Democracy Needs Healthy Countervailing Power


Countervailing power denotes the ability of alternative poles of power in balancing the ruling power so that no one dominates the other and each adjusts to the other's lawful interests. It can check, control and shape the conduct of commanding power of the party-government if found not performing well in public interests. The countervailing power refers to the courts, media, civil society, social struggles and people’s associations, federations and unions who have the ability to restrain the command power of ruling classes and their propensity to act arbitrarily, if not disciplined by the constitution and civic power. The countervailing civic power increases the leverage of people to codetermine policies in the public and national interests, increases the accountability of commanding power and frees people from coercion and undue pressure. 

This power, as defenders of democratic values and people’s rights, is supposed to be egalitarian in its internal life and upholding civic virtues of integrity, honesty, autonomy, public-spiritedness and self-direction. The democratic power is a bastion of hope for Nepalis. It aims to satisfy people’s security, freedom and dignity against the special interest groups acting as free-riders in the system and creating disharmony between law and politics.  In democracy, the roles of opposition, courts, civil society, community associations, media and private sector is legitimised so that the command power of the party-government does not monopolise the power of polity and the state to dominate people, curtail their civil liberties and curb the promise of public sphere to transform politics into a socialised national sphere. 

Power of public opinion

The command power of party-led government can act arbitrarily if civic power - the power of public opinion, deliberation, enlightenment and judgment - remain frail and future-conscious Nepalis find an antinomy between their condition and leaders’ passion. Political parties of Nepal are facing contradictions among incumbent leaders and the aspiring ones and those with radical aspirations operating on the sidelines of polity and eroding its efficacy ad infinitum. The checks and balances of power in the polity, constitutional and human rights of people, the gaze of national and global public and compliance to international norms act as countervailing power in Nepal. The monopoly of political or economic power by one unit congests democratic equilibrium and its dynamism.

The Nepali constitution has adopted an independent and socialism-oriented economy but the political spectrum of parties has its jarring versions lacking a sense of national consensus except to follow policies prescribed by the donors.  Nepali economy is thus less socialized despite the use of terms such as social justice, right to work, social protection and social security. The pathetic condition of employment in the nation is the reason Nepali youths, workers, students, professionals, etc. are seeking opportunity in the global market. If the dynamic population and change agents are not retained Nepal's desired progress and social change falter. Deficits of basic needs rob people of their freedom. 

In this context, the role of countervailing power is important to orient the economy to the policy aims of productive investments in the public good. This, however, supposes Nepali polity’s capacity in creating an enabling environment for the active engagement of peasants and workers in their livelihood and trade. It spurs the distributive aims thus binding leaders to their political pledges of an imagined future and obliging them to forsake worthless politics of attrition, negation and friction.

 In Nepal, it is hard to say which political party is a system-builder, which is a fence-sitter and which acts as an erosive force of democracy as power lust, not civic culture, glues them in a coalition of politics of all kinds in the elections and in the government.  The classical adversarial model of parliamentary politics is shabby as no party is interested in opposition. Space for real opposition allied with countervailing power representing diverse policy perspectives and social interests of people is artificial. As a result, politics amounts to a zero-sum game where only the establishment elites have a stake in it while the powerless do not relish it and, thus, celebrates any political change democratic or oligarchic. 

Nepali political parties are vote-maximizing machines, not value-entrepreneurs which are crucial for political socialisation, birth of a transformational leadership, trust building across party lines for the attainment of public good and becoming a beacon of democratic stability. Proliferation of many means of communication as a public sphere no longer comforts the commercialism of the mainstream media nor are they totally conformist of political trends. But, in no way, Nepali media portray an alternative vision of Nepal’s future except highlighting some of the vices gripping the nation. 

Democracy nauseates if education and information are not widely distributed in society, enabling Nepalis to think, exercise their sovereignty and pass judgment on authorities to improve their lot. They ought to circulate democratic values for the people facilitating them to build civic competence for higher order life. Civil society, once a powerful force to revitalise the moribund political parties, are now absorbed in them, fully remain projectised or even mauled by their declining utility. Still, they are active in organising hegemonic discourse, group-enclosed seminars and workshops without contributing to shape alternative policies relevant to address Nepal’s interconnected problems. 

The omnipresence of Nepali parties in the state, polity, government and public institutions has partisanised the public sphere by distributing the spoils and running an economic and political syndicate that democratic polity loathes. The division of countervailing power has devitalised their strength to engage in the politics of freedom, justice and solidarity, crippled the efficacy of people’s voice and visibility and furnished alternative channels of political deliberation in forming public opinion, organisation, participation and collective action. The choice is the basis of freedom, a basis of firm belief that people are not instrumentalised as a means for other’s ends.  Freedom and choice are related to the scale of their awareness.

 But the declining utility of party competition has created sovereign Nepalis an arena for leadership struggle for power, not establishing their dignity and opportunity and allowing them freedom of choice over policies, ideologies and even organisations. The growing shift in electoral and party politics is an indicator of lack of an unflinching partisan attachment and hence less contributory to democratic stability. In democracy, leaders are appreciated not for how many years they have enjoyed the commanding power and organisation control but by their genuine contribution to the upliftment of people and augmenting the acceptability of the nation.  Cultural groups, as a countervailing power in Nepal, have acted to preserve Guthi, reserved government donations to certain festivals and secured the sanctity of the spiritual sphere. 

The growing spiritual consciousness in the nation does not mark the rise of parochialism as it has the power of connecting isolated individuals in the cosmic web of life. The need to adapt to climate change is another area which requires mustering national consensus based on general consent rooted in universal reason and planetary basis of cooperation. The nation’s social groups -- women, Dalits, Madhesis and ethnic groups -- had formed caucus groups in the parliament across the party lines and acted as countervailing power to articulate their demands in the constitution and law making process. They have utilised deliberative and consultative power as a reaction against the old command and control politics which is inconsistent with the inclusion of the other.

Poets, writers, singers, scientists, artists and comedians are the most progressive force because they are sensitive to human condition, apply critique to the illicit power and wealth and sensitive to the plight of the tormented people in rhythm. Without the constructive and educative role of countervailing power neither progress nor social change is possible in Nepal.  The tendency of incumbent leaders to acquire more power regardless of its purpose and keep the status quo proves the persistence of the same political culture of cherishing self-promotion and stoking the revulsion of people. Nepal’s each election, however, indicated the tendency to defeat the ruling parties.  It is vital to keep democratic spirit by accepting people’s search for sensible alternatives and claiming the coordinating vigour of the state to protect civic rights.

But the lure of leaders to engage in network politics beyond ideological affinity has stunted the popular mandate making politics putrefy, not transformational. “Human sense of dignity revolts against the dependence upon command powers, whether economic or political,” says Henry M. Pachter. So long as people are dictated by necessity, not freedom, the command power continues to face rationality deficits and rage of countervailing powers. Unrealised constitutional rights act as a motor of alienation, migration, protest and mobilisation of countervailing powers.  

New social struggles of women, Dalits, Aadibasis, Janajatis, backward classes and micro-minorities helped to escape from conventional politics of hierarchical power relations, confront the existing human condition and empower these groups. They have emerged outside the conformist lines of political parties and their self-immunisation from the social feelings by their strategies of economic determinism devoid of any open future. The struggle of these countervailing powers has brought new political values of human needs and deeply changed the public life of Nepal. People prefer social inclusion rather than ideological representation. The proportional election system added vigour to it although its basic functions stand frustrating. Top political leaders have brought their own family members and clients into the legislative process. 

Civic virtues

This shows that the old vows of political parties to their respective ideologies and class-based code of politics has become passé. Class questions in Nepali politics do not hold primacy over ethnicity, region, religion, caste, gender and even age as latter elements have become stronger in inter-movement solidarity and collective bargaining to improve their lot. Nepali politics is played on group identity. It is weakening the modern version of human rights which is largely based on individualism. Nepali constitution tends to combine civic virtues of citizenship equality and inclusion and post-modern ideals of politics of recognition and identity differences. 

Democratic order can only flourish if mini identities imbibe rational and national character in the resolution of conflicts without losing ability to critique unaccountable power. The existence of differentiated nature of citizens may re-tribalise and re-feudalise Nepali politics lacking a strong civic sense of citizenship. Any drift to post-modern inclination as an ideology of capitalism that thrives in the segmentation, not solidarity of society, contradicts the constitutional vision of the creation of an egalitarian society.  Countervailing power is not completely disconnected from the incumbent power nor hermetically sealed by critical mass. 

Still, Nepali constitution and leadership have to reinvigorate the idea of national political community based on the civic virtues of participatory democracy informed by public deliberation, public sphere and public opinion as countervailing power. Non-partisan democracy in Nepal is not conceivable but undue partisan passion is bound to erode democratic institutions’ impartiality in the treatment of people, its rationality and certain autonomy of people required of collective identity of national citizenship.

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

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