Sunday, 24 October, 2021

Overcoming Democratic Deficit

Mukti Rijal

A TV footage beamed, the other day, through national television channel, spotlighted the two mutually contradicting scenarios in the federal parliament. The first highlighted the rumpus in the federal parliament where the lawmakers affiliated to the opposition– CPN-UML -- were raising slogans against the government causing an obstruction of the parliamentary proceedings. They had enacted the chaotic and disruptive scenes to paralyse the House business to ensure that they had total command to enforce their message across. The second scene spotlighted the case characterised by a total sense of indifference and neglect on the part of lawmakers to their role and responsibility as a member of the parliament. They were hurrying to the House at the eleventh hour just to put their signature in the attendance register to ensure that they did not lose the daily allowance allotted to them according to the House rules.

These two scenarios speak volumes about the issues and problems of the representative democracy that has been adopted in the country for the last 30 years especially following the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990. The one scenario presented above shows the hyper militancy unbecoming of the parliamentary conduct and exactitude whereas other scenario indicates total, indifference, apathy and neglects to fulfil their roles expected of the lawmakers.

Mode of governance
Though Nepal has enacted and introduced the new federal democratic constitution and restructured the state with three tiers of the government – federal, provincial and local --, there was not much reform in reengineering the mode of governance and political representation. Despite the fact that the preamble of the federal constitution expresses commitment to participation and engagement of the citizens in the governance and development process, no meaningful institutional space has been provided for citizens to ensure that they can keep continuous engagement and ensure mandatory participation in the affairs of the state.
Perhaps this should be the reason why Tony Blair, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom who had won the British parliamentary elections for the third time during the last decades, was reported to have remarked that the alternative to liberal representative democracy has been participatory citizen-centric democracy. He emphasises that the challenge of the contemporary times was democratising the democracy through participation and democratic engagement of the people in the governance and development of the country.

This observation of Tony Blair has been symbolic and meaningful in the sense that Britain has so far remained as the embodiment of the representative democracy which is labelled as the Westminster model. Moreover, it has offered a model of democratisation for developed and developing world in South Asia, among others, including India and Nepal. It shows that  democracy needs to be conducted through a process of reorientation and reform to ensure that it builds and enhances living relationship with the people.

Democracy should, therefore, not be limited to mere an electoral exercise where people cast vote every four or five years and send their delegates en bloc to indulge in an obnoxious contest for power and enrichment without any regard to civic oversight and control. Whether it is in developed or in developing democracies like Nepal, there is palpable sense of the apathy and indifference of the people to their elected representatives. This is particularly due to the fact that the former has lost contact or is far removed from the concerns and aspirations of the people. A yawning divide persists between the elected representatives and citizens. The liberal or representative democracy is often found being reduced to elite or formal democracy having more focus on process and procedures than on substances and outcomes to address the needs and interests of the people.
In fact, the disconnect and disjunction between the citizens and state is so endemic and entrenched that the people have to wait patiently for five years or more to exercise their  sovereign right to punish the erring and defaulting politicians and officials. Formally, democratic institutions and apparatuses are in place but they have failed to function properly particularly due to the fact that they come in conflict, among others, with traditional and retrogressive norms and mindset.

There are a series of strategies through which citizens’ voices may be amplified ranging from advocacy, to citizen lobbying for policy change, and citizen monitoring of performance. According to John Gaventa, a globally recognised scholar of participatory democracy, as we move along the spectrum of engagement, there are the more formalised arenas in which civil society works with the state in the joint management and implementation of public services, as well as in joint planning and deliberation. Just as there are a number of mechanisms for amplifying voice, these must also be enhanced by initiatives that strengthen the receptivity to voice within the state.

Brazilian initiative
These include government mandated forms of citizen consultation, standards through which citizens may hold government accountable, various incentives to encourage officials to be responsive to citizen voice, changes in organisational culture, and legal provisions which in various ways make participation in governance a legal right. For example, the Brazilian initiative on participatory budgeting has been taken as a learning model as well. Many developed and developing democracies have now started to re-examine their effectiveness in securing civic participation and democratising process and structures to warrant that the state structures respond to the needs and interests of the citizens.

The quest for re-democratisation or participatory democracy is a much vaunted political grammar founded on the principle of social justice, human rights and right to development. As the discourses on participatory democracy have been initiated in Nepal, we need to intensify it to ensure that citizens have voices and institutional spaces to hold their representatives accountable and functional.

(The author is presently associated with Policy Research Institute (PRI) as a senior research fellow.