Political Volunteerism On The Wane

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Volunteering in a linear world of party politics motivates people to engage in civic and political activities, civil society and community associations and shape their ethical choice. It differs from interest groups, business and bichaulias (middlemen), whose support to parties has a motive for private gain or NGOs and civil society who are mostly projectised lacking emancipatory potential or community lacking the political economy of scale. 

The support for political parties by volunteers during democratic struggle, elections, networking and political movements seem to be motivated by a good cause to empower people’s freedom, justice and self-respect. Some volunteers have even sacrificed lives, maimed, jailed and deprived of their dignity in the process of their support to parties in the process of resistance.

Now the concern about Nepal’s party politics has amplified the awareness of those engaged in institution building and promoting political education, leadership transformation and infrastructures of multiparty democracy. It is the time to reflect on whether volunteering in the success of party politics through direct involvement or through civic associations offered them an entry point into bigger world of public and political arenas or whether such engagements have made differences in the institutionalisation of parties, orient them towards constitutional goals and achieve democratic stability and self-emancipation.

Critical question

The critical question is whether the transition of Nepali politics from family oligarchy, authoritarianism, multipartyism to power bloc politics now has expanded the scope of the politicisation of people into citizens, prompting their sense of volunteerism in cultivating aspirations, values and priorities of people. Until recently, volunteerism in politics derived mainly from emotional bonds of ideological solidarity and constitution. It has fuelled the self-directed interest of volunteers at all levels of rule and increased their access to the terrain of macro-politics. Social capital for volunteerism in Nepal is very high evident from the popular response to democratic struggle of parties, social movements for peace and justice and relief response to earthquake, floods and pandemics. 

Grassroots initiatives of volunteers helped the displaced and victims to get closer to and intervene in relief, rehabilitation, reconciliation and reconstruction programmes beyond partisan politics. The associational solidarity of irrigation, community forestry, local bodies, cooperatives and health professionals has demonstrated the virtues of volunteerism outside party politics.

Horizontal series of cultural organisations like Guthi and spiritual institutions often organize satsangha on a voluntary basis while peace activists have helped the political parties to promote the cause of peace. But the self-perception of leadership as a giver to the sovereign people who are the source of sovereignty and legitimacy and its tendency to become leader-for-life de-motivate volunteers’ elan vital, pondering them to imagine whether they aim to liberate them from indoctrination, dependency and regimentation or support their initiatives for people’s empowerment. 

Now Nepali democracy in which sovereign people have unflinching faith is degenerated into partiocracy. As a result, volunteerism in party politics undergoes a fatal blow. In Nepal, the recent political trends show that the financial, moral and psychological costs of politics have incredibly increased while a sense of volunteerism has pathetically declined. What are the reasons for the decline of volunteerism in party politics? The first reason is the erosion of ideology in Nepali parties and personalisation of political leadership. Ideology whets emotional solidarity and affinity among the followers of the same party, spurs competition over public policies with others, keeps the differentiation of followers and reduces the cost of politics by an ever-increasing vigor to their volunteerism in public action.

The seismic shift of solidarity politics to networking and the loss of their utopias prompted people to see them as utility-maximising business for leaders to appropriate state power for personal enrichment. Mainstream Nepali parties have also evolved a catch-all, class-free proclivity and habituated themselves to adapt to any kind of power bloc for power-sharing irrespective of their identities. This has confused the cadres and voters about their value distinction shaped by the senior generation of leaders when the parties were founded and who had also widened the scope of volunteering in party politics.  

The second is the fusion of leadership with well-off classes and converting self into a transactional type.  It has blurred the boundaries of politics and economics and made politics indistinguishable whether it is serving public or private interests. The outcome of recent elections has unveiled the victory of 18 contractors, some middle men and those charged with crime thus diluting the sanctity of democracy which delinks corruption and violence from politics through transformational leadership.

The public purpose of politics is now beset by personal interest of leaders, cadres and voters. As Nepal’s mainstream parties’ power intoxication grew in intensity and complexity they have sought to win elections by any combination of means thus corroding the values and idealism and decreasing political interest in social transformation. 

The distaste of people about this condition has fostered a sort of decline of their sense of volunteerism prompting leaders to recruit paid volunteers for political mobilisation, organisation of political demonstration and protests and election campaigns. Paid volunteers are, however, depoliticised. They find no interest either in strengthening the party, democracy, building partisan attachment of people, or even developing civil society interested in public debate on policy issues. The project-centric persons hardly become leverage for strengthening participatory process of progress. 

The third reason is volunteering in party politics in the past acted as political educators and mobilisers of resources, support, feeling and sentiment of people. They raised consciousness, politicised people and prepared them to engage in voluntary collective action. The paid volunteers now act like an advertising agency. They project the brand of leaders and parties in a competitive political market, not articulate the needs of people and act as a watchdog of power. As a result, democratic quality of life has suffered and critique of power abuse is expressed in social media. 

Only person-to-person meetings give personal touch and attraction to leaders. The emergence of new, urban based parties is the effect of effective mobilisation of media articulating “no not again to old leaders” and presenting one’s own candidates in a theatrical style. The multiple, competing media platforms have reduced the classical role of homo politicus, jointly deliberating and engaging with the matters of common interests. 

The paid volunteers have no emotional feeling to cater the needs, interests and stake of local people and aim to improve local conditions of living. They are accountable to those who supply them the money.

The fourth is the emergence of careerist politicians. They have bureaucratised the sphere of volunteerism. The professionalisation of politics and developing it more as a career-enhancement opportunity than public service orientation to the people has reduced incentives for youths to engage in political volunteerism. The decline in voting turnout from 71 per cent to 61 per cent in the elections is a powerful indicator of political apathy about national politics. Material incentivised voting such as vote-buying and vote-selling does discourage people from undertaking one of the fundamental duties of citizens to participate voluntarily in political and electoral activities. 

Unless Nepali politics is not exonerated from this class and special interest groups and party organisations are built up from below to respond to legitimate demand of people for public good, their sense of volunteerism is less likely to flourish. So long as politics is run by market principles, utility, efficiency and selfish commercialisation of political life of Nepalis, democratisation of the internal life of parties will suffer and the participatory process of change remains stifled.

The fifth is an imperfect realisation of ideals of democracy in the public and private life of Nepali parties. Democratic centralism in organisational principles and trampling of constitutional spirit has failed to create a political culture of shared background. As a result, it has not lent political parties, democracy and constitution both stability and endurance.

Nepali youth, filled with the virtues of idealism, volunteerism and dynamism, finding no future in the nation increasingly migrate in the international labor market thus leaving the native society lacking a critical mass of volunteers who can be the locomotive of cognitive and social change.  Obviously, the political life of mainstream parties is deeply permeated by family, hereditary, lineage, interest groups and contractors. 

These depoliticised elements feel no sense of duty to retain youth by making the national economy productive.  They act as barriers to communication of leaders to electorates and feedback from electorates to political leaders to spur democratic dynamics. This has handicapped four major functions of political parties - interest aggregation, interest articulation, mediation of political power and tie the top with the bottom of society. The outcome is the growth of clientele politics, not citizenship based, that exercises a monopoly of representation of interests and makes democratic politics costly for the poor. The loss of people’s volunteerism is the effect of this cause.

Domain of privilege

The sixth is volunteerism in party politics has declined owing to the popular belief that politics is not the realms of non-profit, public service-oriented activity. Growth of factious nature of leadership, their mutual accusation putting each other in negative light, split and discriminatory behaviour to the supporters of rival sides thus indicates unlearning from the democratic politics of compromise of interest for general benefits. Nepali parties have not developed a political culture of democratic pluralism, consultative and deliberative mode of settling their conflicts and making decisions transparent and implementable. Volunteers feel disgusted and find leaders alienated from the public and national causes. 

They see that party politics has become a domain of privilege to amass wealth and power and acquire higher social status, not a public responsibility and find solutions to a variety of their problems so as to realise their citizenship and human rights.

The seventh is the projectisation of auxiliary organisations of parties and the growth of their increasing columnised frame. This has undermined their autonomy, spirit of volunteerism, social integration potential and the virtues of political integration across the similar organisations of other parties thus building consensus on cross-cutting national issues, reducing the financial cost of party politics and organising voluntary collective action. 

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

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