The notion of public is rife in the literature of democracy and media debate. It is a holy symbol in whose name media persons, politicians, civil servants and intellectuals justify their acts beyond social constraints. The public sphere is a sphere of communication among the people in matters of shared interests where they generate knowledge about issues, form bonds, interact and shape norms of conduct and critique. It is in the sphere they learn the logic of transformation, raise moral voice and pass critical judgments. Embedded in universal reason and reflection, the public surpasses disciplinary boundaries to inform people of general interest and motivate for strategic action for the realisation of common good.
The awakening of the national public of Nepal inclined to make many actors of governance transparent, if not accountable for their actions. It is context-transcending. One can see the growth of South Asian public driving regional cooperation in spite of inertia of official mechanisms. The global public, reflecting the conscience and heart of humankind, is radiating the flow of ideas as to how to solve global problems of wars, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, pandemic, hunger, food and energy crisis and bring the possibility of sane world order whose cosmopolitan possibility no longer tolerates human suffering.
The civilising mission of the public is essentially political in nature. Public intellectuals seek to straddle the social, economic and political divides, efface the fundamentalist gaps and enable enlightened cooperation among sensible civil society to fight against injustice, exploitation and domination and limit violence so as to shape shared kind of common good. Political scientist Harold D Lasswell says, “The public is a situation in which persons with a common focus of attention are making debatable demands for action; the political crowd is characterised by non-debatable demands for action.” Political activities differ from other spheres of life by the conflict of ideology, interest and identity.
The innately conflict-prone nature of partisan politics and atomising tendency of the market have made it hard to shift from tribal conformity, class-based solidarity to the enlightened public and organised large scale collective action. The furtive operation of interest groups has strained the impartial function of democratic public in the same way as the mass of conformist political cadres. In Nepal, with the corrosion of its democratic institutions and political culture, debate in the political sphere is often rasping which only confuses, not illumines, the sublime public expression of what is right and what is wrong. The public works under a code of conduct, cognitive richness and acts rationally anticipating the positive effects of their actions.
The crowd, by contrast, does not follow the rules of the game, is knowledge deficient and operates frantically. The public is a thinking class while the crowd is not. It only acts crazily as per the demand, direction and control of its organiser. Crowd formation occurs in a crisis situation when its members find that only their collective behaviour can make a dent on the social, economic and political process.
The art of association of attentive citizens enables to make the site of public a common place accessible and visible to all people including the ordinary ones to gather together, debate and shape public opinion vital to articulate needs and rights. It is essential to outline relevant public policies favourable to their lives, liberty and dignity.
The birth and development of public in Nepal is marked by the growth of political consciousness about the use of constitutional and human rights and ability to improve the condition of life. Nepal has shifted its political culture from duty-based tradition to rights-based one. This has marked an associational shift from inherited to self-chosen courses. But it has yet to foster inter-institutional and intra-societal trust for the management of transitional politics, transfer of leadership and foster cooperation for the sensible mitigation of multi-scale problems. Political agitations, social movements and protests of people claiming the fulfilment of their legitimate demands marked the rise of a robust public.
The public soon turned imperfect as it failed to see the necessities of the poor. This is the reason cases are overloaded in the courts while mass disquiet is smouldering over federal questions, protection of Guthi, campaign against corruption, gold smuggling, illicit land grab and fake refugees. The public decline of trust in mainstream political parties have arisen owing to the critique of leaders of small parties and media, intra-party leadership fight for power and their lack of adequate performance as far as the availability of public good or strengthening of the public sphere is concerned.
Democratic principles of social inclusion, mutual trust and solidaristic action have enabled the public to change the Nepali society, polity and leadership. In a pluralistic society like Nepal these basic public values are critical to mediate reasons, faiths, beliefs and interests, stabilise democracy and affirm the constitutional vision of egalitarianism. Democratic nation-building needs a de-traditionalised public that is capable of engaging in cooperation across family, caste, religious, geographic and cultural divides and keeping up reciprocity across generations to overcome moral imperfections.
Nepal’s delayed transformation of internal societies indicates a low level of political efficacy of the public and leadership. The public now aims to prevent increasing erosion of native values, rules and interests and spur the formation of a productive national community able to compete with a community of nations. For a long time, the state class largely relied on the centrality of capital in the process of social transformation and accepted the terms of policy which served the interest of the dominant class, not the general public. The shift of agriculture and industries to service sectors, rural to urban areas and public to private has caused the decline of public life.
In Nepal, the policy of de-industrialisation is the consequence of fiscal strain on the state, sluggish growth in agriculture, growing trade deficits and debt, bloated size of political class and bureaucracy and international capital mobility. Political economy is exemplified by the reality of an intermediate regime as the majority of Nepalis stand between the capital and the labour, the former has economic power while the latter has voting power. This paradox entails the policy regime to capture the middle space by introducing progressive tax on the upper class to subsidise the underclass so as to avoid potential conflict. But the oscillation of leaders to mass during elections and class after elections has caused political and progress volatility thus turning the intermediate regime dysfunctional.
Its tendency to induce the growing crisis of governance has rolled the regime to either greater scale of political collusion at the top, lawless democracy or greater authoritarianism devoid of political will vital in pursuing correct public policy to beat the market’s atomisation of society and partisan loss of national feeling of “we.” Development must be able to address the centrality of middle ground in order to make the constitution a document of unity and solidarity. The weakening of the intermediate regime has been eased by: a decline of the state revenue following the boom of the thieves of Nepali state, chronic political instability, the regime's dependence on a few comprador classes, reliance on them for development projects and mobilisation of foreign loans to subsidise political classes.
The culture of commission, corruption and rent-seeking and reckless spending of public expenditure by any regime to stay in power is swelling the cost of development. Good policy reforms require good governance structures — outcome-driven governance that acts according to the rules and regulations defined by the constitution rather than partisan rationality of expanding electoral constituency for next election and recruiting one's own untrained cronies, clients and financers in the public interest institutions incapable of performing and fostering distributive justice. One central flaw of Nepali parliament is that it has become an association of electoral and party constituencies, interest groups and clienteles controlled by top party leadership who lacks political will to defend public and national interests.
As a result, it has lost autonomy in policy making, deliberation and monitoring other than protecting each other privileges and impunity and amenable to split the public and private education, health, economy and communication thus enervating the power of Nepali public to articulate. The desertion of the public sphere by legislative elites has suffocated democracy, the ideology of the public. The time has come to decolonise politics by a fillip to the public and create bridging and bonding of the public now divided by class, caste, gender, age, ethnicity, region and cults and shore up the centripetal forces for nation building.
Wild human nature
An intermediate regime surviving in impunity cannot attain the national goals, set priorities and design easily implementable policies. The failure of each prospective plan to achieve its goals can be attributed to this. But there are other gaps as well: between policies and resources, impersonal institutions and personalised political actors and laws and arbitrary behaviour of powerful actors. This is why one can see a myriad of committees, commissions, task forces and advisory bodies to set the problems in selves of abyss not aimed to solve them. It is hardly related to a system of collective accountability for public welfare expected of democratic government.
At a time of the wild manifestation of human nature surreptitiously influenced by instinct and anarchy worldwide, it is important to spur the rise of the public for internal pacification of people and renewal of their cooperative action. Public power is vital for the survival of democracy and the sane international order beyond the outbreaks of incense-fuming wars, alliances, geopolitical tension, tribalism and fundamentalism that create scarcity and insecurity putting survival of life, liberty and dignity at critical stake. The rise of the multi-scale public thus marks the habitus of intense civility to feel for those in suffering.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)