Sunday, 24 October, 2021

Breaking The Sluggish Politics

Dev Raj Dahal   

The coalition government, led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, has a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives. It controls the government of all the provinces. But three factors are troubling him to make the government take full shape and acquire longevity. First, the opposition CPN-UML outnumbers each of the components of the coalition in the parliament and stokes the spike of outrage and brawl. Second, the persistent suspicion of the official political and legal circles about the party-related ordinance is traversing the common political landscape. It is fuelling anxiety and widening perspectives of coalition members on domestic and foreign policy issues.

Third, the phenomenal rise of anti-establishment demos and left out forces is challenging the social contract and emitting a powerful drag in politics. Nepal’s party apparatchiks claiming to represent citizens now increasingly find a drain of their energy and vitality in transitional politics: many got alienated from their ideologies, others stifled in the electoral base, still others limped and appeared destined to rot in leadership clatter.  Yet their fans are struggling to revamp gone images and relinking with electorates.

Old mindset
The old mindset of Nepali leaders and civil society to invite external solidarity for regime change, survival and stability has engendered an asphyxiating web roping national politics into a wider scale of geopolitics, difficult to untangle and escape the shadow of gravity and attributional affinity. It has restricted the ability and power of elected leaders in the government and testing the passion of Nepalis with high expectations which in no way is finding a lid. The dissolution of most of the institutions of democracy into partisan politics and unconstitutional circumstances are threatening the civility of the nation’s public political culture. Incentives for power-sharing for opposition made it powerless to engage in offering alternative public policies and perform its dharma of retaining democratic dynamic.

The strong opposition to political power is provided by urban areas as they possess most of critical mass of change agents and glitter of modernity such as educational institutions, surplus money, communication grid, rosy glow of super markets, banks, INGOs, IT clubs, cultural programmes and international deterrence against the use of force, etc. One can also notice the protests of Nepal’s vast social scale, such as peasants, Guthis and cultural associations, environmental groups, newly formed civil society and the media articulating in the public sphere for correct policy and decisions in matters of public good and offering the promise of political renewal.
All of political movements in Nepal have two common features: enlargement of the size of leaders and a semblance of certain institutional engineering to fit the size. But they did not alter the political culture of the nation for a fear of spin of revenge and reprisal glowed by the nation’s throbbing history. The continuity of the centralisation of authority has marred democratic decentralisation and shared imperative for nation-building. One can also see the continuity of Nepal’s irrational caricature of all kinds of alien development paradigms including the latest neoliberal one regardless of national utility.

This anti-state neo-liberal policy mustered the consent of both the right and the left for it promised regime change, shifted power balance from territorial state to globalised market, transformed society from caste to class and economy from the real to symbolic one where only the skilled, educated and politically connected can benefit. Freedom of market from the Nepali state has weakened the role of the economy in keeping ecological resilience, managing a huge pool of workers in productive sectors, fostering social cohesion and stability of democratic institutions. It has spurred a counterrevolution against the Nepali constitution’s egalitarian promise of democracy and fostered a society of consumers which no longer produces.

The rash privatisation transferred public wealth into the private hands, cut the economic foundation of Nepali state and turned the poor youths disposable ready to be conscripted by eagerly waiting manpower companies, easing their migration to the international labour market and reaping remittance. The tide of Nepali youths’ migration is interpreted by policy makers as an economic boon. They hardly calculate the political, social and psychological costs for the nation’s future. The outsourcing of Nepali government’s economic functions to business, NGOs, civil society, local bodies, community organisations and even INGOs in a climate of partisan control did not bear expected results as many of their agenda, finance and implementation agencies failed to function in an impartial manner while others only issued critical commentary on the nations’ social and cultural capital as backward.

Many of them have inserted a toxic heap of rubbles in the political economy such as corruption, tax-evasion, clientelism, familism and network-based activities, not contributing to empowering the poor and fostering national cohesion. The Constitution of Nepal promises to pool collective wealth of the nation to build a just society and protect shattered lives from poverty, violence, earthquake and other natural calamities and pandemic. This promise has provided a leftward surge in politics for some time but soon petered out with leadership opportunism, partisan pummelling ram, mutual indictments about the infidelity of each other and the public thus leading to their vertical splits.  In Nepal, varied political parties do not represent diverse ideology, social groups or alternative policy platforms for citizens at multi-scale governance in matters of production, investment, business and finance to address popular demands from below.

They are acting in the interest of leaders representing certain factions in the parties. It has, therefore, delayed social transformation. They also lacked skill and competency for stellar performance and set the common direction of the nation for the synergy of business, civil society, community, polity and the state. Yet, they occupy all these realms and generate classic conflict of interests. Do Nepali parties’ matter for policy innovation and policy alternatives? Perhaps not, this is the unfortunate consequences of the nation’s lack of balanced and sustainable progress. The economic costs of adversarial politics are enormous. The neo-liberal consensus, socialism, welfare state, adversarial politics and the living condition generate only a bundle of contradictions. They are less conducive for either political stability or constructive change.  

The democratic enthusiasm of youth in the Nepali Congress, CPN-UML, Communist Party of Nepal - Unified Socialist, Janata Samajbadi Party and Loktantrik Socialist Party has increased the pressure on top leadership to imbibe inter-generational change. It is caused by the democratisation of society, growing political awareness, electoral participation, education and media exposure. But lack of democratisation in the inner life of parties has bred a tension with the social movement forces, civil society and attentive public. Nepalis’ keen desire for leaders’ worthy of current time feed powerful impetus to youths for generational representation in leadership. 

Their aspirational cognition and orientation have incubated the need for participant political culture. This tension, however, does not ensure the predictability of Nepali politics for a kind of political stability, but only a lingering stasis. Juergen Habermas’ conceptualisation of two kinds of crises which are also gripping Nepal are: “rationality crisis” owing to the lack of inclusive and broad-based development so that citizens become stakeholders of democracy and “legitimation crisis” when elections alone do not hold the loyalty of citizens as they expect better performance of government than previous undemocratic regimes.
In this context, the role of Nepali state lies in the mediation of overaccumulation of power and wealth by certain classes of elites but also to protect the dynamic sector of the economy from radical versions of redistributive struggle. Political legitimacy creates stability necessary for internal and foreign investment, growth and needs satisfaction, prevents massive capital flight and eases export promotion.   

Nepal has turned into a guinea pig of borrowed development theories, with no creative roles for planners but only to adapt, economists only rationalise and ordinary citizens only bearing the burden of their failures. Progress requires critical reflection, utility, indigenisation and favourable outcomes for citizens. The nation thus found its life shattered with external experiments and tormented their indigenous knowledge, experience and wisdom refined by their history of enlightenment and reforms. Nepal’s polity and development process can only become sustainable if the operation of their authority, order and discipline incur fewer costs for citizens than the opportunity, advantages, participation and ownership offered. 

Unfulfilled constitutional rights and needs and increasing burdens of debt and irresponsibility can engender alienation, deprivation and centrifugal tendencies in this once unified nation. Democracy tolerates the individual citizens’ pursuit of rational self-interests, freedoms and rights which they do so by weighing costs, benefits and consequences but also expects them to fulfil constitutional duties for security, freedom, public order, collective good and reciprocity. It helps the Nepali state to control free-riders, deeply affecting its polity. So long as Nepali policy and decision makers are not accountable to their decisions and actions this problem will linger. 
Only informed, active, moderate and rational citizens with the aid of education of civil society and cultural industries can contribute to shape democratic political culture of accountability of leaders. Otherwise, what George Orwell says, “We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fit you with ourselves” might animate.

Rumbling rivalry
Nepal’s mixed election system has eased elite space from many sub-groups of society but it fragmented legislature and drifted politics to pre-modern political culture of low cognition, affinity and judgmental ability. Patronage, cronyism and familism validate low attachment of citizens to the polity and impartial performance. Its implication for leadership development is huge. Despite Nepal’s parliamentary facade it resembles American politics. Citizens stress more on individual leaders, not institutions of the state, polity and political parties or their programmes.  One can see two broad effects: polity is faltering at provincial and local level owing to the disintegration of big parties and shifting coalition politics while great powers’ geopolitics has gripped the federal state’s temptation to indulge in their rumbling rivalry, not seeking a balancing art.

The regional and global order seems more competitive, not cooperative which is vital to the solution of technological, capital and connectivity lags. Yet, their pressure on Nepali leadership for diverse geopolitical interests even risks polarising politics to the point of breaking the coalition. The outcomes of the widening scale of politics are: a vegetative state, infantile democracy, shackled politics with no policy choice for citizens in the party competition in the elections except in styles and weary citizens exhausted by a series of political struggles.  Win-win diplomacy requires reasserting national vision, building national consensus and performing a balancing act in the geostrategic shift and demonstrating national resolve and perseverance for articulation.  

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