Saturday, 4 December, 2021

Expand Civic Space For Participation

Dev Raj Dahal


The sovereignty of citizens sealed in the Nepali constitution assumes that state power springs from bottom-up. It is accountable to their choice. Nepali state is entrusted with collective sovereignty of its citizens. It is deemed autonomous of the fissiparous bents of nation’s political parties which use their leverage against each other to monopolise grip on public institutions and flag general interests. The right of citizens to sovereignty, however, does not write to an awareness of working together for common good and ability to participate in political power except habitual protests, agitations and casting ballot papers.
Nepal has recently seen the surge of discontents of peasants on the unavailability of fertiliser in time and delayed payment of their crops, informal workers on skewed execution of social security, general public on health, education and job and cultural group on the intrusion of their trusts. The pandemic has encircled the nation enforcing lockdown and social distancing but has also set new learning opportunity to technology-driven transformative change in many areas of health, education, economy, ecology and geopolitics.

Participatory competence
The role of media and civil society in educating Nepalis to build their participatory competence and communication ability at multi-scale governance from Ward Assembly to a vast cyber space can enable them to adapt to the digitalisation of globalisation in production, marketing and delivery of goods, enforce the accountability and transparency of governing institutions and monitor the aptness of policies to solve common problems. The pluralisation of the domain of power and inclusive base of politics have offered opportunity in various scales but it entails multi-versal citizens’ participation to fulfil deficits of essential needs and seek empowerment measures unconstrained in making choices in governance. Human and animal pains in labour have not been substituted by wider application of science and technology and distributive justice.
Nepali state is enmeshed in a web of international laws and obligations of a single global system. This system demands conformity to the ethos of liberty, justice, cooperation and peace. Migration of about half of Nepali youths abroad for jobs hints the weak condition of the nation’s labour market and their bigger stake in the world system. The state of democracy has yet to offer democratic dividends as opportunity for economic participation is offered more by the international community than its internal labour market. It has created a tension in the loyalty pattern of Nepalis. Economic despair does not shore up participatory opportunity at the social, political and educational levels as scientific and institutional resources which are great levellers of society are unfairly distributed.
Nepalis knowledge about rule, rights, duties, institutional path to participate and the democratic outcome of participation in politics, law and public policy thus linger in a slanted way. This shows that Nepal’s political leadership, narrowly confined and top-down type, has yet to set up an easy-access political order where each citizen irrespective of age, gender, caste, class and regional distinctions can join in planning policies, apply socialist kit and reap welfare for them and their children.
The participatory democracy expects the construction of equal citizens out of tiered Nepalis, flattening of the opportunity curve and opening civic space where their diverse mores would get along. It entails the formation of we-perspective where no one in barred and each citizen is vigilant of human rights, the integrity of polity and legitimacy of governance as per democratic standards even in the midst of crisis in political regime, public health and economy. In Nepal, the provision of social inclusion has increased the group rights of some cluster of citizens while micro minorities are left out.
Nepali state is weak to abolish Hobbesian elements of fear and material wants, protect property rights, limit kleptocratic practice, set up rule of law in the frame of justice and execute the social contract by creating enabling environment for supportive and adversarial cooperation - rightful, uprising type, social movements and anti-systemic so that no one upends democratic rule. Political instability, resource constraints to finance all 31 fundamental rights and feeble institutions to execute them are key obstacles prompting certain groups to veer to regionalism, class, religion, caste, gender, ethnicity, etc. beyond the ability of Nepali state to optimise their impulses while creating social safety nets for the powerless.
Ethnicity is a pre-political concept. It negates the other and nonconformist to social capital for its demand for pre-emptory rights offsets democratic prospect. A participatory society alone can foster a sense of civic competence, cultivates the concern for collective problem solving and foils the tendency of heavyweights to multi-polarise the political landscape by means of a strategy of flipping over public mandate and repeating the game of collusion and collision. In a time of health, economic and political crises, keeping the trust of Nepalis is central to address vital issues and expose political cover-ups animus to the right to know. The participatory resources are not just the state, the market and civil society but a myriad of formal and informal, network-based virtual and visual institutions, organisations where outpouring of multi-versal citizen activism demands the realisation of their unrealised rights.
Since citizenship is the membership of state, loyalty to it is the utmost duty of every citizen. Only a virtuous state with “legitimate monopoly on power” is capable of fulfilling all the rights of citizens and creating their stake and ownership in the polity. In democracy, rule follows the rights and the rights require fulfilling public duties. Nepali citizens as a community of people have common interests to identity with national community - the state. Participatory turn in Nepali politics demands the elimination of social and economic vices and violence in its domain. The shifting role of the state towards private sectors for its dynamism and innovation can democratise the economy. It is a condition for the economics of peace, its culture to inspire civility and increase the efficacy of Nepalis in many dimensions of participation.
The first is cognitive dimension. There is wisdom in saying: “Inner vigilance is the price of liberty.” Nepal’s enlightenment heritage still dominates the public and private life of citizens in urban and rural areas with many virtues of deliberative and participatory stuffs to build knowledge, good citizenship and quality leadership. Its emancipatory appeal increases respect for human rights, democracy and good governance and strengthens security for both the civil society and the individual. But the effects of participatory demands in Nepal led to the formation of caucus politics, network politics, birth of new parties, social movements, extra-party participation and even violence as the affected citizens seek lawful mechanism to “articulate.”
One can see a clear disjuncture between high participation of Nepalis in the elections and movements and law institutionalisation of civic bodies to absorb them for orderly behaviour. Its intrinsic link to democratic discourse is necessary to project inner light into public sphere. Reducing the cost of education can raise the access of the poor and boost their social mobility to scale up the ladder of progress.
The second is responsiveness of the polity to basic human needs and rights. It is a precondition for freedom to participate in public affairs. Without productive economy and governance run by the best and brightest with the ability to formulate innovative solution of Nepal’s persistent lack of overall progress, the middle men will continue to free ride and block feedbacks between citizens and leaders. The core of self-governance is the capacity of self-legislation. It entails inclusive public sphere at every layer of political power so that minorities, opposition and marginalised communities are not left out of the democratic and development processes.
To support efforts to provide primary health care, basic education, food, nutrition, water and sanitation and shelter at the local level are crucial. The third is social and gender dimension where political power in Nepal is couched in direct proportion to representativeness of social diversity. The social equality across citizens is central to ensure participatory base of sustainable progress.
The fourth dimension is infrastructure development regarding matters of public good and enhanced accessibility of Nepalis to green technologies with emphasis on assisting poor in capacity building, human development and entrepreneurship. Protection of environment demands global and regional cooperation in matters of expertise, resources and technology. The fifth dimension is private sector development. The equitable economic growth cannot be imagined without support to responsible private sector development. Weak contribution of tax to GDP in Nepal cannot make self-sustaining state at a time when income from remittance, tourism and trade is declining in the aftermath of pandemic. The private sector too needs to embody business ethics and finance human development, social projects, ecological initiatives and firm-sponsored insurance to benefit the poor.
The nation has to pursue Nepalisation process in response to prevent geopolitical fallout of rival paths adopted by Nepali political parties, elevate the people into citizens, standardise educational course and preserve national identity through the promotion of centripetal forces — culture, religion, symbols and historical aspiration to maintain independence of the nation. But the tendency of fractious party elites to divide the society for command and control continue to hierarchise the power, idioms and discourse in an undemocratic direction responding to the code of power, pelf and positions thus leaving the powerless to stagger. Nepali citizens, political leaders and international community together restored democracy and pooled national sovereignty for cooperation but they did not work together to create demos, citizens conceived of as meta-identity of Nepaliness that made sense of national political community – the state.
What one can see now is the voice of citizens articulated in the social and political movements to find democratic context, keep political and economic life afloat and liberate democracy from non-democratic elements. This is precisely the subordination of politics to money that evoked group-based identity which devalues the national identity of Nepal. National identity can be constructed only when political leaders are exonerated from their primordial clutches and able to see the importance of civic space while at the same time build the trust of citizens that democracy delivers.

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