Monday, 6 December, 2021

Beating The Politics Of Attrition

Dev Raj Dahal

Nepal’s great poet Laxmi Prasad Devkota not long ago said, “The immediate and the proximate enslaved our spirits and barred the line for our wider and remote visions.” This statement indicates the signs of the deficiency of Nepali intellectual classes, leaders, planners and opinion makers to confine themselves to short-term personal interests and rather than evolve public-spirited character to plan for the nation’s long-term future, improve human condition and institutionalise democracy, development and peace. Democratic dawn in the nation has legally evolved citizens’ right to sovereignty, equality and justice but their struggle for common good remains unfinished. They find a visible mismatch between the eternal desire for good life and renewed failure to realise it.
Their ability to reflect through experience and sense what is happening in the nation and why - can enable them to comprehend how the nation’s present is gripped by multiple sclerosis posing difficulty to conjecture what lies ahead of Nepal’s political future. Democracy has helped Nepalis to voice, vote, organise and effect collective action against the abuse of power in ways that were not easily attained in pre-democratic times. But leaders’ power struggle devoid of concrete policies and programmes to uplift the scale of progress marks their mutual recession. Obviously, their success rests on harnessing the synergy of democratic dynamic through the cooperation of adversarial political parties on constitutional path.
The holding of all-party meet by the President can cultivate leaders’ awareness of national predicament and prevent a return to status quo ante where all parties except RPP have convergence. Still, the formation of parallel committees and vow to wage intra-party struggle by Nepal-Khanal faction against K. P. Oli does not open scope for NC president Sher Bahadur Deuba-led government as neither Nepal-Khanal faction nor Prachanda of Maoist Centre has withdrawn support from the government. This mean politics of attrition will only tentalise the NC and Janata Samajbadi Party. Finding a rational solution to the bazantine complexity of party politics can only spur the full expression of changing human norms, not unchanging human nature.

Human nature
Yet, politics is rooted in human nature and its solution can be found in a socialisation and balance of representational interest within the writ of Nepali state. The legitimacy to the right to oppose is one crucial aspect of civic spirit which makes democracy different from other regimes. Nepalis’ dissatisfaction with the way political power is paralysed now only expresses desperation about the volatility of high-stake game of politics and vulnerability to geopolitics. In this context, the art of Nepali leaders lies in assuaging the existential fear of citizens, providing them social justice and bridging the gap between lofty constitutional vision and their actual ecological, social, economic and political performance.
In a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-racial nation like Nepal, it is only the constitutional design of distributive justice that can hold the society and the state in unity and limits the assertion of unbounded power of leaders. Has Nepali democracy introduced any meaningful change in the rational use of political power and authority beyond human nature or aligning with partisan purpose which creates obstacles to the operation of welfare state based on social solidarity and mutual responsibility of all actors of society? Has it widened individual choice even to the weaker ones?
Each democratic struggle has carried a noble mission of emancipating the citizens from their structural barriers especially of geography, caste, class and gender and empowering them into deliberative, participant public able to attain social mobility and control destiny. The rights of Nepalis have been widened but the causal ties of leaders with them seem only linear, top-down which has only perfected an authoritarian type of political culture. The public culture of democracy rooted in popular sovereignty underlies the belief that citizens are responsible to their fate. But it requires civic competence. As the spirit of struggle evaporated with the leaders’ rise to power, intellectual discourse debunked a sense of national desperation where they appear like rulers talking more about security, law and order, not freedom and justice.
The historical discontinuity in its Hindu, unitary and monarchical kingdom means very little to the public as there is no galloping shift from leaders’ personality debate to critical policy discourse and profound judgment based on reflection of historical insight, creative ideas and the flow of wisdom based on the nation’s enlightenment heritage. Nepalis have very good judgmental ability. They have often voted for a change of incumbent leaders in each election yet find them outmanoeuvring their hope by giving political culture a continuity uninfluenced by the fear of shame, guilt and failure to realise constitutional ideals of balancing competing good.
One bitter irony is that despite a change in political idioms, discourses and institutions in Nepal, the persistence of the same style of governance held a powerful grip on Nepali politics and the new leaders did not feel any need to define how they are different from the old ones enslaved by the passion for immediate benefit. Change in the old style of borrowed policy-making process did not occur. Politics failed to become a key to rekindle a sense of optimism, trust and overall empowerment of Nepalis by means of social and economic transformation. The eloquence of money is lauder than the voice of citizens. Nepali leaders thus failed to create any coherent vision for the nation, foster entrepreneurship at the mass level and create level playing field for peaceful competition.
As their interest is grounded more in the feudal past than the future driven by technological civilisation, they seem less concerned to ethical appeal of the nation’s independent intellectuals about the fate of democracy. It is far less clear whether they will be smart, effective and adaptable to recover from mental recession and serve a voice of the future. If not, social, gender and intergenerational tension in politics will trigger social movements in an anti-institutional direction. The nation’s image as one of the poorest nations of the world conveys that the national leadership is caught into a moral and intellectual wasteland.
A small group of rival leaders with grand concepts of people’s liberation through either revolution or economic liberalisation, seized the social space of ordinary Nepalis and cut any chance of addressing the unequal balance of wealth through public ownership and its capacity to beat market manipulation. They are the main beneficiaries. A free market can alleviate scarcity, serve a transacting place for the balance of demand and supply and enable citizens compete on distinctly defined rules and norms if each of them has knowledge, information and resources.
Yet, Nepal’s skewed corporate governance defined by fragile regulatory system, huge unsettled accounts, hazy auditing standards, inadequate protection of small shareholders and feeble integrity system has made access to private investment capital deficient to lift the Nepalis out of poverty. A need to restore public morality in leaders for good governance entails the reconciliation of the principle of social justice with the legitimate political order. This is vital at a time when tax payers of the donor countries demand better accountability in the delivery of development aid and demand of Nepali policy makers for its alignment with national priorities.
Nepali critical mass openly echoes that Nepali leaders are too feudalistic, patronage based and partisan to do justice to the poor. Public authorities face a sense of impotence or join the privileged group for their selfish interests relating themselves less to the value of politics as a public sphere even if the spirit of constitution and institutions face strains in the future. Without economic security, political freedom turns elusive. Majority of the Nepalis finds the decoupling of political economy from ethics. It cuts the sense of common good.
Democratic stability rests on the sound performance of the economy and the realisation of the right to work and livelihood, within a framework of social contract. Without these, they will be dependent on others, unable to relish sovereign choice. Dependency culture converts the political imperative of democracy into a legal, formal one and consumes its élan vital. Massive migration of youth from the rural to the urban areas continues to evacuate the critical change agents of society while migration abroad in search of better jobs has cut their aspiration to live together and share the same sovereignty.
Democracy has bearing both for the internal life of political parties and the process of social modernisation. The later abolishes hereditary privilege in public life and public policy. The former embodies the social inclusion, civic education and citizen participation. When the value of state membership or citizenship becomes higher than the party one, it projects Nepal’s civilised identity. An identity which is exclusive reinforces a culture of aggressive behaviour among the newly activated citizens triggering rage and revolt, the deadliest foes of democracy. Nepali civil society with their dense web of ties must hone capacity to mediate knowledge, interests, wealth and power and avoid the risk of extremism that punishes the weak.
Ironically, Nepali leaders who have a glorious ancestry rooted in the nation’s democratic struggle, has lost its course incubating a “new class” and its increasing convergence with the predators, bichaulias and comprador class. It has succeeded in stitching the professional bodies, auxiliary bodies of parties and business into an enforced political consensus and narrowed the social base of civic politics. No single political formation has been left untouched by kleptocratic and clientalist networks. The partisan press gives venomous expression to this sordid fact and pulling Nepalis towards a political culture of conformism, submissive behaviour to leaders and succumbing to a world-view shaped not by them but by others.

Leaders’ receptivity
Democratic success in Nepal depends on the receptivity of leaders to popular will. The sense of trustworthiness in other parties is a crucial aspect of civic culture. Yet, lack of interpersonal trust among leaders has subsumed a danger of frequent change of loyalty causing instability at the level of political parties, government, polity and the state and their negative effects for citizens, civil society and business. Increasing the accountability of leaders towards citizens is one option to remedy political ills, while building the institutional culture of polity is another. Still, reform in the social conservatism is another area.
A greater prosperity for good life is what exactly many Nepalis hope for their future. A political culture whose civility is in question would be an enormous liability at a time when private money plays an influential role in public affairs. What is desired for health and happiness of Nepalis is the renewal of public spirits and buttress social justice, social contract and caring culture for human rights for they overcome politics of attrition and offer shared background for progress.

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