Monday, 6 December, 2021

Making Sense Of Political Culture

Dev Raj Dahal


Nepal’s ancient heritage has hailed polytheistic faiths and diverse cults. It was not without order. Tradition and order derived from the notion of dharma had obliged conformity to the leadership, coordination of citizens’ behaviour and the means for change in the social, legal and administrative system as per yug dharma, the zeitgeist. The inversion of this dharmik tradition without building the bedrock of rule of law in its place has reared a split mind-set: the Nepali constitution purports to govern formal polity while unwritten code of society governs informal polity. The inability of Nepali leaders to stabilise the constitutional tradition of politics shows that informal Nepali polity, economy and society will keep on incubating dualistic political culture.
This seventh Nepali constitution too finds flaws manifested in the uneven level of support to it by political parties of various hues. So do their socialisation, mobilisation and acculturation which seal a hope for political stability. Now politics is no longer confined to the state, constitution, sovereignty and the government, the formal kits of political power. It has stretched into the behaviour of other human links -- political parties, civil society, business and even non-political territory that knit human condition by feeling, not only thinking.
Not long ago noted Nepali scholar M. C. Regmi spoke on the nation’s human condition: “...every Nepali of the present lives a vicarious existence, with the atavistic urges for political power and economic security and feels strongly that political rivalries among the political elite today are no less pronounced than they were two centuries ago.” The beauty of this piece is that it arrests the core insight of the ageless nature of politics rooted in human nature and symbolises the main character of ordinary Nepalis and elites and their craving.
The pity of this is that vicarious existence has an effect exactly opposite to the one of an egalitarian society aimed by the new constitution. This enduring pity has become a part of the nation’s political culture. Unless citizens are able to defeat this ugly rivalry for power devoid of national purpose, their economic insecurity will keep on hitting their participation in public affairs affecting their mind, heart, spirit and judgment.

National consciousness
Culture, as a realm of national consciousness, is not entirely different from the sphere of politics. The sole focus on their individuality amounts to be an error. Politics is not an activity isolated from cooperation and conflict of interests, values and identities. For politics to be wholly distinct from the social and cultural universe, the everyday life of the public would have to be merely spectator, which sounds silly.
Nepalis socialised in a sanskritik parivesh (cultural milieu) is not something sub-cultural, they internalise an awareness of entire society, a world-view, in which they grow certain knowledge, values, attitudes, beliefs and orientation towards political life. Hence, the cultural milieu is vital to know the art of politics, its roots, essence and directions. In this sense, the form of social interaction clenches particular meaning in shaping political culture. Polis is the higher order built on the bedrock of social structure, norms and modes of human conduct. The scale of citizens’ desires, drives, interests, appetites, fears, courage, hopes and involvement in politics is accompanied by vivid differences of mental and emotional character.
Nepalis often sense little change in the leadership mores of power orientation even after the change of six constitutions and many regimes. It keeps on abandoning policy making duty. They view them as thalu, a non-productive class, jockeying for power in the polity and the economy and using status to reproduce a system of inequality to enable self to entice deference as a means of social control over the less politicised ones. Once elected, they habitually sink into the materiality of regime power and miss the mandate, duty and promise affirming Regmi’s claim of denying Nepalis any chance to meaningfully engage in public affairs except elections, stirs and migration.
The extent of misfortune following earthquake and pandemic has escalated the size of poverty, disease, earlier death and many malaises crushing their safety valve leaving the last option to migrate. Despite notable progress in literacy, health, media and issue awareness, the most vital condition of civilised life have yet to lift up. Party intellectuals and leaders of Nepal, corralled into political cubbyhole and submitted to the polity, often stalk a tall claim that Nepal’s constitution is one of the best documents to set up democratic rule. Perhaps, true. But it raises a question: Are political leaders acting in the direction of what the constitution visualises? Or just drifting to partisan prejudice? Only a few play symbolic role of a public figure. The factional fights within parties have hit the public institutions and cut their neutrality in the public interest.
Good governance is defined by the ethical qualities of power holders and the amount of collective action it applies to achieve constitutional goals. The rise in the harsh indexes of social pathology — poverty, inequality, dependency, debt and alienation – has led to powerlessness of Nepalis inviting grassroots pressure for democratisation and progress. Political parties face the real public issues, strain on ideological and organisational images, identities and the classical ideals of civic life. By seeking votes in the name of ethnicity, caste, class, gender, region and religion, they have made Nepalis conscious on these lines and helped define their identities accordingly, not with civic spirit of national identity.
The affective orientation of average Nepalis to multiple identifications and loyalties to a complex set of institutions -- political party, interest group, caste, class, language, region, religion, ethnic community, gender, family, etc. has distorted their cognitive perception of rational choices. This has become an inordinate burden to leaders to construct a strong national solidarity. As Nepali society has developed greater diversity and complexity to public issues, they lack technical skill to deal with the tasks of nation building. In a complex society with individuals and groups pursuing a wide range of identifications and goals, leaders are always tempted to put their private interests above public goods.
The problem for them lies in evolving a stable pattern of national identity among citizens that does not contest either the statehood or trigger their emotive loyalties to parochial units. National cohesion, the desire of citizens to live together, gives them a stake in democracy which they are keen to protect and promote. The source by which democracy is being evolved becomes a spring of civic culture.
The question whether all the Nepalis have become a part of legislative power is abstract one. Despite social inclusion and representation, Nepali leaders face a real dilemma between the constitutional elements of popular sovereignty and hence authority can be derived from citizens and the structure of political parties and election system that have legitimised majority rule rather than distribution of power to all to realise the fullness of life. Popular sovereignty implies that citizens are the end in themselves, not reduced to mob to be manipulated by someone else’s will. This view of individual as the basic unit of society with inalienable rights is attuned to participatory democracy couched in subsidiarity. This is modernity’s abstraction, not above the state’s sovereignty.
Yet, Nepali leaders often resort to customary privileges against the assault of modernity and do not clothe the state with a monopoly on power as the sole source of legal authority. Those less visible Nepalis are thus feeling the relativisation of their sovereignty and calling for real devolution of power as opposed to de facto rule by political leaders. The set-up of an inclusive, secular, federal democratic republic of Nepal has hardly stirred a sense in citizens that they are equal to their leaders with a resonance of political efficacy. Varying degree of sovereignty enjoyed by caste, class, region, age and gender has left the pledge of just governance in Nepal alluring. Unless citizens know how to exercise it in public life it turns a deceptive legality.
The shadow of old politics has eased undue partisan culture and the resilience of political order with privilege and impunity. The new acts have equally opened a chasm between the shared and the self-rule. The passion of each regime with its survival and law and order alludes that the nation is unable to move beyond a pre-democratic polity that underplays the basic aims of life -- human dignity. The ratification of human rights promises makes no sense if basic needs of bulk of Nepalis linger and the customary practices occupies the pivot of its political culture. The use of state to keep law and order while bungling of its social roles made it look like predatory at a time when many leaders fails to distinguish among the state, polity, government and political parties. As the political change persisted with the old practices, Nepalis are sensing a feeling of self-pity. The new politics created its own establishment and the leadership is slithered into a bureaucratic mode of thinking and, thus, lost its ability to alleviate scarcity.

Ideological spring
The citizens’ power, the ideological spring of each movement, was pulled into different directions. The narrow social base of citizens’ power, mainly urban and limited by the institutional and material context of middle class also lost its mission to build this nation. The unravelling of the establishment now has turned former allies into foes thus degenerating consensual politics into avidly combative one. Nepali leaders know how to get vote, not how to administer power for the service of citizens.
The next few decades will thus be very exciting for Nepalis as political dialogue will spin around the citizens who desire better democracy and those who are alarmed by its consequences. It is not a top secret that behind the delight of democracy lays a deeply disturbed nation missing a bond of traditional social morals, community, stability and peace of mind. A new experience of democratic existence, a new rootedness of Nepali leaders in the nation’s history of self-rule, a novel grasp of higher duty to the public, fresh social arteries of civil society honed by critical media and intelligentsia and commitment to human rights are the directions to which Nepali democracy must leap forward.

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