Dev Raj Dahal
Public intellectuals are those enlightened persons are engaged in a pursuit of critical thinking, research and reflection about human condition, educate the public about value shifts, advocate the matters of general concerns, continuously reform and rationalise society, economy and polity and help peacefully resolve issues to make the life of citizens satisfying. The realm of public is visibly non-partisan while intellectual express their conviction. Unlike elites driven by social status or academics proletariat who look down their fellow citizens, the public intellectuals are self-critical and esteem their compatriots as equal, even defend those on the wrong side of history to protect them from pre-existing condition.
The recent evolution of Nepali society, however, is market by self-justifying irrationality of violence and conflict. It is exposing citizens to harmful effects and retarding their critical faculty in general and conscience of public intellectuals in particular. Conflict situation is a bargaining situation, a situation in which the ability of leaders of one political party to promote their goal rests on the choices and decision of the others. In this situation, it is vital to obtain sound knowledge about the issues involved into bargaining and merit of the choices of each party to determine the purpose of politics -- restore the common good.
Decision does not emerge independently of constraints imposed by the interest and action of various leaders and their agencies. This means decision-makers need to learn alternative way of thinking when intellectuals discuss about breaking logjam. In a nation where context-sensitive research tradition is very puny and think tanks are poorly institutionalised, public intellectuals have the primary responsibility to hone judgmental ability of the public about the rationality of issue settlement by offering useful perspectives. Freedom and opportunity to public intellectuals are, thus, vital for their engagement with the society and the state and build trust between the two.
Shifting paradigm of institutions: Nepal, one of the oldest nations, is now steeped in both changes and challenges. It is the outgrowth of Nepalis knowledge, cultural memory and identity, not built on the image of Westphalian Treaty of 1648. Yet, the internalisation of external ideology and study is fading shared cultural memory among the leaders and their supporters. As a result, the nation is facing new challenges from a myriad of social forces such as NGOs, civil society, social movements, ethnicity, communalism, tribalism, middle men and caucuses of various social classes crossing the partisan boundaries and reimagining the nation in the light of modernity while indigenous people are invoking both ecological and human rights.
Similarly, erosion of national sovereignty by globalisation has weakened Nepali state’s capacity to provide security, realise citizens’ rights and muster their loyalty. This gap between legal sovereignty and institutional capacity has eroded social discipline and public order. In a time of cultural shift, civil society is losing its national identity and falling apart along primordial lines while market-driven politics is only rewarding the organised and powerful in a chiefly informal and unorganised society, economy and polity.
Nepal’s majoritarian polity throws the control of public institutions into the hands of those winning political power. It is an inversion of participatory democracy defined by human rights and debases its constitutional culture of social inclusion. The right to information has entailed transparency of official process while popular sovereignty expects the accountability of party building from the bottom up. Still, a tension exists between democracy based on the principle of affected by the decision and constitutional constraints that fosters balance of power within the polity, not outside the system of labour, capital, the state and international regimes.
Nepali parties formed around leaders and cadres now face dissonance in adapting to the emergence of multi-classes at the level of capital and labour and individualisation of life eased by information, technology and economy. Their penchant more to hold the reins on power than execute the constitution have cramped the performance. They appear feeble to deliver public goods. The governance actors too are strained in organising collective action.
Now politics, law and policy making roles, the traditional prerogatives of the legislature and parties, are shared by the non-state, market, civil society and international regimes. But the crisis of Nepali democracy and development is attributed to only the nature of state, not the rest. Rights-based non-organic formation of many of civil society groups, NGOs and project-driven people has fed tension with the duty-based organic ones.
Public intellectuals daily audit the indicators of leaders in terms of democratic and human rights norms, their performance to satisfy public demands and unveil the rationality deficits. Nepali intellectuals can play positive role in making democracy a non-zero-sum game, fostering informed opinion, values and knowledge to hone deliberative practice sustained by the force of information against the structures of governance beyond the rituals of parties, ideologies and leaders. Without the change of patrimonial political culture, Nepali society cannot adapt to new social forces demanding social representation in politics and fulfilment of basic needs. Distribution of democratic outcome to all can create equal stake in its basic values, institutions, rules and processes. An adaptation to shifting norms of democracy can create common ground in time of uncertainty.
Unorganised Nepalis are left with the only electoral choice, no influence on leadership, public policy or decision. The nation hosts scores of groups with uneven interests in organising social change: some through the rituals of parliamentary democracy, others in social movements for its path correction through participatory democracy, and still others are coddling rebellion as the way forward to redefine the rules of the game and detest the prevailing practice of syndicate rule that discounts the dignity of dissidents. Negotiation on the bottom line of each other by ruling and opposition in Nepal will surely paralyse the public purpose of politics and intensified differences hitting functional political order, social cohesion and rule of law.
Shifting rules, rights and duties: Rule without rights and rights without duties pave the road to chaos. One defective aspect of Nepali politics is that law-mediated solidarity among the citizens is weak. Leaders’ radius of trust lies with personalised networks of families, relatives, followers, clients and funders, not impersonal citizens. The vengeful politics of Nepal has stoked centrifugal pulls, countless interest groups and pre-political solidarity. The hot mix of personalised leadership, monopoly regime, syndicate and mini identity mania are moving Nepali politics on an authoritarian route. Public intellectuals increasingly question patriarchal and patrimonial form of polity, abhor political correctedness maintained by media elites and raise voice against democratic regression. Their resistance against arbitrary power marks the beginning of risk to their opportunity denial, not imbibing higher standards of conduct. Without their support, it is difficult to expose those who enjoy power without policy and without accountability. In Nepal a fresh election can offer a hope for the integrity of political leadership, clean up messy politics and create and sustain a coercion-free society.
Shifting issues: Nepali intellectuals have the tendency to oversee complex national issues from linear, disciplinary lens and frame their solution which is intricate. Only a critical reflection on them can furnish integrated strategies. Resolution of common problems faced by Nepalis requires collective efforts and common commitment to human rights, democracy, justice and peace. In a conflict situation, solidarity can minimise the risk and maximise space and strength of public intellectuals to continue with their pursuit in public interests. Solidarity makes certain loose interests solid, concrete and cohesive. This means the goal of solidarity is to create the union of interests, purposes and sympathies among public intellectuals as a group to ordinary Nepalis. Solidarity building is essential tool to form group mind, influence corroding course of political action and organise the voice and visibility of the public.
Openness towards Future: Democratic environment is central to create an open-access order of polity within the Nepali state. The connection of conceptual world of the intellectuals with the real world of citizens can open the possibilities for the latter’s access to wider realms of knowledge about public affairs and move to self-chosen direction harnessing the benefits of modernity and democracy. Public intellectuals have to seek paths out of national crises and seek to balance between individual, group and human rights so that tribal identities do not destabilise the life of Nepali demos, their state and its ideology nationalism.
Public intellectuals, reflective of their conscience and ground condition, detest both utilitarian politics and violence-producing causes at different scales and institutional practices. Since they bring the condition of citizens to light, it is onus upon the leadership to envision a collective future that can be realised through a very concrete set of measures that progressively nurtures a new sense of joint responsibility, confidence and being agents instead of victims and observers. They have a double duty to link the connectors of society for social integration and socialise them for national responsibility.
Space of freedom
Unrestrained communication makes for a national community, Nepali state, and widens the space of freedom for evolving understanding, consensus and confidence. Reviving the community’s moral authority and sharing personal experiences with citizens in issue analysis will help leaders to liberate from the prison of ideology, selective perception of reality and learn about the reality of national life. Securing safety of the national milieu is necessary to address perceived or actual risks to them and citizens’ lives, liberty and profession. One way is democratisation of environments which reduces the risks of violence arising out of personal ambition of certain leaders and domination of interest groups, political dons or criminals and allowing the citizens to speak their minds about the working of power impervious to timely change.
This is possible if the dignity of public intellectuals’ profession is maintained. They have to grasp the spirit of solidarity among circle of friends in the civil society to harness opportunity from the spirits of freedom, trust and technology and establish autonomy, impartiality and dignity of their pursuit. An interactive public sphere sustained by freedom of public intellectuals can alone guarantee the rationalisation of society toward preservative adaptation oriented to shifting norms of the state, polity, government, political parties, business, civil society and citizen.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)
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