The debate on political culture raises a number of fundamental questions: Is it possible to transplant the political culture of one generation to the next or from one society to another without taking into account certain local traits, historical and social context and material and ideological possessions? Are human values universal that can be learned, shared and partially adapted? Or, culturally specific - meaning cultural relativism - which is clear only in its own terms and, therefore, limits any prospect of sharing them?
Live idea Obviously, certain elusiveness exists in the idea of political culture as its explanatory concepts are derived from the political experience of most advanced nations of the West extraneous to the Nepali reality and, therefore, it might lose its exact meaning while applying in an entirely different context. From the standpoint of system theory, however, there are universal human attributes derived from their nature, instinct, reason and rationality on the basis of which generalisation can be made. The most important aspect of political culture is not structural but attitudinal and functional. In this sense, it is a live idea which often changes its features over the years depending on the level of human progress. Any reflective mind readily discovers the patterns of political attitudes of Nepali leaders and citizens, the resilience of its political culture sustained by their deeply ingrained habits, the institutional continuity that disposes of power and authority and the systems through which they think, feel and behave. Political culture of a nation is shaped by its geography, history, culture, cognition, economy, polity and society. Sydney Verba defines it “the systems of empirical beliefs, expressive symbols and values which defines the situation in which political action takes place.” Political orientation of Nepalis is shaped by the degree of the internalisation of the norms and values of polity in their cognition, feelings and evaluations and setting up of the basis of their political loyalty. Through internalisation process children, youths and adults help shape their preferences and enable them to assume social and political responsibility. Political culture naturally operates inside the civil society and the state, in which the effects of ideas, institutions and individuals operate not entirely through coercion but also by engineering acceptance, acquiescence and consent. Various levels of orientation of citizens towards the civil society, political party, government, the polity and the state define the level of their stakes on the political process. In democratic society some cultural forms outweigh others; the form of this cultural superiority is the symbol of leadership. Nepali democracy requires not hegemony of leadership but a partnership culture. This means political culture does not treat democracy as a mere symbol in the name of which leaders indulge in a game of power politics regardless of effects. The degree of Nepalis’ orientations towards politics and authority, both procedurally and substantially, shapes the formation of different types of political culture and uneven stakes in democracy. The values and beliefs that they internalise as a part of their everyday lives leads them to shape specific political organisations that facilitate the execution of their preference, political choice and involvement in decisions. Evidently, the identity of citizenship assumed by them for contending role occupancy within a polity is the basis of political culture formation. In order to measure the political development, G. A. Almond and Verba invented the term Civic Culture which is a mixed one, a mix of modernising-traditional one, “which combines both the scientific and humanistic-traditional cultures, enables them to interact and interchange without destroying or polarizing each other.” Certain degree of homogeneity of the political culture is the key to political stability. Majority of Nepalis must share minimum necessary values for the functioning of the democracy, achieving institutional stability and nurturing essential political engagement. In other words, maintenance and legitimacy of polity essentially depend on the growth of a participant civic culture. The Anglo-American system, for example, exhibits this homogeneity. The role differentiation of their social, economic and political institutions is higher than many developing nations. Nepali political culture, in many ways, presents a sharp contrast to the Anglo-American tradition because of the predominance of primitive traits, long physical isolation from the rest of the world, peasant economy, low level of modernisation, one-dimensional image of the citizens as ignorant, illiterate and indifferent mass and treatment of democracy as infantile by leaders. Political culture theorists claim that there can be no independent citizen without private property. What does it mean for the majority of Nepalis who are below poverty line and powerless without any concept of civic competence? It is not at all easy to answer. Yet, it is here the Western notion of political culture differs from the Nepali: in the former individual orientation to polity is largely subjective while in the latter it is objective. The Nepalis are assuming that their rights should not remain abstract rights in constitution but should be translated into the material domain of political economy. An inquiry into Nepali political culture leads one to the study of family structure and childhood socialisation, education, media exposure and experience by which knowledge and memories of old generation pass to new generation of citizens and, consequently, political acculturation takes place spontaneously. Progressive democratisation in Nepal rests on finding the ways of shaping democratic character, perspectives, skill and behaviour of party leaders. This is important to synergise the diversity of Nepali to informed political orientations, public policy and polity. Any one born in a particular regime impulsively acquires the characteristics of that regime because of daily political exposure in public affairs. Political culture does not deny the realities of power. But it challenges the basic assumptions that reduce politics to winning power as an end in itself without being accounted for. The injection of modernity and democracy in Nepal marked a shift in social relationships formed by pre-rational type of kinship ties, equality and community and governed by tradition, moral practices, social ties, folk ways and religion to rationalised self-interests, professional ties, impersonal bonds and liberty embodied in the utilitarian social contract tradition, free association, consensus and constitutional laws. As a result, ordinary Nepalis and elites of diverse social, ethnic, linguistic and regional origins are appealing to their rational self-interests and questioning the gap between leaders’ promise and their performance. There is also a risk in rational choice theory applied in political economy of Nepal because it is dehistoricised and desocialised at its roots. Rational choice theory practiced in Nepal’s transactional model of leadership does not take into account the interests of those who lack resources to exchange for maximising their position. A political order based on rational self-interest reduces citizens and leaders to egoistic culture and a partial, partisan being confined to their own rights devoid of social accountabilities embedded in the notions of dharma, karma, compassion and the search for collective enlightenment of eastern variety although an appeal to rational self-interest marked the beginning of the Western enlightenment and an end to the divine rights of rulers. Still, the greater challenge for Nepal is: How to achieve a balance between “pre-rational” and “rational choice,” and between the necessity of preserving national heritage and the spirit of the age - modernity, science and reason? The rational choice assumes game theory approach in which political choices are dominated by power relationship and, consequently, non-participants or weaker members of society are bypassed from the benefits. Articulation of social interests demands state-in-society approach which balances the rights with responsibilities. If the claims of unorganised citizens for justice are ignored by the organised one, society dissolves more and more into contending factions, each fighting for its own rights, then a shared Nepali national identity for common purpose does not emerge. And individuals lose the material and cultural elements which formed their life experiences and civil union of this ancient nation.
Shared respect The arguments that cultural factors are critical for stable democracy received further reconfirmation in the study of Robert D. Putnam in Making Democracy Work. He argued that elements of trust, reciprocity and community explain the success of democracy in certain parts of Italy. New studies on Culture Shift and Culture Matters seriously consider that political culture fundamentally drives economic performance and democratic stability. In Nepal also, the time has come to describe the vision to stimulate concrete conceptual planning for democratic political culture. The constitution has provided a vision, but the efforts to transform it into a life experience of Nepalis in letter and spirit still lie ahead. Only a shared respect for the constitution and constitutional behaviour by all the actors of society can set Nepali politics in the right direction.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)