Nepal’s great poet Laxmi Prasad Devkota said, “The immediate and the proximate enslaved our spirits and barred the line for our wider and remote visions.” Democracy in Nepal has offered an open moment for its leadership to craft a wider new vision to realise people’s rights to sovereignty, equality and justice and project the character of the nation’s independent identity. Nepalis capacity to reason, to learn through experience and live a life of dignity, has stirred poise. It has enabled them to vote, speak out, organise and agitate against the personalisation of power in ways not easily done in the sullen phase of ancient regime. The interface between history and vision is deep, not separable by any one at will.
People’s frenzy with the leaders’ use of power without any historical sense of social justice hints that Nepalis are not the passive agents of politics. They are vigilant in judging the use of political power, vigilance central to unlock their potential, rights and attain social emancipation. In a multi-cultural Nepal, only mutual duties insightful of historical vision can free their spirits and concert the society and the state to manage the future. Nepali politics, however, uncannily unveils a harsh truth: despite a radical change in discourse, leadership and institutions following defrosting the old order, the political culture of the past lingers. The new leaders in no way feel any need to redefine how they are different from the old ones in the style, attitude and public policy-making process, the crux of modern politics.
The leadership trait rears a sort of “tall poppy pattern,” meaning any junior leader that challenges the top leaders is instantly downsised. Battling against the fear of displacement from juniors, they are short of wisdom to reshape the nation’s wider vision and destiny other than to intonate the mirror image of other nations. Only participatory and coherent vision put in the constitution can de-indoctrinate them from obsolete ideologies which outlived their utility. The spiritual and intellectual decolonisation can remove the condition of barricade to freedom ahead and acquit the nation from the moral wasteland.
It is vital to liberate Nepalis from the unequal balance of power and wealth through their circulation in the society so that they have the means and resources at disposal and exercise the life of a choice. Return of civic ethics in leadership for quality governance can reconcile social justice with the legitimacy of political order. This is momentous at a time when taxpayers of the donor nations are demanding better accountability in the delivery of development aid focusing on responsive rule, honest judiciary, orderly financial sector, resilient social safety net, gender equity and climate adaptation. Nepali leaders’ downward responsiveness to taxpayers has implications for accountable governance.
As Nepali constitution and public institutions lack performance legitimacy, the customary nature of power is bound to gain muscle over civic power in the future. Independent journalists and non-partisan intellectuals clearly articulate that top Nepali leaders are feudalistic, clannish and egocentric, thereby stoking populist sentiment in reckless forces. The partisan intellectuals, far from devoting to rational judgment, seem muted to express the voice of conscience instead relish conformist politics of tribal type. If Nepali leaders fail to embrace the value of politics as a public duty and detribalise their cadres, they will be fated to see its erosion, an erosion of hope for people to share the decision making.
Good governance premised on Nepali welfare state requires a balance between competing claims of various forces and set a standard in education, health and economic security conducive to the realisation of people’s self-worth. Restoring faith in the sanctity of politics from the callously organised politicians-bureaucracy-business web is essential to evolve an ethical political economy and harness amazing wealth of natural resources, cultural richness and youth bulge of the nation to satisfy the need for public good. At a time when performance of many leaders furnishes a poor role model, ordinary Nepalis conscript the dead ones to nourish the cognitive development of their children.
The available sources for personality development, inculcation of democratic values, shaping character and integrating youths into the life-world of the nation are grossly deficient for the socialisation of future citizens. If Nepal is to grow cohesively, its leaders must enliven democratic desire, resolve social ills and spur the nation’s internal solidarity. The stability of democracy is possible with the sound performance of its state, polity, government, political parties and business in the productive economic sector and the adaptation of finite factors of production, land, labour and capital, to an infinite scale of knowledge and information. The right to livelihood, within a frame of social justice, is a highly valued goal. Without survival resources, Nepalis will be dependent on others, unable to exercise free choice.
A culture of dependency converts the political essence of democracy into a legal one and eats its soul and vitality. Youths' huge migration from the rural to the urban areas and abroad drains the critical change agents gnawing the élan of its cultural mosaic, social pluralism, their aspiration to live together and build a shared future. Now a sense of political uncertainty exposes Nepalis to the dangers of appalling encounters – scarcity, poverty, inequality, structural violence, injustice, geopolitical penetration, etc. the things that the constitution aims to eradicate.
Nepali leaders have yet to realise the goals of the modern state and transform multiple identities of people into Nepalis, a transformation essential to democratise the internal life of political parties and unleash the double processes of social democratisation and social modernisation. The former embodies election, rule of law and civil liberties while the latter includes civic education, mass mobilisation and civic engagement. This prizes the value of state membership as citizens over the party membership and projects Nepal’s civilised character. Building the nation’s identity is thus a crucial task for the future, an identity built on inclusive edifice to conquer “we” and “they” divide oriented to decent behaviour among the newly activated people. It stops new flash-points in society.
Some elites acculturated into postmodernism and neo-liberalism are the deadliest enemies of the national identity of Nepali. To be Nepali means an account of national discipline, memory, loyalty and duty, not being anti-foreigners, whose future partly rests on sharing global equity. The question of one-dimensional identity politics can be settled by national leaders capable of educating and mediating knowledge, ideology, interests, wealth and power in society and avoiding the fundamentalisms of class, caste, ethnicity, market, religion, etc. They also need to reduce societal cleavages and spur the national integrity system. No single political formation in the nation has been left unscathed by scandal, graft and nepotism. The partisan press -- allied with various interest groups – exposes its foes.
The issue at stake is how to check the careerist leaders who equate their voices with the voices of the people and take refuge in a sort of self-gratification, not public service. As a result, the traditional elements of religion, ethnicity, caste, class, gender, etc. embedded in an ancient curse theory of karma, fate, continue to furnish an unfair belief that inequality is a part of natural order. The assertion of these elements in the internal life of political parties is pulling the cadres towards a political culture of conformism, trust on superior authority and submissive conduct to the leaders yielding to an authoritarian culture, not democratic one.
This anti-modernism in the party cadres marks conservatism than human rights, democracy and justice, self-resignation than self-confidence and narrow parochial goals than civic nationalism that tolerates cultural pluralism. Three factors will, however, alter this psychology in the future — knowledge about constitutional rights, exposure to media and birth of new forces of change. Now Nepalis are no longer sightless to the leadership status quo which in no way is neutral. The survival of Nepali democracy depends on popular will and loyalty to it which, in turn, is the corollary of the avowal of the integrity of each element of diversity to enrich a shared Nepali culture. The sense of trustworthiness in other social groups and parties is a crucial aspect of civic culture.
Ironically, interpersonal distrust among leaders, their eternal jockeying for power and recurrent swinging of coalition politics have bred instability in the parties, government, polity and the state. Increasing their accountability to people, their trust in institutions and reform in prevailing social conservatism can cure these ills. The larger question for Nepal then is how to make its social structure, ideology and political institutions apt for a future-conscious Nepalis. At a time when private money plays an influential role in public life, what is desired is the revitalisation of public spirits and strengthening of the sphere of social justice -- a justice based on social contract, solidarity and sharing and caring for each other.
Coalition of people
A social coalition of people for collective action can improve the existing set of archaic norms and put a lid on the exclusionary aspirations along the fault lines of the state that democratic order is anticipated to push back. But without recognition of the legitimate aspirations of diverse people, nation-building remains an unfinished project. The attentive Nepali public is clamouring for a total cleaning of the malaises of politics for the scope of a just society and re-constitution of real democratic practices. A positive change can certainly be animated if concerted efforts are initiated by top leaders, public spirited citizens, the press, judiciary and civil society with enough potential for countervailing power.
It affords an opportunity to widen the civic space and renew its civic spirit Devkota talks about. It enables Nepalis to become active participants in recapturing history's mission and long-term vision and leaders assume responsibility to restore ethics to politics. It can build a sense of civic competence among the ordinary Nepalis who can improve their quality of life and also increase the efficacy of the powerless. In the synchronicity of leadership, polity reflects citizens’ concerns towards democracy, helps reform their moral and intellectual life and shapes the better future.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)