Monday, 6 December, 2021

Democracy Needs Civic Competence

Dev Raj Dahal


Civic competence is measured by a great amount of self-awakening of citizens, their degree of politicisation and sense of confidence that their voting and participatory actions affect the course of decision-making in the polity. The cognitive and affective traits structure a set of expressive characteristics that enable citizens and leaders to weave each other together, act responsibly and interact peacefully in a non-sectarian way. Obviously, civic refers to the ethics of common good which is gained by shared duties and sacrifice of citizens and leaders. Common good is a good of all, not those of the majority only. It is beneficial to all citizens irrespective of their class, caste or gender distinctions, helps surmount generational powerlessness and build national identity.
Life-saving and life-enhancing innovations in technology, education and economy have made it possible to improve the living standards of citizens. Nepali citizens too require skill to adapt to modern society and harness natural, human and cultural potential of the nation. They can achieve the goals of the constitution by forging social solidarity at multi-scale. Solidarity for education is emancipatory in nature. Civic spirit and sensibility enables even the wretched members of Nepali society to get things done in public and national interests, prevents the political and social polarisation and improves group collaboration.

Active citizenship
A modern democracy can flourish only when active, not passive, apathetic and alienated, citizens blossom in size, know their constitutional and human rights and duties, find meaningful choice and acquire know-how to engage in public affairs so that their voice is heard and listened to. The constitution deems Nepali citizens sovereign. Now, their sovereignty is confined to voting only. If they don’t know its full meaning and link it to practice their past becomes their future. To reshape new future, attentive citizens need to critically reflect and analyse the condition of their living, cultivate inner life for building community, discover educational and institutional resources to improve it and actively engage in a politics of hope.
This, however, requires Nepali citizens and leaders to cultivate civic virtues whereby both can tend democratic attitudes, dispositions, honesty, sincerity and trustworthiness of character on which traits an egalitarian society envisaged by the constitution is nourished. The peaceful struggle of Nepalis to chart their own destiny in the private and the public realms remains unfinished. It is a struggle to revitalise Nepali democracy more vibrant, allow its legitimacy to flourish and minimise the scale of irrational inter-personal, inter-institutional and international conflicts by fostering the rationality of reciprocity and cooperation. So long as the poor, women and youth of Nepal do not find justice in the system, they cannot build competence in finding a more suitable and satisfying role in democracy.
A more satisfying role hones their abiding belief that the polity responds to their needs, rights, demands, aspirations and opinions. The constitution has framed social justice. Yet, public policies are yet to be formulated to realise it and remove their anxiety spiral, whet self-mastery and boost their clout in making them actionable and justiciable. Civic competence thrives on the ability of Nepalis to judge the operation of political power and public institutions through the application of critical reason and wisdom and subdue habit-driven attitude, primitive passion and false prejudices of all sorts unfavourable to their freedom. To David Brooks, “wisdom emerges out of a collection of intellectual virtues.”
The intensity of right-based political awareness in Nepal has amplified. So does the explosion of their institutions combining shared feeling, passion, reason and collective action. But this is not a mark of active citizenship and their ability to influence the outcome of politics. Many of them are small group-identity oriented and lack the stamina for a large scale collective national action. Maturity of national citizenship can make them reflective which goes beyond vocational education essential for career path and technocratic efficiency for a comfortable life. Education for civic competence departs from this even indoctrination because the later creates a herd mentality with homogenised thinking and corresponding action -- rational or irrational. This weakens the fabric of democracy.
By contrast, civic competence flourishes the skill and aptitude of Nepalis to pursue public good and civic obligations underlined in the constitution such as protection of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and patriotism, abide by the laws and constitution, provide service to the nation when required and protect public property. Nepali political parties, civil society and schools have to provide citizenship education as a lifelong learning process so that they become productive in practical life and their partisan attachment does not undermine loyalty to the nation. It links public education to democracy and enables them to think critically beyond paying tax, voting, abiding by the rule of law, serving the needy and establishing national identity.
It helps acquire democratic cognition, values, skills, knowledge, attitude and disposition necessary for constructive participation in the community, society and the nation, experience the meaning of the world and muster courage to change it for better where the state balances what Michael J. Sandel calls all three ways of the distribution of goods “welfare, freedom and virtue.” Engaging Nepalis all levels of governance in the political process and vital issues of the nation fosters a participatory civic culture. Positive attitude about democracy and knowledge and skills necessary to participate in it are critical factors to stabilise it consistent with civic culture of tolerance to opposing views and resolving problems through dialogue and compromise of interests.
In a way, it is like mastering a subject, using the knowledge competence acquired in practical life and becoming successful and useful member of society. Equipping Nepalis with civic skills to fully engage in the multi-dimensional nation building process based on democratic concepts and structures and a loyalty to the rules of civility help overcome natural selection. Political socialisation can be helpful to evolve social instinct but it has to do with the possibility of adapting and changing the political reality which in no way is simple. Entrepreneurial competence is needed. It can contribute to enhance and maintain the citizenship norms and evolve informed, participatory attitudes. A cultured society is the one in which physical force whether party-driven or market-based is banished from human relations and fairness outweighs the force.
The concertation of large-scale voluntary political action in Nepal has always been successful as compared to class action. Voter turnout in Nepal has increased to over 70 per cent. Invalid voting needs to be minimised through a strong dose of civic education. Associational revolution of community forestry, irrigation, local bodies, cooperatives, unions, etc. have reshaped public policies while the spirit of social inclusion and proportional representation have enlisted Dalits, women, Janajatis, Aadibasis, backward society, Madhesis, even micro minorities in public institutions thus expanding the social base of Nepali politics.
Their social movements have been successful to mould policies in their favour. Law of group rights embedded in constitution and their corresponding national commissions have further widened their participation in governing institutions. But in no way it is a mark of their increased civic competence. They are engaged in a social struggle to realise their full constitutional rights to freedom, justice and recognition and waiting for their inclusion in decision-making spheres of political parties, administration and the state. There are a myriad of daily protests outside the political framework of parties. Social media have helped each citizen with means to communicate to leaders, struggle for competitive attention and supply complex feedbacks. The channel of communication between the public and public officials provides the passage of information establishing Nepali citizens’ constitutional right to know and engage in public action.
For the activation of passive citizens voters’ information was undertaken by the Election Commission of Nepal and a myriad of NGOs and human rights organisation. Civic education enable Nepali citizens to shape their preference, think, decide, question and articulate their free choice and know the meaning of rational voting and the weight of their vote in leadership selection who are responsive to them. The outreach of political parties to voters in remote and mountainous areas is difficult owing to scattered settlement of population and inaccessibility to civic resources, media, transportation and communication.

New ethics
In this context, how Nepali citizens can build their competence to influence decisions of the various levels of public and private institutions, what self means for them and how a passion for civility strengthens democratic ideals and institutions in the nation and resolves their problems are fields of critical inquiry. Robert B. Reich argues for the establishment of the “new ethic of leadership based on trusteeship.” Society cannot be democratic if citizens and their leaders together do not engage in fighting social vices of hunger, unemployment, ignorance, discrimination, pandemic and ecological crises. Since citizens are sovereign, they are responsible for the removal of vices and misfortune they confront and change the society they live in making democracy resilient.

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