Saturday, 4 December, 2021

Political Institutionalisation Matters

Dev Raj Dahal

Nepal is yet to come out of the persistence of political transition and set up secure governance capable to stabilise the areas of fragility and conflict and execute vision and policies envisioned by the Constitution. The institutional structures of polity prescribe and proscribe the participants. The moral justification of the government springs from the electoral mandate of citizens. It is their agency to ensure law and order. Governance is a purposive rule where all the actors concert their behaviour, respond to citizens’ rights and dispel the structural, policy and political cultural barriers to achieving common good.
Weak institutions, strong personalities and collusive game are, however, obtrusive to stabilise the authority of polity and make it impersonal so that losers feel a stake in it. In a deinstitutionalised polity, those in command of institutional leadership, resources and networks to power amazingly influence decisions relative to the precarious state of bulk of citizens unsettled with the life’s daily problems.  In this context, democratic ideal of the creation of an equal playing field for all equal citizens is central to prevent the slanted clout of institutional power and money, facilitate to secure rights for Nepalis and protect them from dismal signs -- deficits-based welfare state, citizens’ aversion to the hulking tax burden and their rising hopes from a raft of cross-functional institutions of governance. Robert A Scalapino says “political institutionalisation enables a movement away from the high dependence on personalised rule and makes orderly and evolutionary change possible.”
An attentive public of Nepal is hotly debating on the future of leadership, the direction of political process and the blooming nexus of the camarilla of leaders from politics, administration, business, contractors and middle men who monopolise inordinate power and control the rules of the game relative to average Nepalis’ ability to influence government’s policies and decisions through institutional process other than engage in boisterous agitations, protests, demonstrations and social movements to air their voice and satisfy interests. The mainstream political parties – Nepal Communist Party, Nepali Congress and Madhes-based parties - represent the ruling establishment of secular, federal, democratic republic and relish the resources of polity to their own ends. This super-structural change holds little sense for the wretched Nepalis beneath social, economic and political pyramid struggling for basic needs, job opportunity and access to health, education, voice and social mobility.
The distributive justice promised by leaders during the agitation is included in the constitution and shared and self-rule but lingers uneasily with old political culture of cronyism. It is feeding a grief about politics rooted in human nature that flouts welter of rules of governance. The drama of leaders in Nepal is rife with factional fights within parties infected by the attrition of ideological heritage, rise of primitiveness, pressure from auxiliary bodies, rise of new social milieu, growth of awareness of citizens about a mismatch between their rights and condition, cultural cringe and tilted set of rules, policies, and projects. Top leaders in each political party are stitched up by their own desire to leverage against their rivals while their untamed cohorts find it foul to chew up and justify their roles.
Nepali parties are not well institutionalised with the power of autonomy from inner circle of special interests, smooth leadership chain, adaptable to changing technological and geopolitical condition and predictable rules, behaviour and policies vital to fulfil changing desire of electorates. A rational organisational discipline, clear priorities, norms for governing skill and cadres’ inclusion in many layers of party committees can socialise leader-oriented factions who mutually contest for position and end up in ineffectual political compromise leaving the weaker on the edge of desolation, anguish and rage bent on eroding each other’s legitimacy than learning from popular feedback. The personalisation of parties for life has also reared strain with vertical bodies of youth, women, Janajatis, Dalits, indigenous and functional groups complicating Nepalis’ desire for inclusive transformation, equitable progress and participatory democracy.
The glorification of personality cult by their followers for their patronage and selective distribution of opportunity rather than general public policy benefitting all citizens only shows them deceptive mirror, not the reality. As a result, Nepali leaders are shifting to new pastures of constituency, familial affinity, private money and media publicity and defending less the constitutional imperative of realising an egalitarian utopia.
Trained more in political rhetoric, mass mobilisation and agitation and less on public policy issues which are largely imported, problem resolution which is less negotiated than power equation-based and the art of governing reveal the fading status of leaders, notwithstanding almost two-third majority of the ruling party NCP in the parliament, provinces and local bodies and its promise of happiness, stability and progress. Euphoric of unity between former UML and Maoists and long-term ride in governmental power is too tempting to discount but the fear of sharing each other’s follies and absorbing many voices. It left the NCP with fractured worldviews. Only mutually nice figures can handle its complex gear.
The opposition NC, disarrayed and baffled by its loss of vim in elections has only shelved its four vicious rips now. Co-optation of its leaders in the regime and devoid of any policy alternative except to blame the government for veering to authoritarian line has left it to splutter and struggle to align with Madhes-based parties to reshape itself as a credible alternative. But it fears that both (also RPPs) compete for votes from the same political space. It is unclear how a deeply divided party will weather the succession politics. All Madhes-based parties often relent to the chorus of position and opposition depending on who whispers to them and always look out for power to escape from constitutional amendment. A ceiling of three per cent for national identity has reduced the number of smaller parties but not the unbridled eloquence of their voice which can act as a defence against the deterioration of oppositional space and fear of anomic forces filling it like a cornered cat.
Occasional howl for institutional reforms flows from dissatisfied factions from each party, civil society, critical mass, media, social forces and attentive citizens setting the resilience of democratic dynamic against monotonous prose of the establishment composed by passion, not reason. Conflict victims add ardour to this as they are waiting for transitional justice. This justice remains a tale only when bargaining within the parties and interest groups within the polity continues for relative peace while auxiliary bodies and civil society affiliated to parties have to face double subservience to leaders for career path and donors for financing their activities.
Media fear that Information and Technology Act and Special Service Act might clip their power, Human Rights Act can limit individual freedom and NGOs and civil society doubt the regulative laws for squeezing civic space. The regime, however, justifies these Acts to control the law-breakers and foreign actors indulged in kleptocratic practices. The allies of constitutionalism argue that rule of law cannot prevail when top leaders ignore parliamentary process and informally govern every vital decision.
The Nepali state is afflicted by multi-causes of malaises. The State Affairs and Good Governance Committee of parliament, mandated to oversee constitutional bodies, peace process, national security, public administration, fair election, etc. is now seeking opinion of experts on political, financial, corporate and bureaucratic malfeasance and high-profile corruption which are eroding public trust and fading the institutions of the governance to administer, manage and perform in a regularised way. The integrity of Nepali political life is rife with impunity to powerful elites. The anti-corruption watchdog CIAA has laid bare sinister fraud at all levels of governance. Its exponential growth at local bodies is attributed to impunity, political protection, rent-seeking to compensate the election investment, cronyism, favouritism, opaque tendering process, absence of proper monitoring of development projects, etc.
Nepali leaders must find a common cause for political institutionalisation and set the boundaries among society, political parties and the polity. Similarly, penalisation of crime and bribery, institutionalisation of checks and balances, transparency and rule-enforcement can improve the integrity of public institutions and actors, save economic surplus essential for poverty alleviation, justice and peace and boost the trust of citizens in governance. Several vital organs, such as the autonomous media, Public Account Committee of the Parliament, Auditor-General, fair judiciary and CIAA are critical to expose kleptocratic practices whose evidence-based approaches help address the scale of ugly networks, monitor money transaction and vulnerability of governance to various debt obligations arising out of strategic, power, spiritual and material dependence.
But without the grit of political will of the government it is difficult to turn the screw tight enough and enforce the outreach of rule of law. But democratic institutions become less stable when impoverished citizens are vulnerable to inflammatory appeal and anomie arising out of institutional atrophy.  A civilised society is marked by the learning from its institutional memory as a guide and conversion of each party to institutional and moral imperative of virtuous governance.

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