Tuesday, 27 July, 2021

Politics Dictates Public Institutions

Mukti Rijal


The union of Tribhuvan University professors and teachers affiliated with a major opposition political party organised a webinar, the other day, in which discussion did focus on flaying the government and its ministers for alleged failures on several fronts. Why do unions of professors and teachers choose to convene forums where political and partisan issues are emphatically deliberated? Why the subjects of educational policies and academic issues do not figure in such forums organised by teachers? The speakers placed their emphasis on the alleged failures of the government on all fronts. One of the key speakers even mentioned the communist government has been expected to deliver on economic, social and cultural issues but it has failed as people are facing destitutions, hardship and impoverishment. Another speaker demanded that the teachers be given preferences in political appointments.

Scale of politicisation
Needless to say, both the ruling and the opposition parties have their front organisations in the TU and these wings are ignominiously known for their indulgence in partisan actions and advocacy. This indicates the scale and magnitude of politicisation of the public institutions, including universities in Nepal. It is alleged that partisan-oriented politicisation has not spared the civil bureaucracy and financial institutions in the country.
In a democracy, public institutions like universities are very important in generating discursive data and knowledge and show society the critical path to achieve democratisation and development. In a way, public institutions like universities are one kind of think tanks that provide reliable data in the process of policymaking. Moreover, modern state secures legitimacy and carries out its tasks through a diverse range of public institutions of which universities and publicly funded research institutes are very significant.
The societies are well-governed and better organised to the extent that their public institutions can adequately manage and deliver services entrusted to them. If public institutions are weak, fragile and cannot function effectively, the structure and function of the state itself is bound to suffer. Taking the growing assault into the vitality of public institutions into account, intelligentsia, media persons and citizen stakeholders are voicing their concerns and venting their anguish over the decline of public institutions in the country.
This was also echoed in the webinar interaction organized recently by an independent civil society forum in which academics,   physicians, and law professionals, citizen stakeholders hinted at the reckless and wanton political meddling in the affairs of the public institutions in the country. The academics and civil society leaders who spoke in the interaction were worried over the continued and deliberate assault on the fabric of the public institutions and mindless attack on their rationale. One of the key speakers in the interaction shared his experiences while working as the Vice Chancellor of the Tribhuvan University decades ago and told how the attempts were made to exert pressure on him from the political quarters to dance according to the partisan tune.
His contention was that should one dare to speak with courage risking favours and self-interests, the meddling in the functional autonomy and free space of the public institutions could be defended and protected. Another speaker argued that politics and political parties are inalienable elements of the democratic political system but the degeneration and decline in the moral standards driven by the lust for power is really a disturbing phenomenon.
Featured prominently in the discussion were the cases of the TU and other universities where the political meddling and manipulation were at their worst manifestations. Not very long back the Vice Chancellor of the country’s oldest university has been appointed but it is alleged that appointee's proximity to authority of the state was a determining factor in his selection. Likewise, the government is reportedly considering picking the political loyalists through a negotiated sharing at the apex positions of the remaining four universities where such positions are lying vacant for long.
 The speakers in the interaction stressed that the public institutions should be allowed to function independently and effectively according to law without any interference and functionaries and staff should refrain from being imbued with and dictated by the partisan interest. The state authorities should respect the democratic provision and rule of law in letter and spirit.
The speakers contended that no public institutions can change for better till rent seeking tendencies exist among politicians and bureaucratic authority. The speakers also maintained that the country's politics has been usurped by those who are dealing in shady and corrupt practices. Intellectual elites and civil society should bear moral courage and conviction to stand up against the scrupulous interferences without being seduced and influenced by the lure of the power and position. In fact, the authorities heading the public institutions should play key role to keep them from the undue political meddling and intervention. 

Diagnostic perspectives
Some discussants with their diagnostic perspectives pinned blame on the mushrooming splinter groups of unions beholden to the fragmented politics for deterioration of the public institutions. For example, even the core services like education and health have been riddled with the roughshod riding of the unions. In today's democratic Nepal, the unions do actually micromanage the public institutions and these bodies exercise the role as if they have been mandated and appropriated the decision making authority.  The politicisation in the affairs of the public institutions has been   executed through these unions at the beck and call of the political parties. For example, according to a discussant, a premier hospital in the capital city   has at least four trade unions each jostling for meddling in the internal affairs of the hospital. The interaction ended up with the note that the interventionist tendencies of the state authorities can be corrected only when civic sphere is independent and strong enough to withstand and stonewall the unscrupulous meddling into the functioning of the public institutions.

(Rijal, PhD, contributes regularly to TRN and writes on contemporary political, economic and governance issues. rijalmukti@gmail.com)