Saturday, 4 December, 2021

Politics, Polls And Power

Mukti Rijal

Going by the current highly charged contestation and rivalry especially among the political leaders and functionaries, it looks like that the whole political spectrum in Nepal is split into two major fragments. Some parties have endorsed the Prime Minister's step of dissolving the parliament and going for the polls after some months while others are opposed to it. The interesting part of the episode is that the Nepali Congress appears divided over it as former prime minister and the party president Sher Bahadur Deuba has argued in favour of waiting until the Supreme court hands its much-awaited consequential decision over the issue whereas the senior leaders like Ram Chandra Poudel, Shekhar Koirala and Krishna Prasad Sitaula have deplored the PM's move and called for the reinstatement of the House of the Representatives. Likewise, the ruling party itself is vertically divided over the issue leading to the breakdown of the entire party structure.
The parties like Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) have tacitly accepted the call for the polls as it has not mobilised its supporters to rally neither to support nor go against the dissolution of the House of the Representatives. Instead, the party has hit the street during the these days to mobilise people in favour of its long held agenda like restoring the Hindu state and the institution of ceremonial monarchy disbanded especially almost a decade ago. The RPP that had faced a humiliating defeat in the elections held three years ago anticipates regaining its lost hold and creditability in the upcoming elections. Needless to say, popularity of the current political dispensation has been mauled severely due to the amplified intra-party squabbling within the ruling party in particular. And the parties like NC and RPP see the opportunity to restore their respective strength in the snap elections called by the prime minister.

Popular test
As feverishly mooted by some quarters, political parties and their leaders should readily accept the challenge of going to the polls in principle as it offers an opportunity not only to test their popularity but renew the mandate of the people. Moreover, political scientists maintain that the democratic elections measure the performance and accountability of leaders to their constituents. It offers an opportunity for the elected representatives and leaders to tell and share with their constituents about what they did in delivering services, address their concerns and aspirations.
Theoretically, periodic elections held according to the provision of constitution and prevailing laws offer a meaningful space for the elected deputies to clarify their positions, allay popular doubts and misperceptions and thus enhance their image in coming clean to the test of popularity. Moreover, election provides in the hands of citizens a number of institutional mechanisms to ensure accountability of political leaders and public service providers. It contributes to improve governance, make service delivery effective, empower the poor people and ultimately achieve well-being.
In fact, absent the genuinely contested elections, democracy cannot survive and it degenerates into a kind of authoritarian imposition. Moreover, elections can evict the leaders from office who are found wanting in accountability for various reasons including failure to provide public services and redress popular grievances. Historically, in the countries that are now labeled as advanced democracies, citizens have exercised incessantly their choice in electing committed political leaders who then formulated public policies that were implemented through bureaucracies to provide services to the public effectively. Over time, this mode of ensuring accountability through choice in the elections has brought increased benefits and wellbeing to ever wider constituencies because politicians sought to widen and strengthen their support bases by promising and delivering public services in an efficient and effective way. If citizens got dissatisfied with their political leaders, they exercised sanctions against them by voting them out of office at the elections.
In a democracy, citizens thus have greater opportunity also to focus on specific issues and press politicians for fulfilling them. But many civic concerns and issues get combined into the citizen’s single vote. Then, it often times becomes tempting to politicians as an avenue to practice client-based policies by directing benefits to particular constituencies in return for their votes, rather than delivering services to the poor and needy in general. In such a context, bureaucracy can become more tempted to monopolize power and resources. In fact, bureaucracy is supposed to work as a mechanism to deliver services in line with the policies formulated by elected politicians. But when it prevails over the policy makers, it can influence and capture the latter reducing them as instruments to serve their interests. As a result, bureaucracy can reverse roles by turning policymakers into agents and themselves into principals.

Patronage network
Likewise, when client-based politics prevails and entrenches, policymakers can perform a similar trick by capturing voters through patronage networks. As a consequence, politicians can become principals and voters their powerless agents. To redress these issues and problems, citizens should be enabled to become directly involved and participate in decision-making process. Well-informed participation can become highly effective in exacting real accountability from service providers and the elected representatives. However, in Nepal's context, citizens have not been consulted and empowered as principals and enabled to exercise their agency in the making and implementation of the policy. As a consequence, politicians tend to ride roughshod over the wishes and aspirations of the people. The ongoing political conflict is brilliant testimony to it.

(Rijal, PhD, contributes regularly to TRN and writes on contemporary political, economic and governance issues.