Wednesday, 19 January, 2022

Democracy Needs Enlightened Citizens

Dev Raj Dahal   

Information revolution marks the beginning of post-modern age but unequal access of citizens to information, commercialisation of information and education and unreasonable control over their flows have augmented a new form of domination of society, not fertilised unfettered freedom for all. These new forms of cultural production have abridged the role of justice, public reason and morality and enlarged the role of informational power in breeding new rituals of truth. It is a truth less grounded in the universality of the state and it’s what Michael Foucault calls “the governmentality”. It has changed the gear to other sources of ideology, actors, coherence and regularity of governance without sufficiently firming the distribution of public good and services to keep a facade of public order that once the state claimed.

It is thus important to build the interface of state and citizens. The endurance of human beings with nature, knowledge and galloping advance in modern information technology has spurred newer types of thinking about politics perfected by not revelation but fresh insight into changing roles of polity, laws, knowledge, norms and future payoffs. Two aspects seem to emerge in the future: the primacy of citizens over the political structures and polity, and necessity of appropriate knowledge to serve them as a golden rule of human action.

Free will
The first provides them right to exercise their free will under law and shapes the political process while the second evolves values that helps exercise free will which is tantamount to natural preference and transcend causal determinism. Democracy is an intricate representative system which seeks optimal level of checks and balances and diffusion of power and intelligence to regulate its condition, control atrophy and make it hospitable for diverse citizens to engage and attain the political purpose of life. The disciplinary knowledge being taught in Nepali colleges and universities focalises particularity of learning to create a disciplined society to affirm certain social division of labour aiming to supply expertise to run effective governance.

But it fails to be a guide to address complex issues and political puzzles pertaining to social emancipation. In this sense, the utility of knowledge to shape power demands Nepalis to excavate its classical tradition that established the sovereignty of knowledge over the rule, power, authority and legitimacy and helped build their capacities, needs, duties and interest so that they would leap self in the stream of productive life. Education links citizens in developing their potential to the greatest extent possible and form enlightened judgment unbounded by coercive power of institutions and leadership.

The onset of democracy in Nepal has built the transformative power of knowledge and sovereignty of citizens. It has entailed leaders to abolish the carapace of feudalism, a relic of naive time that weakened the basic aspects of free life, a life resonating with a sense of dignity. The infusion of modernity, the glitter of enlightenment and human rights, has provided a powerful evocation of life lived close to nature, pride and civic autonomy. Obviously, feudalism despises Nepalis’ desire for self-worth and dulls their power of imagination to reflect and reform rationally on their condition of existence. This imagination is vital to realise freedom and ethical life so that they do not suffer from a lack of material need, morality and suitable living.

The democratic governance does not mean controlling freedom when citizens are fully flushed with an awareness of their constitutional and human rights, capable of freeing their spirits for better future and learning to refuse to compromise electoral choice for trivial gain. Democracy has inspired Nepalis to push for social modernisation and come out of a frozen institutional box of undue party-mindedness of leaders drawing only a chorus of approval and automation-like conformity, not enriching civic virtues, competence and creativity required for democratic evolution, growth and adaptation. Nepalis reclaiming their rights and classical tradition have ceased to be a passive spectator of spiteful spin of leadership and its swapping sides.

They have been exposed to democratic values, virtues and spirits and involved in political struggles, and participated in election many times with the hope that following their success they will have better wellbeing than before and elevate self as equal human person. This awareness would allow knowing the way certain things happen in their favour even if initial condition may be chaotic. Consciousness nourished by inner vigilance is vital to forming identity, integrity and dignity. Nepalis have become participants of events, initiatives and change. Now they demand accountability from their leaders and get them beyond the current political impasse.

Nepal’s classical wisdom has reconciled free will with needs, faith and innate knowledge without losing an imperative of aham asmi, an acute awareness about self-existence in the cosmic way of life. Much of the knowledge about outside world was put in doubt. Scholars sought to refine and contextualise it through an open-ended shastrartha (critical discourse) in public places where everyone could partake, learn, mediate and adapt. The economic turn of Nepali politics now and feudal style of conscription in public institutions mark the decay of sane memory and dawn of envy, political inertia and dysfunctionality of rule.

This feudalism finds solace in three sources: political connection and hereditary chain of leadership, ego-inflation of professional talents divorced from social learning and traditional privileges allied with agriculture, enterprise and bureaucracy. The former two blame the later for being abusive while the later accuse the former of being emotionally separated from the condition of Nepalis’ life. The weight of evidence tells that even the soul-killing market materialism, dialectical materialism, rational planning and social contract did not diminish its shine so as to build democratic community of citizens with equal stake, equal opportunity and agile participation in shared and self-rule.

It can be ascribed to the tenacity of rancorous, not vigorous politics, in Nepal which has accentuated the hitches of building trust of citizens on admin and leadership for the mobilisation of rich social energy, intuition building, organisation of collective action and solution of national and geopolitical problems. Any ignorance to unfolding antagonistic geopolitics risks the nation’s security, stability and progress. Coping with it in Nepal requires keeping abreast of new situation, learning from history, inventing new knowledge and applying a balancing art.

Public reason alone can free leadership from the fearful schisophrenia, paralysing power of fixed mindsets of policy makers and citizens’ increasing worry of an underlying order to the pandemic, poverty, inequality, violence and uncomfortable geopolitics. The leadership mistrust in Nepal has fostered multi-polarisation of its politics brewing cynicism about political stability and weak performance in matters of public good. The affirmation of citizens’ dignity, recognition and self-esteem rests on the synergy of the state, civil society and business. Nepali business, however, reaps only the capital gains in a disproportional share of capital-labour exchange.

The labour as takers of decision only subsidises political leaders, not their own class and downtrodden. Market mechanism only seeks to maximise profit, rather than employing wealth to contribute to every one’s prosperity by supplying the source of social and economic good and alleviating the scarcity. Nepali culture prizes the essential values of civility of thick web of civil society in giving and serving public interest and fertilising democratic spirit. Michael J. Sandel says, “If democracy is simple economics by other means, a matter of adding up our individual interests and preferences, then its fate does not depend on the moral bonds of citizens.”

In a plural society like Nepal, the role of knowledge and consciousness of public policy has a special and enduring appeal for the majority of citizens to exercise their ability, exert influence and equip them for a robust self-governance capable of fulfilling all their rights and needs. Linking knowledge to citizens can improve their judgmental ability and grasp how democracy’s various actors and institutions interact in a non-linear fashion and what result they together produce for better governance outcome beyond the project of transition, contradiction and tribulation of national life. It unlocks grit to conduct oneself in the business of daily life.

Nepal’s constitution has, therefore, laid out increased rights, social inclusion, positive discrimination, quota and greater measure of distributive justice so that no one is left behind. Everyone has a stake in democracy and development so that market efficiency does not corrode the means of political integrity, ecological resilience, livelihood and social peace.

Pro-life strategy
One irony of Nepali politics is that leaders are carried away by impulse and passion, and often seek to outmanoeuvre the suggestions of epistemic community. They conform only the rationalisation of their own views thus denying the democratic culture of listening to and learning from citizens and independent voice as well as treating others equally. A sense of interest in the future demands embodied thinking that cultivates a pro-life strategy. Nepali citizens are legitimately entitled with the rational expectation of better life and liberty. Yet, the predominance of special interest groups over citizens on policy matters has created a wedge between the polity and the concrete life-world, blocked communication and attention and impartial flow of knowledge, technology, information and public services thus defying any possibility of good life.

The sense of responsibility grows with the attainment of education, position and power leadership. Nepali leaders thus must have the ability to think and act out-of-the-partisan-box frame. Development, democracy and peace suppose the centrality of citizens. Yet, they are connected to a complex array of factors such as ecological resilience, morality, justice, ethics and wisdom. Only contextual consciousness and meta-level reflection and education of leaders and citizens help furnish optimal solution of a shared set of national problems and maximise welfare. The inclusive turn of Nepali democracy supposes equal consideration of concern to all, even the suffering ones.

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