Balance Between Civic Rights And Duties

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A functional self-governance is a legitimising ethics of modern rule. It is entrusted with the tasks of executing the standard of democratic norms and mobilising and allocating society's resources to meet rational interests of Nepalis, such as freedom, security, identity and essential needs. The constitutional doctrine presupposes that elected rule has a duty to advance the interest of entire Nepalis, not just its clients. Nepalis have shown great enthusiasm in the local elections and exercised their conscience beyond the belief of leaders. Besieged by multi-polar political conflicts, they seem feeble to fulfil public goods and execute the constitutional premises of popular sovereignty, durable peace, an inclusive polity and progressive change.

The forthcoming elections for the House of Representatives and Provincial Assemblies are expected to provide another chance for Nepalis to select the leaders of their choice. Elections are not just one event but a series of cycles from voters’ registration, nomination of candidates, negotiation, intra-party row, coalition building, campaign behaviour of leaders, education of voters, monitoring of election code, security environment, casting of ballot papers and the final outcome. In each of these cycles, a robust collaboration between civil society and citizens can bear desired voting turnout and offset the odd bent of political parties.

Information campaign

The voters’ information campaign, launched by the Election Commission, media, NGOs and civil society, are necessary but in no way they can reduce invalid voting or vote-buying and selling which lurks on their civic competence. Limiting the election expenditure to a fixed ceiling is a major problem in Nepal especially this is the major incentive for voters racked by scarcity and poverty while selection of the right candidates in proportional list is another.  Many business elites and political kin prefer to be included in proportional list than directly face the voters. Many of them are free-riders, not genuine leaders having a stake in power, not democracy. The coalition government of Nepali Congress and opposition CPN-UML led coalition are a part of the establishment. Both defend the constitutional status quo while smaller political parties and independent candidates are seeking to capsize this for a new opening.  

Given the reasonable share of political space by left out groups, such as women, ethnic communities, Dalits and Madhesis and surge of independents, one can guess the trend of Nepal's political transition in the days ahead. The collective struggles of small parties and left out groups will continue to cause governmental, constitutional and political instability in the future unless institutional devices of representation of functionally active groups are well placed in the polity. Sharp contradictions within the political parties over the distribution of party tickets indicate that bargain among fractious leaders is tough.  It may not be able to pick popular candidates who may be disloyal to the party but not to fractious leaders thus making the partisan voters lose their emotion and enthusiasm. 

The convergence of Nepali parties to manifesto politics keeps a disjuncture between public opinion on policy issues and voting behaviour. Voting to non-partisan candidates for long can easily erode the social base of the party system in Nepal and risks anomic participation outside the institutional structures. It amounts to the loss of a consolidated party system and a sense of political stability in the country. The introduction of the proportional election system and fragmentation of political parties add other infectious elements. Negotiations on only power-sharing, not settling diverse national issues — management of conflict residues, availability of public goods, restoring the integrity of polity, redistributive policies among social groups, among others, that characterise the nation's political life are unfinished political tasks. 

Political stability entails Nepali civil society to actively engage in the transformation of mini-identity politics into civic identity with equal rights and equal duties. The partisan bickering, stalemate and ineffectual compromises hardly resonates with the feelings of masses expressed in their needs, rights and concerns. Advertising voter’s information, not civic education, may be helpful to scale up voters’ turnout; it does not raise civic awareness necessary to foster civic culture in the nation. Civic culture is essential to the political transition from partiocracy to participatory democracy, a question legitimately raised in a convention of Nepali civil society groups.

The emergence of new forces and structures has already changed the historical power relationship and widely distributed leadership in society with contesting visions and dissimilar stakes in the current political order. The resilience of old party elites and transformation of feudalism from rural to urban areas will continue to cause governmental inaction to address the security and authority vacuum and allow the decentralisation of competitive free ride of bichaulias operating independent of the authority and integrity of the state. Political transition from feudalism to welfare state becomes successful only when countervailing power of Nepali civil society eases economic progress to satisfy the Nepali electorates, muster widespread societal support for political initiatives and inspire all the potential and left out forces for cooperative action. 

In Nepal, this is vital to reduce the impact of money on politics. Only agile civil society and political volunteerism can ameliorate this condition. The retreat of Nepali parties from the grassroots and lack of adequate supply of public goods including educational materials; health goods and inputs for agriculture have bred widespread distrust. Unless civil society integrates social justice into the institutions of political parties and democratises their internal structures for social integration, democracy is less likely to thrive. The mood of the election is an occasion for civil society to articulate the demands of local party committees and the people.  

Many toxic elements, such a growing corruption, impunity, deviation from constitutional spirit, erosion of the efficacy of public institutions owing to their excessive party-mindedness, decriminalisation of dissents, and others have placed Nepal's new order of politics off the track of the formal rule of law. The eroding relationship of law and morality with politics has made the latter autonomous with respect to that of common good. It has also reduced all spheres of life to political control and dissolved law, economy and society into party politics. It could not get rid of the general condition of unsocialised voters and liberate modern politics from the pre-modern clutches. 

If the primacy of partisan politics is the end, no system is capable of maintaining democratic balance and transforming law from a disciplinary tool of the regime to a mediating agency between the state and society. Only an effective and class-neutral state can stand above the interest groups of society, ensure common benefits through the public character of politics and enable Nepalis to share the benefits of education, health, trade, investment, technology and communication. If public institutions of the nation are made subservient to partisan or regime interest, governance becomes dysfunctional thus imposing enormous costs for the sustainability of poor citizens' web of life. 

The rot of authority in Nepal, especially in the management of democratic polity, can thus be linked to poor institution building efforts by the leadership and their inertia in resolving social conflicts in the domains of privileges, rights and virtues. The incumbent leadership has expunged the boundary between the state and society and transformed state-centric conflict into society-centric ones so as to expand their parties’ electoral base. Political socialisation failed to generate public trust in the government's authority to work as per the constitutional vision and concert various actors of society toward common goals. In a high political dynamics, leaders must have a keen sense of social learning about the major change of politics brought by electoral trends.

The separation of Nepali democracy from its “condition” has become possible due to the personalisation of leadership, de-institutionalisation of political parties and a lack of boundary with business. The civic infrastructures, such as political parties, ancillary bodies, media and civil society have become the means by which power brokers enhance their clout rather than resolve collective action problems. Many Nepali parties that extol the virtue of responsive rule themselves lack basic democratic requirements, such as deliberative structures, reflection of public opinion, accountability mechanism, institutions of transparency and enlightened issue socialisation to foster inter- and intra-party democracy. Obviously, the forthcoming elections will further politicise the ordinary Nepalis enabling them to question leaders’ accountability to their previous promises of good life. 

Epic challenges

 To rectify the existing distorted system caused by the erosion of state’s monopoly on power, absence of checks in the polity, concentration of discretionary powers in the office of high party leadership and politics of negation are epic challenges because authority is still handed to the upper stratum of power and responsibility is pressed downwards — a long-established tradition of stripping any institution of its democratic efficacy and credibility. Democracy cannot become robust unless civil society groups as balancers of public power impose the old-style leadership as an effective challenge so that ordinary Nepalis select able leadership imbued with the duty to uplift their standards. Good governance requires maintaining a delicate balance between the purposive rationality of individual Nepalis’ rational electoral choice, leader’s imperative for success and functional rationality of politics expressed in the preservation of democratic polity. 

This balance also requires a balancer, the civil society, which can act as a political channel of communication and civic education among citizens, public institutions including the system of election, the polity and the state and help each other keep reciprocal balance. A cluster of vibrant Nepali civil society groups as a balancing loop is needed to seek a desired electoral progress so that Nepalis do not lack an agency for collective action for civic education, communication, social mobilisation and social change and protect and promote their collective interests. Their role in enhancing balance between civic rights and duties requires a set of practices suitable to ensure their electoral performance and meet the requirements of constitutionalism. 

(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)

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