Reasoned Debate Key To Civic Renewal

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Reasoned debate, both prosaic and insightful, unearths illuminating insight. It activates citizens, leaders, experts, institutions and the polity to standardise and orient leaders to achieve optimal outcome of what Nepali constitution visualises.  It thus increases an adaptation of democracy in Nepali society indicating its resilience and resolve. Reasoned means well argued, constructive, carefully considered and highly persuasive rationale that can stick in the minds of citizens and mould attitude. Modern organisation itself is founded on the edifice of constitution. It governs the formal life of state, polity, government, political parties, civil society, business and citizens through both incentive and discipline and builds great stake on it. 

The equality of citizenship and social inclusion included in constitution rightly challenges the privileges based on social status and noble birth while its improved quality creates a condition for their equal participation in the vital decision making of the various scales of governance. Constitutional democracy has accepted a system of fundamental civic rights and duties of citizens. It has justified the reason for the struggle of the deprived to demand for equal distribution of freedom, opportunity and social justice. Reasoned debate on these values can break the boundary between those engaged in contemplation and those in action and between puffed up self-image of leadership and uneven condition of different social clusters of Nepalis, foster their critical education and acculturation to civic feeling, sentiment and spirit, prepare them for citizenship responsibility and shape the beginning of their civilised disposition.

Collective energy

In a multi-cultural and multi-structural Nepali society, citizens and leaders’ keenness to debate, listen, respond to, and learn from each other's knowledge, experiences and viewpoints is crucial to engage them in the ecological, social, political and economic links, harness collective energy, sociability and public spirit for collective action, an action so vital to learn the place of culture in Nepal’s sense of itself and pool resources across many empirical divides to vault the nation forward. Reasoned debates bubbling up from below and the nation’s periphery on public and national issues constitutes an active relation of democratic politics to ordinary Nepalis lives and opens a new regime of liberty, equality and gifts of intimacy as opposed to unequal patron-client and leaders-cadres relationship based on the tradition of feudal politics — division, domination and subordination. 

For a long time Nepal's traditional culture persisted on the concept of duties of the subjects to state authorities, tenant to landlord, jajamans to priests, pupils to their teachers and children to their parents in a vertical order, not on equal fundamental rights and duties or reciprocal obligations of ancient times. As modern means of communication, education and information made each person capable of judgment, the political culture of patrimonialism is now questioned. Nepalis now know that unregulated personal power of leaders built on such duties and control of political parties can easily dent the efficacy of many of the autonomous civic institutions and trust of independent Nepalis on the ability and will of the government. One can see politics is engineering an upswing of various inclinations -- populism, cynicism, radicalism and conservatism thus turning against liberal reforms, slighting the civility of people and making democracy consolidation a Sisyphean task. 

Overcoming these malaises requires bottom-up learning by leadership, learning from popular feedback and enhancing its responsive capacity.  If public feedback has no weight, debate becomes sterile and superficial and democracy suffers from both atrophy and illusion. Party cadres already suffer from an interiority complex as their seductive leaders stupefy and sedate them.  Reasoned and critical debates on the possibility of the realisation of bloated civil rights of Nepalis and far less duties can hardly be expected to rectify sweeping glitches, enforce the bedrock of citizens' attachments with the party,  polity and the state stronger and shape social and national consensus for policy coherence, concertation and peaceful collective action of public spirited citizens. 

A few questions, however, need be addressed: How can the concepts underlined in the structural and normative foundations of the constitution, such as directive principles, separation of powers, checks and balances, fundamental rights, social justice, welfare state, etc. guarantee human security for all the citizens? Are the globalisation and liberalisation policies of the capital and labour markets consistent with these goals or callously snub them? It is often argued that renewal of civic space that defines opportunities for citizens exists within the nation-state. As Nepalis are losing control over their national economic, social and political matters to global forces, the civic order of democracy has begun to shrink and the migration and brain drain of dynamic youth population has left both politics and production stagnated waiting for the catalysts to trigger change. 

Reasoned debate on relevant knowledge, issues and problems helps to evolve such leaders who do not inflate their egos but remain humble and build responsive institutions to satisfy their needs, rights, interests and concerns. Nepali leaders must be sociable and practical as opposed to indoctrinated, narrow-minded and instrumental so that they do not apply the power of total conformity common in mainstream political parties at the risk of imperiling their democratic functions. The onset of crisis socialisation has brought an authority crisis for the government and loyalty patterns of citizens to the institution of governance and infused a sort of disbelief whether the regime has political will and economic resources to uplift the standards of living. 

In such a condition, democratic polity cannot be effectively institutionalised and the culture and spiritualism that served as a source of trust and social capital foster shared values.   The store of social capital and  its ties with hard capital can be fostered if the institutions of governance truly remain inclusive in the vision of rebuilding the nation and overcome  four crucial challenges: alleviating poverty, ending social exclusion, combating political alienation and managing the post-modern form of popular ecological, gender, human rights and civil society impulses which are struggling outside the institutional boundaries of established political parties for equality, equity, opportunity, identity and dignity. By meeting their concerns democracy can serve as a legitimising instrument of national coherence in domestic and foreign policy matters and provide the citizens a shared sense of identity.

A reasoned debate on nation’s critical issues is needed on how Nepal's democratic institutions have imbibed civil liberties which inspired the democratic struggle while the state protects the heritage of the nation's syncretic culture and equips the citizens with the power to shape and reshape the vision of democracy that they and their institutional partners, such as political parties, media, civil society and a host of associations, reconstitute. The practice of democracy turns to be dehydrated if reasoned debates freeze in the public mind leaving the leadership and party-affiliated intellectuals free to interpret only those they see, think, believe and act to enforce a culture of silence. It is the deadly sign of democratic deficits.  

Citizenship begins with commitment to and respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, national anthem, national flag, and social harmony in a spirit of affinity among them irrespective of varied religious, racial, linguistic, class, caste, and gender distinctions. If the values of citizenship are deeply internalised by Nepalis, it reduces social conflicts and they take personal responsibility for what happens in their family, community, society, nation and the state and uphold duties beyond the border. A fundamental reconstitution of citizenship is, therefore, required to make democracy resolute. In this sense, political education to all Nepalis is expected to enable them to select the most workable of the choices that their polity offers to them and constantly protect their power of thinking, feeling, working and creating everything the nation lives by.

Democracy cannot be explained merely in terms of rational self-interest, as many hedonists or utilitarians believe. An application of absolutely utilitarian thinking destroys its ethical basis, weakens the political identification of Nepalis with the nation and increases their responsibility without power to them. One has, therefore, to find a solution to the problem of what is to be done in the case of a clash between political rationality of democracy and the economic rationality of the market. If dharma, not only legal pedantry and sophistry, that glues the social sectors of society for shared life is in fatal decline, all that is left to political power cannot embody the social mosaic and the leadership’s power becomes disproportional to their ability to represent, serve and satisfy Nepalis’ concerns.

When power is unprecedented relative to its social representativeness, unfairness suspends democratic prospects. In such a situation, the Nepali state cannot ensure suitable regulatory conditions of security. Constant reasoned debate on political and constitutional education for Nepalis is needed to situate their interests in the realities of power and provide them cognitive and institutional services enabling them to judge the performance of their leaders on the basis of value criteria of sustainable development, democracy, justice, good governance and peace. Citizens also need a multitude of stable intermediary institutions to ensure their effective and regularised debate and participation in the public life of the nation. 

Civic virtues

Social trust and concern for fellow citizens help those who are deficient in something deep for their existence and a dignified life. Reasoned debate on the condition of life equally evokes their voice reduced to silence through calculating practices, misinformation and ill explanation and stirs all of those intangible values, beliefs and sentiments upon which civic virtue of democracy is founded. The old political mindset cannot harness the technological condition of democratic modernity. The duty of democratic leadership is to protect the weakest members of society, entitle them to their inalienable rights and equal opportunities of education, income and political participation. If the rights of citizens remain unenforceable, like party statutes, the vision of the society envisaged in the constitution becomes tantalizing. 

The crucial civic task for leadership calls for bridging the growing gaps in their words and deeds and saving the polity from sound bites. The art of civic virtues must be utilised to realise the need of the public for good governance accountable to a sovereign people. It is exactly the orientation of political, economic, and social actors to public and national interest that makes democratic stability attainable. Reasoned debate on civic renewal reforms the nation's political culture, strengthens its public institutions and articulates the active life of the public. Nepali culture has made citizens virtuous of living in different settings without social unease, learning the art of self-regulation, thinking and strategising and cooperating in matters of common needs and interests and solving their complex problems. 

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

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