Dev Raj Dahal
The spread of coronavirus all over the world has revived the imperative of welfare state as defining political order of society to address the effects of chronic public health crisis and its attendant consequences on scarcity of resources to tackle poverty, unemployment, inequality, marginalisation, increasing disaffection and national dysfunction. These problems cannot be resolved by coping with individual issues in isolation. Welfare-based political order is presumed on the regulation of human life and institutions through laws and constitution and correct disposition of diverse actors with dissimilar interests and values, rules and processes which leaders and citizens habitually comply as binding for its utility to attain stable life. The refreshing aspect of welfare state lies in its class, caste and gender-bridging political strategy.
It, therefore, relies on progressive tax, investment on infrastructure projects, production and distribution of essential public goods to society and uplifts the weaker parts of population without undermining individual choice, creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. Nepal, however, needs to boost reforms in state-owned institutions to increase their autonomy and efficiency enabling it to coordinate autonomous centres of power so that they can function in an impersonal, accountable and transparent manner. It empowers Nepalis to exercise their abilities and sacredness of conscience.
The new welfare politics of Nepal has inverted the left-right divide into top-bottom, politicised many non-political areas and eroded the efficacy of ideology as a basis of social solidarity. Right to work, education, health, social security, social protection, positive discrimination, gender equality, etc., incorporated in the constitution, are designed to address the problems of bottom of society. Yet, these measures are pain relieving, not durable cure, unless Nepali leadership enhances the productive capacity of economy, expand internal labour market and constitute social justice as the foundation of political order and social peace. Otherwise, in an imperfect market like Nepal’s, the predominant culture of economic rents can easily distort competition, reward the powerful and weaken the dynamism of internal labour market opportunity.
Obviously, in the absence of ethical practices, business has tendency to evade tax, reduce labour cost and increase capital gain regardless of its consequences for the eternal rhythm of nature and social life of the wretched. On the contrary, the feebleness of institutional political order adds burden in doing business and mars the creation of business friendly environment. One can see beneath the surface of current discontent in Nepal is desperate need of the government and the state to help citizens stem health and livelihood problems.
The scale of economic loss due to lockdown is mounting at a time when new political coalitions built on non-ideological lines are adding steam to political contradictions and widespread resentments. The elevation of political class of all hues into elite status offers no policy choice for citizens buffeted by free ride of interest groups. The increasing synchronisation of Nepali political parties into common policy regime, their fluidity including leadership bent on tit-for-tat strategy causing party split and expediency have fragmented the public sphere for critical debates on policy issues, homogenised their economic thinking and allowed top leaders to decide many matters of public and political concerns beyond the principle of subsidiarity and institutional choice.
Yet, ordinary Nepalis are nostalgic of economic equality and constitutional vision of the creation of an egalitarian society. Some radical political parties caught in ideological straitjacket are too small for political integration of diverse Nepali society while those mainstream parties baptised into catch-all type are losing their focused constituency underlined during the party formation and lost their utopia to inspire cadres and voters veering towards free-floating personality figures. Their technocratic turn on the rollback of Nepali state in the past is shifting now to expanded roles in welfare vital to oil the wheels of everyday life.
The old psychology of deeming history, culture and religion as barriers to progress frighteningly lingers. Douglas North argues, “History matters. It matters not just because we can learn from the past, but because the present and the future are connected to the past by the continuity of a society’s institutions.” Forgetting the history means Nepal’s future will be continuously plagued by unresolved problems of the present fuelling the stir of masses even if leadership arises from legal-rational legitimacy of election. The crucial policy question is how leadership performs and evolves civic culture conducive to democratic order.
For long, it was difficult to create stable political order in Nepal under unregulated economic competition, monopoly and syndicate where interest groups became the primary beneficiaries with no stake of ordinary citizens in the polity. They, therefore, celebrated regime change of all types - democratic and authoritarian. Political leadership, advised by technocrats and driven by immorality of market logic of transforming every social goods into marketable commodities, constrained the fulfilment of human needs, skewed the operation of the public institutions of enlightenment, basic health, job creation, etc. As a result, rules of conduct and satisfaction of role expectation remain hard.
Nepal is now facing challenges in the sources of its political power such as weak parliament, fragmentation of political parties, polarised media and a large number of citizens expecting better opportunity to escape from political protests, anomie, disorder, political instability and economic uncertainty. This condition imposes difficulty for the social control of politics and fulfils national vision of reducing external dependency unburdened by debt, trade and budget deficits for self-reliant development. The links among production, citizenship, the state and world order are direct. Therefore, stable democratic order entails the mobilisation of centripetal forces of Nepali society. It averts polarising nature of geopolitics.
Partisanisation, not contextual awareness and public-spiritedness, is resonant in national politics of polarity between the ruling regime and combined opposition and others in between. Trust deficits provide the reason for the corrosion of public order. Political activities of all sides are less governed by formal rules. Excessive litigation in the court weakens the sovereignty of legislative power of citizens while resource endowment, freedom of association and freedom of contract provide opportunity to renegotiate political order and restructure political power. The legitimacy of institutions and authority of leadership in Nepali society cannot remain stable so long as political movements, social struggles for recognition and change often seek reordering of political life.
A stable political order presupposes at least a rough balance between power of Nepali state to impose authority and social capital for its compliance setting scope for mutual obligations. A highly unequal society is more anguished and less resilient for progress while circumscribed role of state institutions cannot balance and mediate diverse interests of society necessary for disciplining, devolving and balancing political power and wealth vital to cultivate stable political order and enable political structures to adapt to changing conditions of society.
Democratic political order requires putting public goods such as environment, education, health care, employment, security and rule of law in the domain of utility maximisation for the Nepali society as a whole. Unemployment uproots the security of individuals, affronts their dignity and alienates them from their responsibility to families and communities. Social cohesion and political freedom cannot be sacrificed for economic competitiveness in the market place. Doing so would erode the legitimacy of politics to shape inclusive public policy.
Within the welfare state it is the responsibility of the public institutions to provide essential services and greater good for the whole of population where private sector, civil society and cooperatives can complement in worthwhile welfare initiatives so as to draw the loyalty of citizens to democratic political order. The increased attractiveness of international investors can help to harness its rich natural resource potential, youth population, cultural and natural diversity and hospitable population. Proper utilisation of the nations’ resources and integrity of leadership help legally institutionalise democratic politics.
Ironically, the surge of pre-modern politics in a multi-cultural society of Nepal has excited conformist craziness and fostered traditional form of solidarity, emotional fulfilment of groups rights and group-based citizenship opportunity, not modern individual citizenship rights seeking national fulfilment, de-traditinalisation of society and building solidarity on the basis of public-private cooperation, constitutional affinity and cosmopolitan aspirations of emancipation. Cultivation of democratic capacity of Nepalis is essential to turn them into attentive and active citizens able to control manufactured political uncertainty and attain security, self-dignity, and self-fulfilment, realise sovereignty, repair their civic solidarity and engage in crafting democratic political order.
The spirit of Nepal’s constitution is premised on right-based, demand-driven, inclusive and participatory democracy at all levels of community from the village, national, regional to global sphere backed by a vibrant public sphere that breeds self-aware, non-conformist, reflective political culture, a culture, not determined by any kind of coercive monopoly, necessity and unreasonable institutional constraints to their social mobility and freedom.
Only then a common concern with public good can generate welfare political conditions for Nepalis to articulate beyond instrumental knowledge of experts who know no concept of constitutional rights of citizens implying mutual recognition, not intellectual domination and suppression of their shared experience and their sovereignty in self-governance. A modicum of democratic political order in Nepal can be fixed in the timeless ethos of middle path that mediates the top with the bottom of society, averts extremism of all types and overcomes a raft of vested interests thus enabling citizens to use their ideas, interests, preference and judgments and reap equal democratic dividends.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)
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