Dev Raj Dahal
Civil society groups in Nepal constitute a bewildering array of institutions, networks and movements of citizens formed to defend their collective values, interests and culture. One critical point made in the recent declaration of civil society is that of the domination of partiocracy on every sphere of public life. It is rooted in parochial interest, distribution of state resources to clients and undue accumulation incurring threats to national progress and fledgling democracy. It finds the failure of political parties to create civic culture of constitutionalism and cry out for restoring citizens’ supremacy, fulfilment of their right, struggle for social justice to solve the problems of downtrodden and eternal spirit of inquiry beyond the restoration of dissolved House of Representatives.
The sovereignty of Nepalis embedded in the Constitution of Nepal presumes the re-appearance of citizens in the face of crisis of politics, government and the political system. It is a value crisis based on traditional politics of sam (persuasion), dam (money), danda (punishment) and bhed (division) and its aversion by the modern spirits of civil society, such as transparency, trust and cooperative action seeking the ownership of citizens in the political process and constant democratic oversight of the parliamentary debates.
The roles of autonomous Nepali civil society lay in propelling a shift from utility to charity, impersonality to empathy to each other and culturally ignorant to enlightenment. They are stimulating public demand for good governance and seeking to arrest a drift to restlessness of political parties, interest groups, media, professional organisations and social groups so that they can find a just settlement in an inclusive national dialogue, a coherent roadmap for the unity of the nation and democratic stability in the middle path. The populist propensity of many of these forces renounces individual autonomy of citizen to an amorphous and agitated crowd and facilitates the control of self by others, not self-determination.
The web of ties of partisan civil society groups indulged in hatred of the other are consuming their own virtues and enervating their rivals, not enlarging the value education of homo cogitans for the rational contestation of ideas about good life. In this context, the exigency of newly bubbled up Nepali civil society are to draw rules, resources, members and activities with citizens for their enduring relevance, functionality and sustainability. It is essential to spur the goodwill of citizens, revitalise the integrity of political parties and bring derailed politics back to democratic, constitutional track.
The frequent de-composition of elite civil society of Nepal by projects, parties, government and the materiality of geopolitics in the past has questioned their credibility, energy and grand narrative for unfriendly regime change. Their division, dissolution and disappearance are marked by their low steam now, members’ cohabitation into governmental power, superfluous roles during great quake and pandemic and selective defence of general issues upholding a sort of political correctness. The social capital they generated in previous agitations is drained now for they were overwhelmed by a series of stirs of social forces such as Madhesis, Janajatis, Aadibasis, Dalits, backward society, Muslims, Chepangs and even Badis, demanding the transformation of public sphere.
Likewise, their utilisation in projects for the promotion of democracy, development, human rights, good governance, upliftment of women and the marginalised and social transformation without reflecting indigenous knowledge, norms and culture cut their transformatory impulse and reduced them into an incubator of instrumental politics, not higher values of life. Native civil society groups such as Guthis and a series of philanthropic ones working for widows, children, the elderly and the disabled evolved from Nepal’s cultural industries and organic in origin sustain resilience yet they maintain a break from those bonded from outside or aligned with party politics. Others are weakening parties through the formation of caucus groups, lobby and pressure point networks for sectoral interest satisfaction.
Only those citizenship-based are struggling for democratisation, inclusiveness and accountability of governing institutions. To restore credit-worthiness newly blossomed civil society from the chrysalis of crises need rethinking and reconnection with the needs, rights and concerns of the public, demarcate self from other institutions such as NGOs, INGOs, cooperatives and business whose activities are confined to mutually negotiated mandate with the state and operate in limited areas of project implementation. They can complement the native civil society in their myriad of social works and strengthen value-based politics. One general problem of Nepali civil society is their inability to learn from citizens’ practical experience, their dialogical methods and rational social practices that are useful for social modernisation of Nepali society and provide spur to endogenous mode of social change and progress.
Civil society’s affiliation with international community with the universal values of freedom, equality, justice and peace do not amount to delink from native wisdom. They can be utilised to standardise national values, institutions and policies. Socialisation, in this sense, means learning to be rational and imbibing connections with humanity. It is a tendency to become spiritual which is the springboard of Nepali nation and its dharma-driven civil society engaged in niskam karma, selfless service, education, organisation, innovation and delivery of public goods to the needy. Civil society groups are aspirational, grounded in emancipation and operate under the canon of universal reason and virtuous public action enriched by its own native wisdom, public discourse and oneness of life-world.
Juergen Habermas argues, “Freedom from tradition is often experienced as alienation from the moral context of life.” One finds the nation enmeshed in excessive cognitive, policy and institutional dependency, conflict residues awaiting transitional justice, emigration of youth and restlessness of subsidiary identity politics devoid of the feeling of citizenship.
Obviously, the centrality of social activism of civil society in Nepal is to restore the sanctity of human life within democratic frame and see the future in terms of well resolved national problems. This means civil society needs to evolve from the organic process of society so that it can contribute to endure democracy’s equilibrium, dynamism and stability based on the weight of public opinion and power of reason.
The new social formation of civil society expects the redefinition of relationship of domination by political parties over followers, cadres and ordinary people to their citizenship equality. The activism of associational life of Nepali civil society, driven by modern values of human rights, justice and peace with technological tools can perform democratic functions and introduce contemporary issues for reasoned debate, public attention and legitimate action. But the capacity of Nepali civil society to interpret and change the national condition of uncertainty citizens live by rests on their unity of action, not fragmentation. It requires them to protect the personal life of every citizen from the domination of impersonal system of the market, polity and international regime, incubate social struggles around the issues of intimacy and help improve life of ordinary Nepalis better than before.
Alexis de Tocqueville claims that a vibrant democracy requires a strong measure of public-spiritedness of citizens able to cultivate virtues, act together to prepare good laws and realise their personal choice without undermining public interests. He says that exclusive individualism saps the civic virtues vital for participation in public life. The passion for self-love, instinct for self-preservation, or private pursuit is not often evil. It is the drive for freedom, competition, innovation, creativity and self-actualisation situating self in the ethical and political universe. The credo of personal amounting political is acquiring salience now at a time when populism, fundamentalism and identity politics tend to cripple the spirit of modernity couched in autonomy of citizenship and public sphere.
To be sure, instrumental rationality devalues democratic condition and cares little about the rational collective life. The productive use of individual creativity in society generates new type of sociability essential to mediate the class, caste, gender and income divisions in Nepali society. The rationalisation of Nepali society can link citizens to the public sphere to debate on the realisation of their rights, perform duties and secure solidarity for collective action on the mitigation of major issues they confront in everyday life. Community, deliberative village life, civil society and local party offices in Nepal are the training centres for youth leadership for workplace and local self-governance, leadership capable of balancing technical questions of planning, management and resources dispensation, catalysts of social change aiming to remove the vices and political questions of democratic debate, participation and decision making.
These factors help advance the maturation of modern institutions conforming the changing ecological, social, economic and technological circumstances of post-traditional world. Local civil society driven by enlightened citizens can shift the nature of centralised Nepali politics based on corporate bargaining among organised interests of powerful leaders of political parties which by no means is democratic if the voices of dissenting, marginal, poor, women, Dalits and minorities are not levelled up. It only marks the refeudalisation of the public sphere of politics which is a sphere of equality, freedom and rights realisation.
The great challenge for Nepali civil society is how to create an egalitarian society envisaged in the constitution with unequal abilities of citizens. Are social and economic policies sufficient for this? How can Nepalis move from social, economic and political determinism of life to a free world of democracy without reforming pre-existing realities? Any move from this condition requires joining vibrant public sphere of civil society where they can participate in the public issues with different perspectives, seek resolution of problematic condition and blend local knowledge and social sciences for guidance to public policies.
Ironically, when political sphere is turned exclusively into power and wealth-seeking realms of powerful leaders, it does not foster a life of freedom where Nepalis transcend their self, primordial and economic interests and identities for a common national identity and chart a collective vision for the future. The reason is that each successful political movement of Nepal is backed by civic activism of civil society. Yet, when the political stir triumphed and leaders rose to power they left the critical mass of civil society, social forces and social movements in the lurch which prompted them to recharge their batteries to realise unfinished project of democracy consolidation and fill the moral void of politics.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)
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