislative, executive and judiciary nexus common in the mono-centric governance. These measures help leaders know the nature of what they are, feel the pangs of conscience and find pious cause for the sake of public good and national interests, overcome the nation’s hard moment, rely on shared choice based on public opinion and coordination of the action of multi-level governance where Nepalis work together for their empowerment.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)