Democracy Demands Wider Gaze


Nepal’s great poet Laxmi Prasad Devkota once said, “The immediate and the proximate enslaved our spirits and barred the line for our wider and remote visions.” This statement precisely captures Nepalis political culture. The restoration of democracy in Nepal has opened the possibility for the evolution of people’s right to sovereignty, equality and justice. Their capacity to question has awakened the public spirit of private individuals. This means the restoration of multi-party democracy in the nation has helped the people to think, speak out, organise and act in the process of revealing self and organise protest against the arbitrary use of power by leadership contrary to the electoral trust. Right to peaceful dissent is one of the crucial aspects of civic spirit. 

 In a diverse society like Nepal, an elegant edifice of social justice can hold the society and the state together. But when the constitution becomes a debatable site where political parties and independent actors of different sizes and shades compete for power and privilege as their top priority political stability suffers, a stability that requires a balance of three human virtues- reasons, spirit and desire - outlined by Plato for the good life of people and create internal checks in the polity. Nepal is now facing a challenge in establishing the rule of law, guaranteeing human rights and public goods. Devkota’s statement holds validity because Nepali political and economic actors have yet to define their wider and coherent vision beyond selfish biological impulse to include national gaze in governance. 

Popular consciousness

Objective facts and indicators of progress in Nepal and rising popular consciousness put in the picture of imperfections and uncertainties in many spheres of national lives. The nation’s overall ranking in the world too conveys a vivid reality of how it slipped into a gap between necessity and liberty. It evokes serious concern about how to alleviate the nation from moral wasteland, find a recipe to improve the quality of people’s lives and sketch out the ideals of society to allow each one to see things anew. The post-modern belief of “personal is political” has only allowed powerful elites to narrowly decide what is best for them regardless of its consequence to the larger public.

 Ordinary Nepalis discontent with the governing class is rising as political power is less linked to either public policy or building a robust statecraft associated with the general public purpose or even a sense of accountability to those who compose its legitimacy. The democratic struggle had carried a decent task of liberating Nepalis and transforming them into an attentive and engaging public. As the spirit of their struggle dissipated, intellectual discourse laid bare an acute sense of national woe and suggested political parties to connect with the people. The fact is that changes in the constitution, certain laws and institutions did not alter the style of political elites and their political culture to re-feudalise the public sphere.

The basic policy-making process is remote from political parties and the parliament. Politics has failed to turn into an engine of empowerment of ordinary Nepalis by means of social and economic transformation. A truly competitive democracy and economy can serve as a meeting place for all -- to compete on well-defined rules for the distribution of outcome of their electoral participation and support, light up faces of people in misery and instill civic ethics in leadership for quality democratic governance that can easily reconcile social justice with decent political order. This is critical at a time when tax payers of the donor nations demand better accountability in the delivery of development aid by focusing on areas such as outcome-oriented governance, honest judiciary, gender equality, climate justice, orderly financial sector and a resilient social security.

Participatory democracy entails Nepali leaders to relate themselves to the sanctity of politics as a public sphere and prevent its descent thus opening the field for non-political forces such as interest groups, free riders, business and geopolitical elements. Without reasonable economic security conducive to political freedom and self-realisation, Nepalis civic participation will be confined to electing the elites to rule them. The separation of political economy from ethics and partisan distribution of all public posts downplay the sense of the common good commonly shared by all Nepalis. The available means for personality growth, inculcation of democratic values, shaping character and integrating youths into the life-world of the nation are grossly deficient at the political parties, educational institutions, media and civil society levels. 

Therefore, Nepali workers, students, business and technical professionals migrate abroad for better opportunities.  Their migration from the rural to the urban areas and abroad evacuates the critical change agents of society, nibbling economic and political dynamics of its very social structure.  It has flagged their will to live together and share sovereignty. If Nepal is to successfully grow cohesively, it must, of course, pull the people together in the concept of ‘we” and seek cooperative action across social diversity. A shared vision about the nation’s future also requires effective partnership of the state with the private sector, civil society, local elected bodies and people and their mutual accountability.

Leadership with sound integrity and efficiency can drive the performance of the polity in vital areas of governance. The rights to work, education, health and livelihood, within a constitutional frame, are highly prized goals. Without these, people will be reliant on others, unable to use their democratic self-determination. A political culture of dependency reduces the imperative of democracy into a legal one and eats its élan vitals. Nepali leaders have to marshal the support of people for the state policies and transform them into active citizens radiating them with larger gaze. Democracy has implications both for the internal life of political parties and the process of social modernisation especially in de-tribalising the people. The former embodies an inclusive process in the election, rule of law, civil liberties and human rights while the latter includes civic education and citizen engagements in the democratic structures.

 When citizenship as a member of the state becomes lower in value than the party carders or reduced to mere consumers and labourers, in no way does it project Nepal’s civilized nature. When the nation’s identity is less inclusive in their minds, divisive forces naturally grips. Those acculturated with alien ideas feel no utility of national identity while indoctrinated ones ferociously debate on mind and matter without national sensibility. The questions of separate identity, ideology and interests can be optimised in the golden mean. Extremism of every sort breeds fundamentalism and the negation of the other. Sadly, the Nepali political leadership who has an impressive lineage rooted in the nation’s democratic struggle has no skill to engage in democratic compromise and live by principles. 

It now finds convergence with the powerful comprador class — a class which has succeeded in bringing the political class, professional bodies, civil society, business and bureaucracy into collusion, thereby deflating what Devkota calls the wider and long-term vision. Nepal’s civil society does not have thick networks to mediate different interest groups. The gulf continues to widen between the classes and the masses. No single political formation has been left untouched by graft, cronyism and scam. The partisan press provides malicious articulation of this bitter fact. The bigger issue at stake is how to check the careerist politicians who equate their voices with the voices of reason and take refuge in a sort of political relativism, the rationalisation of one’s own partisan biases regardless of national mandate. 

The conscious Nepalis do not believe in the curse theory of sati or karma, meaning fate and inequality as a part of natural order.  Now, party elites are pulling the people towards a political culture of conformism, trust on higher authority, compliance to the leaders and yielding to a borrowed world-view. This anti-modernism has subjected the naive masses more to the forces of reaction, populism, radicalism and regionalism than democracy, toward self-doubt than poise and archaic goals than civic nationalism. It has, thus, become hard to constitutionalise the behaviour of powerful actors of society. The democratic progress in Nepal depends on popular will and commitment to it which, in turn, is the consequence of the matching socialisation and political acculturation to enrich a shared Nepali identity. 

The sense of fidelity among social groups and parties is a particularly crucial aspect of civic culture. As a result, lack of interpersonal trust among leaders hints at a peril of recurrent oscillation of coalition partners causing instability of government, polity and the state. Increasing the accountability of leaders towards people and people’s trust in their leaders is one option to cure these ills, while reform in institutional culture of leaders and people by inculcating civic virtues is another. Still, necessary improvement in the prevailing mode of production, distribution and ownership of property rights is yet another option to make Nepalis a stakeholder of democracy with better opportunity than any other system. The big inquiry for Nepal is how to make its economic structure, ideology and political institutions apt for a democratic nation.

Voluntary spirits

Good governance, economic prosperity and social justice are what many Nepalis hope for their future. A political culture whose civility is responsive would be a huge asset in holding the state and society together. Health, decent income and happiness can uplift the feeling of pride in nationality. At a time when private money plays an influential role in public affairs rather than equality of citizenship, what is desired is the revival of public and voluntary spirits in politics and educational outreach of the constitution, mutual adjustment and sharing and caring for each other rather than each group vying for domination over others. 

Likewise, an associational affinity of Nepalis for social cohesion and social solidarity is a necessity to improve the existing set of rules, minimise chronic poverty, disparity, eradicate discrimination and overcome alienation, migration and desolation. Exclusionary aspirations along the fault lines of the polity are the very opposite of inclusive, participatory democracy. Doing right things by Nepali leaders in the national and public interests naturally cultivate the virtue of people and liberate them from the anguish of effects of evil consequences of what Devkota said, “enslaving passion for the immediate” not planning the progress with a wider and finer national gaze in the light of zeitgeist.  

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

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