Civic space is the autonomous site that enables intermediary groups of society to play a constructive role in the political, economic and social life of the nation. It is the foundation of people’s empowerment through deliberative process and finding rooms for ideas and imagination. The loss of a general purpose and shared public interests in Nepal has alienated most political leaders from common norms, manner of thought and historically evolved national worldview. This has turned public opinion into a set of spurious surfaces of shadow without real power to influence and shape public policies of political parties, parliament and the government.
A fledgling democracy like Nepal requires positive roles of many intermediary institutions to discuss, assert and articulate the ordinary people’s needs, interests and rights. It helps democratise and make top political authorities responsible and foils their lure to monopolise power through a control on party-parliament-executive-judiciary axis devoid of any concern for the public good. Nepal’s tradition of associational life is enriched by sat sanga, the concept of fellow feeling common among faith-based people and countless cultic practices.
A number of intermediary institutions between the family and the state, such as temples, pati pauwas and chautaras (resting places), public libraries, literary societies, cultural groupings, voluntary organisations like guthis, kachaharis and self-help societies among of diverse communities, bihars (monasteries), public inns, gurukuls (community-run schools and academy), orphanages, public trusts, etc. in Nepal have provided the continuity of civic space. Spiritual and cultural infrastructures are vital to define Nepal’s identity, destiny and civilised character in the world. Built on social trust and dharma, the associational life often stirred public conscience in thinking, conversation and engagement in worthy initiatives in non-partisan ways.
The dharma-based society sought to protect and promote the well-being of the public, infuse the whiff of spiritual enlightenment to decolonise mind and deliver relief services in times of cataclysms such as wars, famine, flood, earthquake and acute scarcity. Nepal’s native philosophy deems power and authority as a trust of janata janardan (the people). Leaders are accountable for its exercise. This civic space cultivated the culture of deliberation to settle conflict, air truth to power and invent ideas for policy making, socialisation and acculturation. It laid down a duty-based society as opposed to the modern civic space rooted in right-oriented, individualistic, legalistic and identarian ones. It is innately binary, divisive and self-extending, not self-controlling. It thus dried out the nation’s social capital and challenged the collective form of democratic life.
Nepal now witnesses the explosion of right-based institutions such as NGOs, advocacy groups, professional bodies and social movements of women, Dalits, marginalised communities, consumers, ecologists, trade unions, student unions, civil society, etc. with a new burst of oppositional energy to widen the newer civic space and enable legitimate collective action. They are piercing deep into every aspect of life marking a shift from tradition to modernity, values to interest, duties to rights, dharma to law, faith to reason, volunteerism to projectised, Sanskritisation to modernization and collective to individualistic stupor. Their networks, activities, research and analysis contribute to the self-chosen associational life of elites.
Nepali constitution and plan acts have enlarged the new civic space and accepted their role in self and shared rule. The challenges for these civic groups are: shaky leadership, poor planning, excessive fundraising and management for meeting the people’s welfare without shrinking the cultural mosaic of the nation, refuting the belief of the legislature running a “parallel government” and tearing the nation’s soul. Undue partisan-craziness of these groups has emptied them of civic virtues to exert either democratic influence in public policy or become an active ally for the poor. Many doubt whether they offer democratic software for Nepalis to counter the drape of hegemony at multi-scale and shape a free civic space in which diverse opinions, beliefs and values are negotiated for the rationalisation of society.
Democracy has made Nepalis freer in their expression and actions. But they nurse a feeling that their condition of existence has run down owing to leaders’ indulgence in partisan benefits rather than public wellbeing, myopic vision from one election to the next and frequently changing promises, not widening participatory opportunities. Far from being laboratories for leadership growth, even civil societies are suffering from extinction, division and subordination to political parties and geopolitical interests. As a result, they could not fill the institutional and geographical voids enabling Nepalis to balance their guaranteed 31 rights and four duties and competing claims of diverse social forces.
Majority of Nepalis unaware of their rights have to tolerate the patriarchal leaders who have not only cut their legitimate aspirations for good governance but also undervalued their tolerance, the value of the state to public welfare and the natural role of a proximate to both the Indic and the Sinic civilisations. The Nepali state’s capacity is turning feeble, partisan rivalry has fractured the polity and the condition of the weak leadership has neglected the civic space for debate on national self-determination in matters of vital public and national interests.
The neo-liberal monetisation of the nation for long mutilated the public sphere. It has subjected and excluded non-monetary values, including the salience of democratic politics — such as social cohesion, morality, public good and even contest of ideas for progress. Top leaders have brought the civil society for democracy, human rights and economic progress under their tutelage, attempted to hegemonise civic space to expand their constituencies and cooperated for the status quo. It naturally stifled constitutional vision of progressive path. The tendency of the internalisation of external policy prescriptions on the economy without a critical check of local context has produced yet another catch: ordinary Nepalis are losing control over both economy and politics.
The establishment run for long without any veneer of lawful opposition allowed the free play of pre-democratic forces, identarian groups, populist parties and radical elements beyond the ability of the governance to steer, manage and control. It is testing the knack of Nepali leaders whether they can solve social ills by constitutional means. The liberal notion of rule of law based on social justice entails political leadership to stand above dominant interests, treat Nepalis equally and protect the sanctity of civic space. This is doable if the judiciary keeps itself away from partisan culture, speeds up fair verdict delivery and keeps its judgment away from the fear of the unity of opposite political parties. The court’s authority springs from the sacredness of the constitution.
In Nepal, however, constitutionalism — the supremacy of law over political power — is vexed by partisan nexus. Cases overload and insecurity of judges haunt its performance. Despite the existence of lofty constitutional ideals -- justice, equality, freedom and rule of law -- Nepali judiciary is feeble to safeguard the integrity of judges. Almost all constitutional organs are tainted by partisan oeuvre and seem shabby to protect each other’s prerogatives. The other powerful factor to nurture civic space in Nepal is the media. They offer a range of topics for thinking, debate and public action. By their unhindered flow of news, information, issues, images and symbols, they have almost seized the political space.
In fact, political life in Nepal is dominated by interest groups that are not communicating to each other. That is why leaders talk less to one another and the people than to the media. The political culture of the media is, however, marked by dualism: the private media depict leadership with a much more negative slant; the public ones continue to inflate their images with the peal of praise, confusing Nepalis about what the right to know means to them. The private media, relatively free from official censorship, have passed into the hands of financial and political tycoons who use them for the manipulation of people’s consciousness and excite leaders to fight each other by means of fiery exposé of unlawful practices.
Private media, after all, is a commercial venture having limited options for a democratic will formation, demand articulation or public opinion. The sedation of people devalues their civic competence, muscle of democratic institutions and blur the public spectacles. Bulk of private media reflects an image of a stilted watchdog controlled by special interests. The zombielike social media exposes them. They obfuscate, rather than enlighten the truth and synthesise irreconcilable views. The awareness that private media generate offers only supply-side rationale and disgrace Nepalis’ powers of imagination and reflection as they cannot pass their judgment on issues on the basis of media-generated knowledge and drive away their passivity.
The emerging media awareness exposes the public to an odious sort of consumerism and theatrical style of politics thus eroding their cultural self-confidence. The style and tone of their rank partisan mills are not much dissimilar from a war of words so disgusting to most of Nepalis who lived peacefully for decades. Media influence the perception of the people as per their frame of ownership, control, finance and regulation marking communication deficits. The democratic process in Nepal is suffocated by a lack of professionalism. Democracy does not mean only a style of governance. It embraces human values and informed civic engagements.
Even if public debate is its basic condition, the tangible source of those values spring from the public vying for liberty, justice and dignity. Public opinion can serve as a potent check on the government, only if Nepalis have robust civic sense and a sense of solidarity to make political, economic and intellectual powers accountable to its source. The more the public knows about the overall condition of national life, the better the scope for redemption of civic space and its impulse to step the nation forward.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)