Political parties built on industrial culture are undergoing a transition to information society. Diffused information occupies a pivotal place in the political life of any nation. A great range of ecological, social, economic, political and geopolitical issues are driven by the flow of information. It is affecting the functions of political parties as well. The causes of the emergence of political parties in Nepal are not uniform —democratic fight against autocracy, leadership struggle causing party split, fragmentation of parliamentary parties, issue-based social movements incubating a new party and revolutionary leaders’ inability to adjust to party discipline, strategies, organisations and functions and, therefore, forming a new party for mass politics.
As a result, their style of socialisation is uneven — Nepali Congress and CPN-UML parties are conformist. Maoist-Centre and Janata Samajbadi Party are revisionist yet they all collectively defend the secular, federal democratic republic. Rastriya Swotantra Party and Janamat party are liberal anchoring around issues, Rastriaya Prajatantra Party favours enculturation on native worldview and values while radical ones favour noisy mass politics. The rich tapestry of political brands represents the diversity and asymmetry of society. It despises one-party dominance but without evolving a political culture of coalition government. This is why the evolution of political stability and civic culture of tolerance have become an uphill task.
A civic culture, by definition, flourishes in common citizenship identity, not individual ego, group, sub-national or tribal passions where compromise involves a tradeoff of participation in the politics in return for power-sharing, not political will formation for the democratisation of organisational life of parties. In Nepal, the animation of conversation on democratisation of inner life of parties is rolling strongly in the party platforms, media, civil society and intellectual circles and eroding deference barriers. Inner-party democracy is a strategy to make political parties representative of the social and cultural mosaic of the nation including gender and youth and enable each to exercise voice, conscience and convictions. It can unlock their social and political integration potential even if it turns all Nepali parties bent to catch-all calls.
Information society is wary of democratic centralism in the parties and favours decentralisation. It stirs up people’s consciousness, brings participatory values, resources and tools to them and spurs Nepali’s political life. Non-linear interactions of people, cadres and political leaders politicises each, determines the latter’s leverage and influence in party functioning and claim ownership. In this sense, politicisation of people helps the growth of new leadership in society, builds a responsive culture, transparent selection of party bureaucracy, use of party funds and overcomes trust deficits among leaders and cadres.
Inner-party democracy brings Nepali party politics to societal level and increasingly exposes leaders to the peoples’ needs, demands and constitutional rights and gears up for social transformation. Democratic parties do not harness the centrifugal forces of society to destabilise the political platform but accommodate diverse interests, identities and ideologies as they know such a tendency creates obstacles to effective governance. In this sense, inner-party democracy can muster the political support of people, organise spontaneous socialisation and strengthen the social base of Nepali democracy. The listening culture in the parties enables them to overcome both alienation and cynicism of people from party politics.
Politics is the sphere of power and policy making. Its democratic control through normative and institutional means is necessary for encouraging the sphere of freedom, justice and peace. Two factors are vital to politicise people for partisan attachment: regular political education by party schools and civic education by educational institutions, media and civil society. The latter is especially important in Nepal plagued by post-modern identity politics of high density and intensity. Civic education converts Nepalis of diverse biological, social and political origins into active citizens prizing national identity and relieving certain levels of social tensions faced by Nepali parties.
Independent intellectuals, civil society and attentive public have to act as catalysts and strengthen the civic culture in the nation. Training of cadres and potential supporters on civic education can buttress the foundation of local party committees affirming the constitutional principles of social inclusion, representation, participation, subsidiarity and popular sovereignty expressed in self-governance. In this context, democratisation of inner life of parties requires national convention, their auxiliary organisations across the party lines, ideologues, civil society and intellectuals who can cross-fertilise the changing ideals and imperatives of parties, address the challenges posed by non-political actors and enable each to internalise democracy in political life. The leaders of Nepali civil society, acting as a bridge across parties during political agitations, have often forged close ties with party leaders for co-optation in power.
They hardly contribute to inner-party democracy with a keen sense of inquiry, keep autonomous poise valued by the critical mass and inculcate in leaders democratic disposition. They are muted in both parties' grip on the state and their alienation from society. The struggle of women, Dalits, Aadibasis, Madhesis and minorities claiming proportional social inclusion, realisation of unrealised rights and recognition in the decision making centers of parties is exerting pressure to democratise their institutional frame. Social inclusion in public life has a blazing effect. It is slowly recoiling caste hierarchy and patriarchy, redistributing power and hitting gerontocracy, corruption and criminalisation.
Open-minded, healthy, decent and informed debate within the party committees can build the local foundation of democracy robustly, activate their political relations and prevent the re-feudalisation of Nepali politics. Old political parties, founded on industrial ideologies of capitalism, democratic socialism and communism which thrived on centralised model of command, control and a new class of privilege within organisational structures, is now facing the pressures of social modernisation articulated by critical mass, new parties and rational voters awakened by information glut. So long as this new class loyal to top fractious leaders remains brawny and they care less about how to connect with the bottom of society for interest mediation and practice effective accountability, the demands for intra- party democracy will persist.
Both social learning and social feedback in the decision making centre of parties are helpful. It will create a demand for the transformation of leader-oriented party system to institution building so that crystallisation of various issues and problems and converting them into public policy for articulation in the public sphere and the parliament and their timely solution become habitual. Massive migration of youths to the international labour market has transformed the material basis of Nepali society and opened it to structural change. But in no way it is fostering a culture of accountability to the weaker side of the people if leadership style remains habit-driven and inter-and intra-party relations are febrile, not trustful as demanded by party laws.
In Nepal’s electoral politics, party competition does not follow class lines. Electoral coalition of odd parties has devalued partisan competition and elevated manufactured majority. Diffused focus of party programmes marks the death of a great narrative. The left-centre-right axis of Nepali politics is now replaced by top-bottom yet the penumbra of socialism lingers in the constitution and adherents’ minds. The nub of dispute is about the suitability of means-planned development, economic libertarianism or partial coordination of varied economies. De-ideologisation of Nepali parties as an upshot of information flow has increased the costs of politics. It can be compensated by good work, problem solving, politicisation of rights and enthusing in the cadres a sense of volunteerism.
Intra-party democracy embraces equality. It diffuses decision loads to various layers of party committees and provides their members ownership, responsibility and stake while autocratic ones believe in hierarchy, discipline and centralise all decisions and practice transactional politics of promoting cronyism, patronage and circle of loyalists. These traits remove the stake of cadres and make them cost-calculating and free-floating. The trend of voters’ de-alignment, rise of new parties and independents in Nepal witnessed in recent elections signify the need for an inner party democracy. When money, not politics, drives democracy, it is the proper regulation and democratisation of the economy that can ease inner-party democracy.
Information age has made each Nepali analytical, enabled to seek the rationality of political action and pass judgment on the performance of leaders. Many use digital means while others informal face-to-face communication and update themselves on issues from many channels. Obviously, political socialisation of Nepalis is not strongly performed by parties’ schools with updated syllabus. In this context, interest aggregation, articulation, communication and social mobilisation have disorderly effects.
Nepali parties, both old and new, should not shelve public and national interest issues and remain status-oriented. They should debate them without any intention of manufacturing consent and converting them into a loyal crowd. A critical mass motivated by an ideal of social transformation and social modernisation is propitious for democratic will formation. This fortifies inner party democracy, enlarges the access of people to the organisational structures, leadership and committees of parties, even their ancillary bodies and motivates to evolve listening culture and grievances handling thus generating political confidence in the party-based democracy.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)