Politics is different from other spheres of human life by conflict of ideology, identity and interest. But when other spheres of life become political, political trust turns vulnerable to social, economic, cultural and geopolitical forces. It erodes the condition of trust needed to establish norm-based order, an order vital to foster freedom, justice and peace and reap benefits of its cultural radius in the transnational sphere. Trust harnesses the benefits of cooperation while distrust arouses acerbity, misunderstanding, animosity, manipulation and conflict. Politics is rooted in human nature. Its selfish gene cannot be modelled in ideology or biology though it has not deterred political leaders from deregulating politics and disarming democracy from its adaptability.
Politics is an arena of organising large-scale collective action to support public and national interests and utilise the synergy of varied actors under the spirit of constitutional state. Impersonal trust is citizenship-based and democratic where identity presumes national attachment and loyalty to the nation. In a personalised trust, identity is pre-democratic and embedded in tribal conformity to caste, gender, age, region, religion, ethnicity and lineage-based ties which fosters patronage-based politics and clientlises citizens. As democracy is based on the virtues of good demos, its efflorescence requires good citizenship building beyond primordial ties emphasising on the condition of living, not exhorting only rights.
Unity in diversity
Mark E. Warren says, “A society that fosters robust relations of trust is probably also a society that can afford fewer regulations and greater freedoms, deal with more contingencies, tap the energy and ingenuity of its citizens, limit the inefficiencies of rule-based means of coordination, and provide a greater sense of existential security and satisfaction.” Nepal’s rich cultural mosaic representing unity in diversity confronts fundamentalism. But the issues of age, caste, gender, ethnic and regional equity dominate political discourse along the lines of identity conflict, not merit of the issues and constitute a setback beyond redemption. As a result, both democratisation of identities and public purpose of politics have scaled back.
Nepalis hone the virtues, heritage and culture of tolerance of 125 castes and ethnic groups, 123 linguistic variations and over 150 cultic faiths in a predominantly Hindu-Buddhist and animistic society. This diverse landscape, population and scale of trust make the nation fit for the practice of democratic pluralism. Yet, the personalised model of politics and formation of political parties along the lines of adversarial ideologies, identities and interests mark the deficits of trust in politics straining large-scale collective action on meta issues and incubation of civic culture. Nepali business is family-based. Modern civil society groups are couched in the right-based discourse, less on the native spirit of niskam karma.
The state is modelled on an external image of violence-monopolising body, not the indigenous grit of security of people and the nation, livelihood guarantee and cosmopolitan strength. These traits further vitiate the scale of trust and complicates the process of de-feudalisation and de-tribalisation of politics. These non-political spheres have implications for building generalised trust, democratising and transforming Nepalis into deliberative and reflective citizens. The uncritical emulation of the cornucopia of alien binary frame of politics in Nepal based on class roots of “friend” and “enemy” has become passé. As a result, political parties have developed a predisposition of catch-all without a concept of class-based solidarity within the nation and international fraternity.
The system change often required building coalition with other parties and blur ideological boundaries for power-sharing after the collapse of ancient regime. Proportional election system has further opened the scope of coalition government as no big party -Nepali Congress (NC), Communist Party of Nepal Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) or CPN-Maoist Centre is predominant now, as each occupied this status once before, to muster muscle in the parliament for its own government without the others’ trust. In this context, upscaling of trust is crucial to give coalition politics enduring value and acquire a veneer of political stability. Its abyss can limit collective action on vital national interest.
Each political party has devitalised the other and weakened the spirit of democratic government at the institutional level. Nepalis, however, continue to cheer the lustre of democratic ideology and its egalitarian political culture. The ideological solidarity is expressively appealing. It reduces the cost of politics in social mobilisation. Its decline in Nepal is, however, marked by the growth of factionalism in party politics based on selfish interest of leaders, each faction trying to flag the other rather than building shared strength for party building and to fill the national vision of welfare state and an egalitarian society. The growth of network politics signifies that formal institutions of parties have been permeated by informal networks, special interest groups and non-political forces, not the democratic actors, norms and laws.
The resolution of this problem requires bottom-up party building based on deliberation, fairness and solidarity, associational involvement of people in multi-level governance and the cultivation of interpersonal trust between leaders and people and inter-institutional trust across civic and state institutions. The decline of ideology marks the rise of identity politics in Nepal. It is fostered by the proponents of post-modernity although mainstream political parties of the nation have already vented this feeling by creating auxiliary organisations of students, peasants, labourers, women, Dalits, Janajatis, Aadibasis, Madhesis, minorities and other professionals to widen their social base. Many federations formed along these lines are thickening.
Nepal's constitution has also embraced group-based and group-differentiated rights and corresponding inclusive national commissions to reinforce these identities and opportunities in the institutions of governance. As a result, the universal citizenship-based identity and secular solidarity are thinning. The social movements of these identity-based groups transcend national borders and bring international knowledge, legitimacy and resources for bargaining with the regime for group-specific rights, benefits and recognition. This has made Nepali politics instrumental and geopolitical in nature, not constitution-based. Neither party schools nor educational institutions are effective channels for political socialisation and acculturation.
Nepalis are, however, learning the hard way their multi-dimensional identities and the emergence of cross-cutting issues such as climate change and, therefore, they are becoming more needs specific. The change in voting behaviour is a sign of this new politics. Swelling institutional duties of leadership and popular demand for its performance has correspondingly built pressure on it for their wellbeing. This performance can improve the radius of trust in them enabling people to positively evaluate them. Effective governance is required even for people to trust each other and protect each other in a politics of difference and politics is personal.
The rise of personalised, interest-based and transactional politics has added another feature: growth of right-based, redistributive and leadership-based conflicts. The tendency of each leader to remain in power by any combination and compromise of party interests has often marked a swing in coalition politics where all parties accept the Peasant and Workers’ Party relishes. The interest of each leader for power-sharing, not the resolution of the nation’s many non-negotiable issues of public good has marked an atrophy of the creditworthiness of leaders. Political stability requires the ability of Nepali state to execute constitution and laws in the entire nation, its embeddedness in society and its ability to act impersonally and autonomously above the dominant interest groups, not the party control of all constitutional bodies, subvert checks and balances of power and turn the polity unstable.
Neutrality of public institutions in service delivery is essential to generate the trust of Nepalis in the government and convert the operation of partiocracy, the dominance of all spheres of political life by leader-oriented political parties, into genuine democracy. Intra-party democracy lubricates the vertical trust and unity while horizontal trust across the parties helps to create common background conditions for the resolution of macro problems. Building trust demands not disarming democracy from the past but connecting with it.
NC’s support to the vote of confidence to Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda stems from some concerns: endorse the idea of a national consensus government, save current polity from distortion, expect cooperation from him for the election of its Presidential candidate, lure him in case his mistrust boils up with UML and warn him of the fear of power monopoly of UML occupying most of the key posts with the help of anti-establishment new parties leaving it nothing except issue critical statements.
NC’s own unruly frame and clubbing the parties outside the government do not give enough muscle to alter the gear of politics. The sudden surge of interest in the President among the political parties arose less because of its ceremonial function as a guardian of the state and constitution than its pivotal role to act as a partisan gizmo to disrupt power balance in the polity and provide the ruling party monopoly on power leading to authoritarian rule. The self-correcting means of democracy cannot mature if it is controlled by political parties, not the state, and it guides, motivates and constrains the function of public institutions.
The right to information is precisely crafted to spur open government where Nepalis will have the access and say in public affairs. Democracy is an inclusive system. The opposition is, therefore, given a space in the Constitutional Council, parliament and the public sphere to build political trust. It is a moral force that not only balances the government and opposition but coordinates the political actors like the money coordinates the market and mediating ethics governs civil society.
The politics of negation of opposition practiced until recently has diluted the writ of democracy and the nation’s values of pluralism and social inclusion. Democracy thus lacked a feedback loop, inner-party deliberation and the civic efficacy of Nepalis to influence political processes despite the strap of popular sovereignty. Even civil society and business ethics got absorbed into hegemonic power bloc politics, thus failing to become a neutral buffer between political parties and people. Preservation of the common good requires an imperative of reciprocity and trust in the constitution, polity and institutions and impersonality, diversity and pluralism that democracy internalises in its life.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)