Saturday, 4 December, 2021

Informal Polity Impairs Modern Institutions

Informal Polity Impairs Modern Institutions

Dev Raj Dahal

Modern society is functionally varied with scores of institutionalised sub-systems. The quality of institutional design is vital to define the rules of the game for a variety of civic engagement. Formal polity imagines what David Easton calls “authoritative allocation of values for society” through modern institutions created to socialise the selfish genes and govern human conduct. The informal one is embedded in duty-based atavistic traits inherited from customary social norms, rituals and institutions. It fosters inward-looking political culture such as vote-buying and rent-seeking practices, clientelism, patrimonialism and personalisation of authority. These traits are hard to remove unless modern self-chosen, right-based institutions premised on the rational nature of citizens are fully embraced as per their expectations, constitution and international norms.

Social struggles
Informal polity needs to be awakened to the demands of various constitutional tasks of modern democracy, development and peace so that it is not beset with prejudice against lower caste, class, gender and region. Governed by the unwritten transcript of society flouting rational spirits, it lets down the institutions of civil society, political parties, government, polity and the state which are required to operate in an impartial manner supplying fair amount of public goods to citizens. Informal polity dominates power relations in Nepal through strong personal, familial and patronage networks so Nepal’s democratic and development paths lack right footing.
Obviously, unwritten code of society, not the constitution of Nepal, has retained enclosed mentality that psychologically governs the life of Dalits, women and weaker lots despite the onset of legal tradition of politics six decades back and declaration of inclusive, proportional, secular, federal, democratic republic and popular sovereignty now. The lawful abolition of caste, gender and class bias does not mean much as society is not properly constitutionalised and the new generation of leaders have not acquired new traits vital for social change. The persistence of irrational practice validates the secular belief that mutation of informal polity, constitutional awareness and law enforcement are indispensable in Nepal. Modern life demands a shift from belief to reason and choice, not enforced consent.
Many irrational voters and leaders of Nepal are tied by vote-buying and rent-seeking political culture. It means both sides lack enlightenment crucial for active citizenship and transformational leadership. Those who had earlier claimed to be progressive and liberal in minds suffered from their feudal libidos thus giving unbroken link to old political culture of converting politics into self-elevating occupation inclined to draw privileges of unearned income, not social service to powerless Nepalis. Clientelism implies that Nepali polity is not suitably institutionalised. Strong personal ties between leaders and their followers determine political outcome on the basis of mutual gain regardless of party statute. For example, they as patrons offer personal security, jobs, money, projects and opportunities to their clients in return for their blind conformity to their personality cult, support and loyalty.

In a weak formal polity, the distinction between private resources of leaders and state resources is fuzzy. Although many enlightened leaders understand that institutionalisation of political parties, corporate ethics, professionalisation of the bureaucracy and entrepreneurship of citizens can spur development. But the partisan supremacy of every sphere of life has turned Nepali society less productive.  Leadership bargaining for the appointment of legislators, minister or chiefs of public institutions composes a proxy for the maximisation of their patronage and influence in economic and administrative matters, not the meritocratic use of scarce resources to attain constitutional goals for the benefits of all Nepalis.

This shows that leaders have evolved a fused system of formal polity where party preference dominates all constitutional bodies although the selection of their leaders may ritually follow certain legal routes. The impact of multi-layers of formal and informal political leadership in Nepal’s polity is huge as they are holders, controllers and allocators of power, influence, positions and resources to society. Modern institutions thus operate in a setting constrained by legacies of fractious politics. As a result, performance accountability pressure to them from citizens, media and civil society is mounting with newer generation of rights and interlinked problems.

Several responses are important to improve the accountability measures: building trust and political credibility, effective monitoring of performance of officials, autonomy and integrity of leaders and institutions and political efficacy of modern institutions. A model of how formal and informal polities can set an interface is vital to link them to an analysis of electoral power, its foundation, outreach, utility and effects. So long as usual practice of development endures where production, exchange and distribution of public goods are highly syndicated, informal polity will continue to coil Nepal’s governance
So long as boundary between the formal and informal polities are thin, political socialisation is feeble and system benefits are distributed in a skewed manner, Nepalis will jubilate the rise and downfall any regime without proper stake in it. The innovation of modernity and democracy continues to delegitimise the role of informal polity though it has not vanished fully. Its effects on the functioning of modern institutions and leaders are obvious: they remain habit-driven, not learning-based. In both formal and informal polities, elites shape the main political and economic decisions.  They are the keys to advance or retard progress.
Nepal has witnessed scores of imperfect political settlement among political elites across the party lines for governance through power-sharing, elite pacts, elite bargains, syndicate, etc. Ongoing political broil implies the lacuna of inclusive bargains giving rise to new lines of fracas in Nepal with diversity, historical legacy of factionalism, social fragmentation and betrayal. When its path to progress is dependent on exogenous theories devoid of proper historical experience it is less likely to improve input and output legitimacy. Nepali leaders and policymakers have often relied on the structuralist approaches to progress with an accent on institutions and failed to take into account informal polity breeding cronyism, corruption, rent-seeking, lobby, networks and web of patronage that lead to a prototype of institutional malfunction in achieving the constitutional goals though the responsiveness of modern institutions.

The roots of resilience of this informal polity are the continuity of the same political culture of chakari (sycophancy), spoil system, patronage and non-meritocratic distribution of official posts affecting the performance of modern specialised institutions. The elected Nepali leadership’s operation along traditional style has to do with the social group basis of politics and lack of the concept of impersonal citizenship. The concept of social inclusion of certain groups into politics has enabled Nepali polity to integrate seemingly incompatible institutional structures which pose challenges to national consolidation. Challenges arising from the accommodation of comprador classes in political parties and their auxiliary bodies formed along subsidiary identity lines, private groups with government’s power, formation of anti-state nature of civil society, NGOs, etc. have created obstacles to democratic consolidation.
The legitimacy of traditional structures of authority and leadership has endured amongst many communities not undergone social mobilisation, modernisation and active political participation. As a result, real policy discourse is hardly anchored in the deliberative formation of public opinion, informed choice of citizens in the public sphere and its articulation in the legislative process.  Bulk of leaders, thus, hardly holds any knowledge regarding public policy. It is clear that most of vital policy substances in Nepal since long is borrowed from international community without the adequate contextualisation or learning from deep local knowledge of citizens on whom they are executed. For many donors, the bureaucratic and technocratic sectors are much easier to handle because of the common idioms they use and exonerate the later from the accountability of policy failure.

This explains why in every political change new leaders overthrew the constitutions rather than enabling them to fit the changing conditions of life. For the majority of Nepalis, leadership is viewed as status, wealth and power, which they pursue by recruiting political followers, not resolver of problematic condition animating the spirit of public service. As Nepali leadership has increasingly lost their interest in formal sphere of policy making, they began to cultivate their pre-rational and informal ties with clients caught in fixed geographical and political locations. The allocation of constituency development and legislators’ infrastructural funds cut both executive domain and local bodies by fostering patronage politics which is animus to democratic separation of power and checks and balances. The second trend is lack of vibrant opposition for its temptation to share power thus leaving the prospect for alternative government, policy and preferences to anti-systemic forces. 

Factionalism afflicts Nepal’s each political party. As leaders do not trust impersonal institutions whether it is a party, market, civil society or the state they often create a group basis of politics and project it in the public sphere for negotiation, bargaining, coalition or collective action. Nepali leaders have not developed a consensual national vision that can transcend primordial, pre-national and pre-rational pulls. This is why public policies of Nepal deviate from the constitutional vision of the creation of an egalitarian society, the Directive Principles and Policies of the State and electoral promises.
The model of competition among leaders seeks to capture core characteristics of informal politics in Nepal which is largely egoistic, not institutional. Because of big-man politics or because of caste, class, ethnic, gender, regional or religious identity leadership holds, they have not internalised the value of the equality of citizens and the value of civic competence. The informalisation of polity is sustained by a weak state lacking monopoly over the use of violence, weak democratic institutions and the regulation of political competition less governed by the electoral mandate and civic culture tradition.

Balancing channel
It is not realistic to harness development ends without life-enhancing inclusive economic institutions investment and growth in Nepal. The roles of the institution need to be outlined within the influence of traditions. Nepalis’ demand of good governance and local democracy aims to enable it to provide a balancing channel for effective local governance for development. Informal polity with its modern interlocutors educated abroad in various disciplines has built transnational networks and, therefore, bring experiences to apply in their development strategies.
Some collaborate with international development agencies, civil society, NGOs, professional bodies, etc. and visit abroad to participate in international conferences of women, Dalits, minorities, indigenous people, thereby staking claim to power, resource,  identity for the group and authority at the national level.  They need building a sense of citizenship and human solidarity that can reconcile old institutional imperative of order and discipline and modern institutional impulse for freedom and justice.

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