The civic life of citizens presumes their concerns with the well-governed public affairs of the community and nation-state. It is a trustful life. Its revitalisation rests on promoting common good and their solidarity glued by the ideals of conversational life, reciprocity of give and take, altruism, willing to work together in times of weal and woe and find innovative solutions to profound problems on nearly every side. Classical Nepali treatises defined the purpose of education to produce awakened persons capable of undertaking personal responsibility and connecting self to collective civic life of society. The revitalisation of this latent virtue can find its resonance now in the democratic approach to collective emancipation of people from their cognitive dependence, social dislocation, cultural conceit, economic inequality and utilitarian bargaining politics.
The upswing of modern aspiration of freedom aims to foster the value of choice to refresh the idea of active citizenship rooted in a system of social, gender and inter-generational justice underlined in Nepali constitution thus retiring from the policy of neo-liberalism. Engagement in the civic life of society hones the civic virtues of freedom. Informed participation in elections and political activities spikes their empowerment by circulating each generation and class of people in political power while the ability to assume right decisions augments welfare measures beneficial to all citizens and hence their general stake in democracy. These three virtues create a legitimate order where citizens can pursue their life of liberty, dignity and pursuit of delight and keep collective virtues to invigorate democracy in the country.
Voters’ collective behaviour is manifestly important to create right circumstances as they are the sources of sovereignty and legitimacy. Their ability to make elected representatives accountable helps to beat the shame of uncivic life - severe deprivation, poverty and marginalisation. One can see the rewriting of social codes and laws in Nepal to abolish structural injustice inflicted on Dalits, women and marginalised populations and regions and embrace the value of social equality, inclusion, proportional representation and their connections to national life. Legal reforms and popular culture have added vigour to the social movements of various social groups for sectoral rights. National civic life, however, remains unfinished if these movements cannot add to the national aspect of citizenship and the thrill of “we” Nepalis.
The recently held elections to the House of Representatives and provincial assemblies indicated civic deficits in two vital areas of voting behaviour: declining voting turnout and rising invalid voting. It does not matter if Nepalis have full trust in their constitution, institutions and leaders. In a fledgling democracy, however, both the trends do not foretell well for its health and stability. One represents the steady loss of citizens’ interest in politics, their isolation and alienation as they found their rising expectation and aspiration from political leadership muffled and the other lack of civic competence to participate meaningfully in electoral politics. An improvement in both areas requires vigorous civic education to citizens and leaders. It builds civic competence so that democratic political culture is shared by all Nepalis.
The loss of their interest partly arose out of the need of youth to migrate to their station abroad to earn livelihood and partly from a lack of choice for them for reasons of electoral adjustment of odd political parties where they did not find suitable candidates and parties to vote for. This adjustment made by top leaders without much deliberation in the local party committee turned many of them cynic. Engaging voters in policy promises, issues deliberation and political skill can enhance their civic competence. The voters’ behaviour cannot be treated as a sullen phase of electoral politics. Many small parties and independents have offered the Nepali voters a choice to transcend the unpredictable power bloc politics of ruling alliance led by NC and opposition led by CPN-UML
Yet their long socialisation in familiar party politics set them in a dilemma. Both embraced heterodox coalition partners who had often tumbled over one another and exercised a winner-takes-all mentality, not a sense of mutual responsibility to revitalise the nation’s civic life and offer people a chance to realise their potential. The CPN-Maoist Centre is now caught in a Hobson’s choice over the election of President and finds in a situation of no escape either from UML which helped it to form the government and NC with whom it shares the fear of democratic reverse. The will of Nepali voters in each election favoured the ideal of political change in leadership structure. They have, therefore, defeated the incumbent dominant party.
In that sense they have also shunted many old generations of leaders, favoured new parties and new leaders and produced a fractured legislature with no party garnering a majority to form its own government and dominate the political process against the sovereignty of people. The fractured mandate indicates how Nepali voters wanted to see political parties and leaders relate to each other, build an awareness of working together despite their emergence from different representational backgrounds and belong to the democratic moment of building this nation through inclusionary policies. Nepali voters have habitually accepted democratic struggle of parties and leaders in various phases of the nation’s history despite their divergent ideological orientation and identities.
When they discovered parties and leaders are power-maximising agencies for partisan interests, not general welfare maximising ones, they have changed their attitudes, choice and conduct. One indication of Nepali voters is they have exercised their choice of candidates, if not parties. One can cite split-ticket voting where voters made NC largest party in first-past-the-post while in proportional voting they took UML side. Civic life is rooted in civic virtues, character and duties, not only for personal rights and fitness motivating to a sort of Darwinian impulse. Such a politics can shackle the civility of Nepali society and nation and hit the source of its civilisational roots. Gautam Buddha favoured creating a culture of community, not individualism for larger social life known for education, cooperation and conflict resolution through peaceful debate.
Social alienation and isolation deprive fundamental human need for connection, affection, civic association, fellowship and unity of purpose required to change society for better. Nepali nation’s various crises - erosion of the integrity of constitutional and public institutions, government instability, plummeting economy, joblessness, inflation, foreign policy and climate change - seem to have combined vicious effects. Four things are important to create the stake of voters in Nepali democracy and enrichment of civic life: First, offering civic education to people and leaders, not only about their rights but also duties and responsibilities, tolerance and culture of deliberation. Revitalisation of political education can build civic virtues, politicise them to lower the cost of politics and generate a sense of volunteerism.
It is possible by building inner party democracy where cadres and voters can participate in the selection of leaders at the local level in a visible manner and build bridges across partisan cleavages. Elections are not only a means to a leader's rise to power but also a limit to the exercise of arbitrary power. Renewal of civic life based on duties becomes difficult if political parties, civil society, media, NGOs and community organisations focus only on rights advocacy, not duties to society, make politics aspiration-riddled and foster unaccountable activism. These traits can corrode the authority and legitimacy of leaders, raise more demands than the ability of the state to fulfil and create the crisis of governance.
Second, voters’ alignment to the party remains stable if party committees organise civic initiatives worthy of public importance and help people settle their problems. This, however, requires linking civic initiatives to public policies, laws and morality. This means Nepali leaders must have courage to link its promises to constitutional imperatives articulated in Directive Principles and Policies of the State as it sets common background conditions for leaders and cadres for socialisation, collaboration and collective action. The tendency of political leaders and parties to set free from constitutional culture creates a political life of anomie.
Third, giving opportunity to the local people attached to family values, not liberating them from family to get them ready for the global labour market and leaving the society a lack of critical mass of dynamic agents for an egalitarian change, production and social care. It has many side-effects in society. Political leaders need to give the people a feeling that their party is not run by ascriptive criteria as per the whim and interest of leaders but by merit and performance. Ironically, Nepali voters find the glitzy promise of leaders in every change but unchanged human condition thus perpetuating a political culture of politics as usual without levelling of social and economic field.
Reaction to detached politics
Fourth, Nepali voters’ stability rests on how their leaders implement their promises and improves credibility. The rise of new parties and candidates with better vision, commitment, cognitive ability and mobilisation of media and networks mark only the reaction of detached politics. The constitutional imperative of the creation of an egalitarian society, however, has been slanted by the informalisation of work, labour market flexibility, no work no pay and declining job prospects in the nation. The massive migration of the nation’s youth force abroad indicates that it will be hard to dynamise its productive sector of the economy.
Family atomization, municipalisation and concentration of power in urban nodes will further strain a shift from individual sense of autonomy to a community based on citizenship. The declining sense of ‘we’ by the rise of mini identity politics and differentiated form of citizenship rights will further polarise the society. Part of the solution lies in learning from its own history and the world image of how social media and communication work across the party lines and left-right-centre spectrum. New frame of politics needs to mobilise the voters as countervailing public and provide youth, women and downtrodden ample opportunity, shaping new political vision against vices and violence and transforming uncaring status-bound politicians where they aid only their clients to leaders capable of serving above self, tapping the social capital and driving the nation forward for a vibrant civic life.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)