Monday, 24 January, 2022

Perils Of Pre-political Politics

Perils Of Pre-political Politics

Dev Raj Dahal

The national conventions of Nepali political parties have generated a lot of public interest and excitement in the renewal of leadership legitimacy. Yet, it is not easy to explain why the political spectrum in Nepal often oscillates between the right and the left without finding a middle ground for effective governability - leadership gaining an ability to know veiled incongruity of political patterns and perform, manage and steer the right balance of statecraft. The problem does not lie in the mandate of citizens. In each national election they have openly aspired for certain change. It lies in the deeds of leaders who habitually play by the old rules in new times and lack the wisdom to bear responsibility to popular expectations stirred up by their own promises and constitutional vision.

Each political party of Nepal-- Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and CPN- Maoist Centre-- had created electoral waves that washed the political site in a historic way in various phases of the nation’s political evolution. Each of them had an opportunity to make history. But they had witnessed a swift reversal of popular support and had to form a maladaptive coalition government. This reversal is caused more by incumbent parties’ vicious internal factionalism and display of arrogance of power and ambition of restless rival leaders mercilessly lashing each other non-stop thus socialising the cadres with the negative messages of each other. It is also caused by leaders’ infirm role in defining the nation’s place in shifting geopolitics straining them to perform virtuous public duty. This has posed a problem of governance.

Nepal does not have the dearth of motivated politicians. But what many of them lack is the flair, skill and ethics to govern properly and fulfil the deep aspiration of Nepalis for freedom, decent life, dignity and desire of recognition so that they can be bounced back from the perils of life’s edge.  The swelling size of political classes has neither contributed to enhance democracy nor control the downswing of the economy almost in a moribund condition. It is fuelled further by the wasteful consumption of scarce resources. Building a soaring cult of personality, the brand of brawl and backstabbing style of Nepali leaders of various parties mark the beginning of the end to the saga and legacy their founders created in the minds of Nepalis.

Zero sum game
All political parties of Nepal have played against each other in the name of ideology set by their founders but in a weird twist of fate now they share the common misery of working in an ideological wasteland without paying tribute to their contribution and inheriting a sense of freedom and social justice they had fought for. Nepalis have seen that their leaders are sometimes friends, sometimes adversaries and sometimes aggressive competitors in a fight to finish game of pre-politics thus inverting democracy’s beauty of non-zero-sum game of compromise and reconciliation. Zero sum game can easily kill its soul and add energy to anti-democratic forces bent on disrupting the polity by any means and disconnecting from the constitution which necessitates the sharing of same political space and equal stake.

As a result, social democratic and left leaders upon ascending to power have moved to the middle and then to the right in economic policies notwithstanding the vision of social justice inscribed in Nepal’s all the constitutions promulgated so far that demands circular, sharing and caring progress. Public, private and cooperative partnership, welfare state and economic shift to redistributive politics help to keep dynamic stability in society. The job of politics is to scale up the productive base of the real economy, decentralise power and resources up to community level and hone its entrepreneurship to alleviate the scarcity of public goods. Nepali leaders have to assume their responsibility to defend the integrity of the state in crisis time and strengthen its ability to execute the constitutional provisions. It helps to lift up the next generation of citizens and unburden them from debt, poverty, joblessness and harsh life.

Nepali politics, therefore, needs to move from leaders’ spotlight-hogging image management role to acquire meaning in serving general public and national interests embodying their struggle for a better democratic life. The bureaucratisation and centralising tendency of top leaders marked by top down selection and appointment of party or governmental officials without democratic legitimacy will keep on deteriorating the dynamics of democracy in the inner life of Nepali parties and their ability to foster social and system integration. If the bottom of society feels unconcerned with leadership election and remains unaware of their space in political ideals, the latter turns less mindful to remedy the perils of pre-politics.

The first problem of Nepali politics is not political, serving the public purpose but what David Brooks call “pre-political” whose traits are : strong sense of tribalism by which top leaders select and appoint the defeated loyalists in both parliament and party committees for fear of their defection to other parties, party rivals’ indulgence in exposing each other and projecting anti-image by use of political humour and satire, erosion of community values at multi-scale from family to national governance, declining trust for one another leader and classes for reasons of artificial conch to ego inflation leading to forgetfulness about common citizenship, inability to coexist together in a shared space, common personal and institutional issues in certain matters, passing problems to future generations and turning their civilised life prickly.

The second problem is business influence on politics. It has made leaders’ orientation to meta issues artificial while their erratic promises and statements never to be fulfilled except to make only media talking points and intellectual drill. Both seek immunity and remain outside the sphere of rule of law. A culture of impunity for the powerful does not create any stake of the ordinary Nepalis in democracy and uplift their economic security and self-esteem. Nepali public is gradually waking up to this sordid fact and sees that left-wing obsession to group identity politics and the right-wing preoccupation with laissez faire individualism care little to the contextual public policies and uplift the masses from the grasp of the powerful class.

The contradiction of economic and political life of the poor skews the transformation of politics as both the tendencies are fraying communities, intensifying differences and opening political polarisation. The imperative of leadership is to offer Nepalis, as sovereigns, trust building resources, spur political voice over their governance and serve as a check on the power of partisan and business interests.
The third problem is the leaders’ tendency to duck a raft of vital issues and concerns, not debate for resolution and hone the heart and compassion of Nepalis in the politics as an arena of collective action. This is vital to arrest the downward spiral of development indicators. A feeling of upbeat instead of fighting each other and opening themselves to the middle ground of reason and frame of democratic values can moderate the minds of ordinary Nepalis whirring with distrust about politics. The perils of politics in Nepal can be settled if political leaders seek to find a balance between inputs and outputs and sustain a live feedback between leaders and citizens.  This helps to set democratic equilibrium. Politicisation of citizens decreases the cost of politics and increases the volunteerism of cadres and citizens. Excessive partisanisation of politics, however, works in the opposite way.

In a society of active citizenship ordinary leaders do not need powerful cash machine to traverse to the path of politics, judiciously balance the ties with each other, maintain deferential attitude to business circle and bond with citizens beyond the concerns of relatives and clients to make sure that they get something to stick to in a corridor of power.  Trustworthy media, free of commercial and partisan interests, can inform Nepalis on how to form opinion and make critical choices on public matters of their interests, serve as countervailing power against misinformation and advertisement of political and economic brands and even unravel the empire of interest-based civil society indulged in social engineering and cultural transformation in Nepal.

The fourth problem is about engaging the Nepalis in effective collective action and strengthening the social base of grassroots institutions. New political values espouse popular sovereignty, proportional representation and participation in the policy and decision making. It demands a new social contract that can overcome the peril of policy void which has left the parliament without jobs other than the legislators seeking only development projects for their patronage expansion. 

In Nepal, politics has become a game of division and social stratification of society along the empirical identities, intensification of pre-existing social fissures and expansion of electoral and partisan base, not democratic politics of emancipation. The subsidiarity in the party politics, though difficult to chew, can become a new concept that can overcome the perils of roiling politics and open the scope for those who fight for public good of citizens, hear them without a sense of smugness, bear their responsibility, seek to solve their problems and put them above self-interests. 
The fifth problem is about value-creation so that ordinary Nepalis do not have passing attention about politics but deep civic engagement about the type of society, economy and polity they prefer to create for them and their children. Democratisation of politics in Nepal entails the ability of citizens, cadres and leaders to know how it works, how they can make optimal policy choices, how they can engage productively in a better path and how they can curb and clean undemocratic action of various actors of society. The opening of new scale of civic competence is important to connect, concert, collaborate and compete in democratic life away from pre-politics of enforced or top-down, consensus-based party politics and democratise the internal life of political parties capable of scrambling to keep pace with the value change towards ecological ethics, human rights, equity, inclusion, peace and sustainability.

Public spiritedness
The success of aspiring leaders is not measured by their connection with top leaders which is a passport for upward political mobility whether elected, selected or nominated after defeat in the popular elections. The critical mass of the civil society of Nepal often reveal family-bound, hereditary, patronage-based and financers’ recruitment in party’s committees and the governance who often contest the basic value of politics-- public spiritedness. It clientalises the delivery of public goods, not impersonally distributed to the needy thus less honing a shared sense of national identity and loftier aspirations, norms and values promoting social capital essential for civic culture.

Even the tendency of haemophilic left parties who are supposed to deepen their ties with the downtrodden classes to play historical dialectic turned homophobic and are now stretched to age, gender, ethnicity, Madhesis, Dalits and Aadibasis and, like non-left parties, become catch-all. All join the melody of transformation without transforming self and establishing its preconditions. They are bereft of political and policy focuses. Only the politics of common good, with supposedly good means, can generate optimism to transform pre-politics into modern politics. This is the era of human dignity intrinsic to every person. The respect for this dignity demands meeting the moral, psychological and material conditions of life.

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