Monday, 6 December, 2021

Cost Of Personality Cult

Dev Raj Dahal     


Several political struggles for freedom, justice and peace have spurred the growth of critical awareness of democracy and human rights among Nepali people while detonating a flurry of people’s institutions, NGOs, civil society, citizen activism and solidarity. They have allowed intellectual and media enough freedom to monitor the performance of the government, leaders political parties and business. But the electric charge toward democracy of all those contaminated voices who had granted decades of faithful service to authoritarian leaders implied that Nepali politics will continue to pivot around the old style of personality cult, not new values, vision and institutions, despite the novel provisions of social inclusion, representation and recognition of identities.
The despicable gambits of personality cult in Nepali leadership is eased by their ability to find escape route from their promises, organise party split, subdue its discipline, create crack in collective leadership and criticise anything others do while defending the same practices in one’s own. As Nepali citizens expected no remorse from their misdeeds, the new polity is pulling the antiquated sores into the nation’s future. It is breeding what Colin Campbell calls “cultic milieu,” for oppositional counter culture of strange bedfellows organised into mini movements of radicals, feminists, gays, and ethnic, tribal, anti-globalisation, identity and caucus groups in the parties and parliament seeking to influence policy. This shows that the political education fostered by Nepal Communist Party, Nepali Congress, Janata Samajbadi Party, Rastriya Prajatantra Party, etc. and the stuff they employ cannot break this sub-cultural style favourable to brew national civic culture. 

Idealised self-image
Top leaders have cultivated the cultic personality using factions of political parties, fragmented polity, technique of media, rhetoric, display, nationalism and rallies to create an idealised self-image while demonising the others. Why did this old habits repeat? First, the continuity of the same leaders made the operation of old culture of bickering and back-stabbing certain; second, behind abstract dogmas and ideas their instinct for power remained intransigent; third, party gerontocracy that evolved certain egoistic attitude did not change the old style, temper and manner of governance and harness common purpose and lastly, the new regime they created did not come to terms with the dreadful episode of history through transitional justice.
This contributed to the growth of a culture of personality cult, the cult of leader-for-life, around which party cadres and followers vertically hang around opening mutual accusation, not accountability to political power, the trust of Nepalis. Nepali politics has seen the company of opposites and frequent standoff allowing two forces eternally fight back: the forces of reaction aiming to pull the wheels of regime backward and forces of radicalism aiming to push the wheels of regime further to vague direction. Personality cult in Nepal’s every political party transcends the public institutions and poses the crisis in collective leadership. It is marked by a weak boundary between personal and official and capitalisation of the public goodwill for personal service thus leaving party system and democracy frail.
Cultism thrives where the rule of law is weak and family-friendly politics strong. It defines ideology for its group association, doles out the spoils to cohorts and sets the political and development processes in a zero-sum style thus straining the delivery of public service. Only institutional culture can provide Nepali politics predictability of leaders’ behaviour, authority and information to shape strategy for pubic action affirming the weight of transparency and accountability and tying the top with the bottom animating their vibrant civic engagements in the productive activities. Nepalis’ struggle to fulfil livelihoods, national identity, outreach of welfare state and social integration are tales of baffling inaptness. Strong feeling of citizenship is a key to set state-polity-citizens interface and transform its patrimonial political culture into a civic, participant one. This makes Nepalis capable of exercising the sovereignty granted by the constitution.
Cultic personality means severe institutional rot beyond constitutional mandate. The instinct and ambition of most of Nepali leaders indicate a penchant for familistic, paternalistic and clientilistic trend, not democratic behaviour. It shuts the option for alternative leadership and policies. The affinity to cronyism lays bare the de-institutionalisation of parties. The issue of building democratic leadership in Nepal beyond the rituals of elections is strongly felt. So does their democratisation as party cadres and intellectuals are awed by the cultic leaders and succumb to a culture of subservience and rhetoric rather than build a critical sense of inquiry as awakened citizens. Where they are equal none enjoys personal prerogatives superior to others.
Cultic attribute of Nepali politics mirrors a kind of top-down polity less susceptible to the need of ordinary citizens. There are neither well-resourced political schools nor sustained efforts to educate the party cadres and the public in Nepal about the value of popular sovereignty. So does the style of powerful personality who makes social, gender inter-generational equity and representation in governance less cosy. The constant fission and fusion of Nepal’s all parties have spawned segmented leaders where their consensus for power sharing has meant that the differences among them have become indistinct. The impulses of leaders to seek their immediate advantage, not long term planning of common good, means consensus politics in Nepal in no way reveals a pluralistic idiom of a general interest or public opinion but only a fleeting power dispensation.
The consensus of governmental trio - legislative, executive and judiciary branches - for privileges indicate the surge of salaried political class independent of any sense of legitimation, integrity, duty or ethics. It only hints democratic deficits especially an erosion of separation of power and checks and balances existing in the Nepali polity thus opening scope for arbitrary action. This also hurtles a trend towards an increasing centralisation of power, privilege and authority without any sense of public accountability and concerns. Part of the fault lies on citizens themselves who have dithered to detect amoral steps of their leaders at its inception and stand up to it to scoff, not soothe.       
Nepali leaders articulate that there are no permanent friends and foes in politics. Each top leader has a cadre of aids ready to spin out conspiracy theory and suffers like Krishna Ray - a character described by B.P. Koirala in his story “the Enemy” and, consequently, tries to impose his views on others, expose them, does not reflect on his weakness and think how others perceive him. This paranoia - growth of unreasonable fears of other leaders’ manoeuvre to harm them - often harbours enemy image of others and act in a vicious way turning Nepal’s political stability an uphill task. If Nepali leaders do not admit their faults, if they continue to pursue politics without public purpose, in time, they will turn authoritarian.
Democratisation entails the use of democratic principles in the decision-making. In Nepal, a real understanding of accountability and the crucial counterweight of judiciary, media, academia and civil society are yet to evolve. Leaders infringe on the space of watchdog agencies and devalue the purpose of politics to protect weak against strong and serve public interests. The prevailing cultic traits translate Gresham’s law into Nepal’s politics insinuating a drift of honest leaders from their vocation and succumbing to special interest groups. The lethal attitude of leaders is to treat democracy as an “infant” and distrust the people as sovereign. It undermines the power of Nepalis to judge and exercise political choice.
Nepalis, therefore, observe the torrent of luscious words yet they feel that some officials have changed after democracy, press censorship has been lifted and the state has been constitutionalised but the old style cultic leadership of revenge remains untouched. If posterity chooses their heroes from amoral leaders, no system is going to be stabilised. The parliamentary politics of Nepal too reflects deep rifts between the government led by Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli and its own - Nepal Communist Party and between the government and opposition parties mirroring pusillanimous image of the legislators unable to exercise their conscience and the grit of transformative power. Leaders have to give national purpose. Otherwise, national life becomes rudderless lacking historical memories of heroes and builders and the roots of their wise message.

Democratic aspirations
The common hypothesis is that partiocracy nourished by cultic leadership is unsuited to democratic aspiration of Nepalis for a life of freedom, equality and dignity. It is unsuited to values, institutions, dynamics and adaptability of democracy. The lack of identification of some social forces with the constitution and the polity marks the start of a crisis of their loyalty portending an ominous signs to stability and peace. The evils of Nepali politics cannot be removed either by a therapy or lending them to technical solution. They can be solved by bringing politics basics to its public life, establishing rule of law so that corruption, arbitrariness and authoritarianism are reduced, regulatory apparatuses can keep a tab on rogue forces, the institutional capability of the polity is improved making ideology, system and leadership consort civic values and visions so that the health and integrity of the Nepali political process are restored.

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