Politics is the domain of freedom. In this domain, Nepali leaders issue the manifesto of promises and people demand the fulfillment of their rights. The face of Nepalis glows cheerful either in festivals or in elections. But both appeal to different sides of human faculties. The thrill of festivals is sublime. It enriches cultural delight. But elections are an arena of power play. Its outcome affects everybody’s life. It is perilous when election manifestoes are devoid of any link to public policy and national resources. It foments public frustration and credibility gaps and erodes the efficacy of democracy to lighten the burden of people and lubricate civic culture.
The November 20 elections for House of Representatives and Provincial Assembly provide an apt political chance for leaders to meet the people and listen to their needs, demands and grievances. The dialogue between them can spur an order of political flexibility and interest of Nepalis in electoral participation. Yet, a clear antinomy exists: half of the nation’s 10.79 million voters are youth who will elect assembly members; most of them belong to the fairly older generation. Patriarchal leaders are habit-driven to monologue, not dialogue and much less innovative. Their patrimonial habit of candidate selection in the proportional list skews democratic transparency, secures privileges and clientalises party politics.
The top party leaders tell their promises to the loyal crowd in a loud voice but show no sign of eagerness to listen to them, sense the condition of people’s living and what they want. Others are selling their images. For bandwagon effect, it may be a good strategy but social media have made educated Nepalis analytical -- capable of thinking, feeling, talking and making choices, not swayed by crowd psychology. If the mass of people does not have any chance to personally meet their leaders, the outcome is obvious: switching sides to different poles of power. Democracy provides other circles of communication about the elections - mobile phones, telephones, television, news, posters, banners, pamphlets and modern means of social communication through civil society, NGOs and citizens groups.
They are the sources to pass electoral messages, build capacity for self-responsibility and awaken emotional ebullience of voters. These are also the conduits to distribute the sources of freedom, promote their dignity and harvest opportunities. Election-friendly environment unlocks democratic dynamics, enables people to participate, listen to the glitzy words, see the leaders and reflect on their past promises and performance. Nepal’s historical electoral trend presents stable electoral volatility marked by the defeat of the dominant party. This uncovers a bitter irony between the self-perception of the dominant party and mood of public opinion.
Given the trend of Nepali political parties turning into catch-all types, it does not matter in which coalition they are linked - NC or CPN-UML. The purpose of election is to give voters the freedom of electoral choice, not impose tribal conformity to bipolar game. Mixed election system will certainly fractionalise the seats with no party near to majority to form its own government. The coalition government is fated to recur. The only question is who joins with whom. Efficient governance, green justice, increment of employment opportunity and money in social security are the common themes of all Nepali parties and independents.
Others are related to infrastructural developments, health, education, consolidation of political gains, directly elected president and chief ministers, identity-based federalism, fully proportional election system, rewriting of constitution, raising of per capita income, etc. thus doling out a redistributive regime. Followers across the party line favour securing the constitution, restoring Nepali nationalism, Hindu state, constitutional monarchy and geopolitical balance for the unity of national and popular sovereignty. These are powerful slogans to mobilise voters and define essential conditions for Nepalis to enjoy both objective and subjective freedoms.
Paradoxically, huge masses of youths dictated by necessity are in the global labour market and those migrated by choice are in advanced nations. Both keenly observe the electoral tamasa but cannot entertain electoral choice. Still, they influence its outcome through the channel of communication to their parents, relatives and well-wishers and persuading them to vote for a certain party or candidate. For ordinary Nepalis the democratic dignity demands not only subjective freedom articulated in the election but realisation of rights and compassion to those in need, nurse their wounds and create an environment to educate their children to build a better future. Candidates well embedded in their society have better prospects than those visiting villages as tourists, easing the flow of money and using vote-catching strategies through their proxies. They are less attuned to serve the public profession of politics and delivery of public good.
A civilised Nepali does not want to return to the state of nature to seek unbounded freedom during elections, or withdraw from society like apathetic voters, or wall up inside an anti-political nightmare of boycotting elections accusing top leaders of betraying the people and setting misplaced priorities. Fair elections flourish human relationships though occasionally muscular leaders feeling a fear of defeat try to scare the voters with hate speeches, abuse the code of conduct, secretly maneuver, and indulge in electoral fraud. These acts amount to an increase in the election costs. The Election Commission (EC), monitoring team and integrated security agencies must have an anticipatory plan to avoid such repulsive acts of the past to recur and even regulate the open border. The EC has already sought clarifications from the candidates for violating its code and laws.
Independent candidates mostly of younger generations seem to have greater ardor and untested leadership but they lack nation-wide organisational and cadres’ strength and candidates to form future governance. Frustrated from many years of misgovernance, corruption, impunity, economic decline, lingering transitional justice and infirmity in foreign policy, young and educated voters are attracted to them. They can serve as a critical voice of conscience. But it is absurd to assume that they will win sufficient seats to make a great dent on party politics. Their critical voice can erode the efficacy of mainstream party politics which has become de-ideologised, bureaucratised and stalemated to introduce intra-party reforms and imbibe a culture of coalition politics through improved inter-party relations practiced in the coalition governments of advanced countries.
The holding of Nepali elections in an ideological void can re-legitimise identity-crazy, religious and cultural forces to fill in. In this context, the November elections have become an opportunity for various political parties either to reform or fester. Social movements, independent candidates, civil society, media of communication and local institutions have become alternative channels of political participation for the people. Political parties’ reforms in Nepal means making them democratic, constitutional, representative, people-oriented, program-based and accountable, able to fit with the flow of time.
Mainstream parties’ own histories and founding figures have set the wisdom and idealism of how democratic parties can run during and after elections and shape the future posterity can instinctively recall, esteem and emulate. Party reform also means enhancing the policy making capacity of elected leaders rather than just allowing them to pursue their own passion without the polite feeling of heart and critical reasoning of a sober and inquiring mind to solve problems. This is important to break the inverse correlations between electoral dynamics and as-usual-politics without any veneer of changing the condition of Nepalis. The leaders’ promise of galloping progress of the nation, being paralysed under its own load, marks escalating self-refutation and bitter gap between the government and opposition where even many voters suffer from self-conceit in their choice.
They can pile invalid voting turnout though the EC has promised to minimise it. Its voters’ information training can increase voting turnout but in no way enlighten them in general with civic competence unless they are regularly given democratic education whereby they are capable of transforming themselves into active citizens, judging the state of the nation and exercising freedom of choice. Ordinary Nepalis see the elections not in a deterministic way, but in terms of freedom, struggle, self-defense and self-expression, engagement in the whole electoral cycle and self-cultivation for informed voting. Yet, when their cynicism is destined to grow, limiting their space for the fulfillment of the blissful belly, which is the basis of subjective freedom, elections mood will only gear to capture the musical chair of politics.
In such a context, the exercise of freedom to vote requires daring skill, courage and curiosity to understand the game of politics so that voters can exercise the power of conviction. If Nepali voters do not develop empirical consciousness and evolve judgmental skill in choosing the right candidates and parties, the national politics will continue to underlie frivolous superficiality and voters might resort to any choice - good or bad. This does not promote impersonal governance in the nation. This is why democracy requires democratic citizens and leaders able to understand the winds of freedom, form informed opinion, knowledge and belief, unfreeze their conscience from greed and parochialism and undertake political responsibility for the nation’s future.
Freedom of choice
The burning thirst of ordinary Nepalis for good life is possible with the distribution of freedom, enlightenment and public good in the entire society so that they think that election is not just one day noiseless match of political parties and leaders but a vital area of selecting leaders capable of defending public and national interests and setting the direction of the nation to value-concept of constitution. Freedom of Nepalis from the bondage of propaganda, false temptation and misdirected choice will exonerate them from a never-ending chasm between unbounded expectations and sedative progress. Good governance can emerge if Nepali leaders are more transformational and committed to control political vices that hit the national integrity system and invert the old truth: vote selling and vote buying. They can become redeemers of freedom of choice.
At a time when party distinction is slowly collapsing and party identity is known by the brand name of top leaders, not institutional political culture, it is important for Nepalis to understand the nature and purpose of politics of which election is just a part to select leaders and legitimise their rule, enable people to exercise freedom of choice and anticipate its effects. Only a sense of civic competence can cultivate democratic maturity, magnify the power of hope and drive people to rational voting.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)