The Need Of Civic Renewal


Modern associations are set up on the notion of social contract between the state, polity, political parties, business, civil society and citizens. Politics, in this sense, is more than competitive institutional and individual struggle for attention and passing of self-referential information to the people. The membership with the state is pre-determined which defines their status as equal citizens with constitutional rights, duties and opportunities. With other associations, they are self-chosen on the basis of preference, choice and interests. Both sets of organisations require regenerating and renewing of consciousness-building civic virtues by cultivating inner and outer life and gaining humility, maturity and a set of well dispositions, desires, beliefs and habits. 

Civic renewal implies citizens connecting with each other to assemble, build fellowship, keep self-control and work beyond their personal concerns for ideology, interests and identities. It flourishes in mutuality, not in meritocratic fitness. In many nations of the world, the growing decay of political ideals has caused the divorce of politics from the life of ordinary people. The spike of the demoralisation of democratic ideals by many social vices such as corruption, kleptocracy, crime and chaos has crushed the faith and spirit of citizens in the careerist leaders. It has given way to the birth of non-partisan political movements for civic renewal that sought to unshackle democracy from the muscular sensation which every society seeks to evade. 

Alternative venues

They are driven by a motive to open alternative venues that could help the educational, electoral and legislative process and put forward substantive agendas, such as democratisation of parties, administrative reforms, service delivery, ecological preservation, controlling violence, social justice and peace and improve civic life of the public so that politics does not become a slave of individual passion but a common cause with each other. In democracy, the equality of citizenship challenges the privileges based on economic status, social distinction and noble birth and create favourable conditions for their active and equal participation in the activities and decision-making process of all these institutions. 

Nepal's constitutional democracy has established a healthy frame for a system of civic rights and duties as well as the scope for the struggle of the marginalised people for social, gender and intergenerational justice. These principles and ideals spur to erect a rock-hard boundary between citizens and non-citizens without any prejudice to their cosmopolitan desire.  

The leadership classes have, however, created different sets of citizens on the basis of their mini-identity -- ethnicity, caste, gender and religion with differentiated rights, national commissions and opportunities. They need to foster their acculturation to civic spirit, prepare them for meta-identity citizenship responsibility and build their civic character so that nation building does not face an uphill task and hunk the non-specified others’ social mobility.

In a heterogeneous society like Nepal, each group’s readiness to pay attention, listen to, act in response, and discover from each other's differing experiences and viewpoints is indispensable to engage them in the entire network of ecological, social,  economic and political associations for cooperative action. Civic education renews civic virtues and spurs an active relation of politics to people's life. It opens a space for a new regime of democratic equality and brotherhood as opposed to unequal, top-down and patron-client relationships like leaders and cadres. Nepal's traditional culture was built on the vertical concept of duties of the subjects to monarch, mohi (tenant) to jamindar (landlord), jajamans to priests, children to their parents, and students to their teachers, not on equal constitutional rights and duties defined by mutual obligations and reciprocity. 

Civic culture does not emerge if this hierarchy continues as an expression of power and authority.  In a system of inverted consciousness, election alone does not muster enough democratic legitimacy. The personal power built on such duties and leadership networks have undermined the ability of Nepali political parties to institutionalise and perform their due functions of political socialisation, interest aggregation, interest articulation and political communication. As a result, growing factionalism in party politics has watered down the efficacy of many of the civic institutions.

Continuous political education by party schools, media and civil society on the civic rights and duties, democratic and constitutional principles and linking them to praxis can rectify undemocratic incongruity, fortify the bedrock of citizens' attachment with the political parties, public institutions, polity and the state, and build a social and national coherence. They breathe the renewal of the civic spirit of tolerance to others and support them in time of need. 

They must be known to Nepalis so that they positively judge the policies adopted by the government that are consistent with these constitutional goals without any atrophy on civic order of democracy and authority crisis of the constitutional bodies. If the scientific attitude of the public on public policy dithers they see planners only as free-riders. To prevent the authority and legitimacy crisis, the constitution has adopted the principles of social inclusion, proportional representation and popular sovereignty.  The vision of rebuilding Nepali nation has to overcome some critical challenges: alleviating poverty, ending social exclusion, creating jobs and managing popular ecological, gender, human rights, civil society, and social movements which are struggling outside the political space for equity and justice and demanding a shared collective identity.

Continuous political education can politicise and socialise Nepalis, equip them with political skills and increase their volunteerism to engage actively in democratic institutions both to protect the heritage of the nation's syncretic culture and reshape the vision of democracy by democratising political parties, media, civil society, and a host of public institutions. The practice of democracy turns unresponsive if civic renewal numbs in the public mind leaving political leaders and their intellectual cohorts at liberty to interpret the state of democracy in Nepal only on what they see and believe, not on the grounds of facts and norms.

Civic renewal begins when Nepalis attach their great commitment to and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, national anthem, national flag, and social harmony in a spirit of co-citizens of the nation irrespective of their distinctive backgrounds. If the values of citizenship are deeply realised it creates a common background condition for the settlement of conflicts of various sorts and each of them can take personal responsibility for what is happening in their family, community, society, political parties, political system, nation, and the state. It creates their shared national identity of Nepaliness. Continuous awareness of civic values spurs civic renewal of citizenship while a culture of silence marks the terminal sign of democratic deficits.  Civic renewal makes democracy alive because it promotes the power of Nepalis in thinking, working, and creating values and beliefs the nation lives by and esteems for the future.

To define democracy merely in terms of rational self-interest, as many utilitarians believe, can easily cripple its ethical edifice, flags the political identification of Nepalis with their civic institutions and swells duties without correspondingly fostering the requisite power and authority. One has, therefore, to find an optimal solution in the case of a conflict between political rationality of democracy such as fulfilling survival needs of Nepalis and enabling them to thrive according to their own vision, ideas, priorities and self-rule and the economic rationality of the market rooted in exchange, efficiency and competition of interest of society for the production, exchange and distribution of public goods. 

If the dharma (institutional duties) of self-governance that glues shared life is in decline by heterogeneous parties and associations, political power of leadership becomes disproportional to their social representativeness and accountability. The outcome is injustice, fury and agitations challenging the regulatory conditions of society to create core values of public security, order and peace acceptable to all Nepalis. Civic renewal is vital to place Nepalis’ interests in the realities of power and provide them cognitive resources enabling them to play due roles and creatively judge the performance of their leaders and its vision of the creation of an egalitarian society, sustainable development, inclusive democracy, human rights, and good governance. 

Nepalis also need a multitude of stable intermediary institutions of civil society, citizens groups, community organisations and federations to ensure their stable participation in the public life of the nation. These institutions are particularly valuable to bind all the members together, even the minorities and marginalised, for the realisation of national purpose. Social trust and shared concern to fellow citizens help those who are lacking something fundamental for their existence and a dignified life. Civic renewal equally evokes the voice reduced to silence through manipulative practices of politics, lies, propaganda, false publicity, among others, on the eve of elections and ill rationalisation of suitable candidates that weakens the foundation of democracy.

Egalitarian vision

The obligations of democratic leadership are to defend the weakest members of society, entitle them to their inalienable rights and equal opportunities of education, health, enterprises, economic prospect and meaningful political participation. 

If the constitutional rights of Nepalis remain non-implementable, like political promises during elections, the egalitarian vision of the Nepali state becomes a mere idealistic dream in which the possibility of popular expectation and hope remains beyond their reach. It feeds the rationality deficits of democracy. 

The central policy task ahead for leadership in the area of civic renewal is to bridge the gap in their words and actions and save the democracy from its perpetual performance crisis. Civic renewal is an art of exercising the political power for good governance -- that is legitimate, transparent, responsive and capable of serving the public and national interests. It is precisely the orientation of political, economic, social actors and ecological forces to public interest that makes the imagination of democratic stability achievable. Civic renewal elevates the power of leadership in reforming the nation's civic culture, strengthening its constitution and public institutions and shaping the democratic life of Nepalis.

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

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