Dev Raj Dahal
The political culture of a nation plays vital roles in the life of a nation and the society, no matter whether or not their leaders are elected. Politics is so deeply rooted in the native cultural traits that the society instinctively inherits the properties of its ancestors and produces its own distinct and persistent form of political life. In a patrimonial regime, political power flows from leaders to followers despite the constitutional provision of popular sovereignty which supposes political power spring from the bottom up. The attributes of patrimonial regime are: thin boundary between the public and the private sphere, personal loyalty of cadres and citizens to leaders, not political parties, subordination of institutional authority for personal ends, patron-client ties, factional leaders coterie’s struggle for power, wealth and media craze and pervasive bribery and abuse of authority threatening the supply of security, order and essential public goods to citizens. The outcome is: ineffective regime.
The unification of Nepal by King Prithvi Narayan Shah marked its tryst with destiny. He had crafted policy science to prescribe the duties of rulers to protect the nation, work for public wellbeing, regulate society and provide justice to them. His dictum: “the king’s repository of strength lies in the people,” mercantilist economic and cultural policies that underpinned the statecraft and the codes provided legitimacy to regime. The central loyalty to the state and king gave heartland political elite certain coherence, stability and effectiveness. But Nepal under Rana regime had been governed by hukumi shasan, the rule by fiat. Ranarchy defined the nation’s sovereignty over social and physical space and mustered all resources to defend it.
The state elites controlled all the interest groups and oriented society towards cultural continuity and conformity thus cohering policies to interact with other states. Nepal’s legacy at the start was an acute suspicion of firangi (foreigners), foreign religion, culture, trade and commerce. This naturally inclined its rulers towards seclusion. It spurred the growth of inward-looking, defensive and self-reliant worldview and conduct. This seclusion made Nepalis introvert in thinking, yet action-oriented. Self-image of middle kingdom barred the Chinese to learn from others until the open door policy shattered that image. In contrast, India found its strength in argumentative culture and Nepal in national freedom standing against universal imperialism.
The annual pajanis of Ranas weakened the cohesion of political class. The uncertainty of jagirs for economic security inspired lethal political rivalry among them risking national security. The patrimonial regime made citizens dependent on central authority for vision, leadership and initiative evolving state-centric society. Nepal is still a nation-state of older type which keeps the continuity of many traditions and institutions – court, religion, bureaucracy, army and police and discontinuity of civic institutions, periodic democratic upsurge, relapse and resilience. A vivid sense of national identity to which the Nepalis cling now is an artifact of the radius of patriotism of heroes and builders, architecture, culture and their own gallantry.
The leaders’ flirtation with patrimonial regime began with familial, cultural and religious practices following the decay of Vedic age. The post-Vedic age marked the opening of cognitive trap and the reign of caste and cycles of life. Its pyramid, labour division and social control by means of power monopoly turned authority ties in a vertical style by one-way - where orders, control and penalty are directed from the top and obedience from below. Obedience implies that those at the bottom view themselves an agency to carry the wishes of those at the top. They, thus, lack civic competence, freedom of choice and feel no more responsible for their actions.
Nepal’s political and cultural history is steeped in the legacy of South Asia and China. Its heritage inherited from the union of Aryans and Mongoloids shaped its stock of knowledge, beliefs and behaviour. Nepal is a landlocked nation, a chain of high Himalayas, mountains and hills all around except a thin belt of Terai which eased its exposure, articulation and circulation patterns to the South. Its gift of natural resources and strategic site craft its destiny of interest to outsiders. In the modern Nepali life, authority is owed to powerful leaders rather than party, polity and the state. Citizens’ links with them are weak. The modern virtues of loyalty, honour and courage of Gorkhas seem akin to the Confucian canon which lays great stress on discipline, hard work, family values and loyalty to higher authorities.
Like Bahuns, Confucian mandarins showed open disdain for menial work. The growing impact of modernity is changing this culture. Modern Bahun gives emphasis on science than Sanskrit and modern Confucian lays greater value to physics instead of classics. Recruitment of elites in bureaucracy, police and army provided ample machinery to govern social life and link people to the state. The Nepali political life then, and even now, is preoccupied with the problem of order and stability, not competition where non-elites, such as peasants and workers are exploited by elites through their control over political parties, administration and regime. This has reduced the society's ability to use scarce resources, accumulate capital, invest, innovate and train workers for progress. Yet within the chrysalis of feudalism Nepali identity was carved.
The Ranarchy was not accountable to the public or to the monarch who was virtually held captive. Until its downfall, the Hindu-Buddhist religions, Nepali language, caste complex and patriarchy shaped the social and political life. The local societies, dominated by folk heritage, history and territoriality, were governed by their own cognitive reflection and practices autonomous from the national civil code. The preference of agrarian society was joint family system and social order, not economic growth and intellectual innovation. Modernity in the sense of applying science to solve society’s problems started with them.
The nation witnessed a great literary efflorescence within and outside the nation marking the origins of rational criticism in public sphere. The patterns that set the course for these intellectuals as outsider of power were the articulation of great sense of discord about the ironies of politics. It has elevated citizens above the divine and natural order and inspired them to abolish hereditary rule and establish constitutional democracy. Yet, as a vast majority of the people was unconscious and the socio-economic structures were nearly medieval, Nepal’s spirit with democracy began to be conditioned by cultural, economic, political, technological and cognitive dependence on outside which forced it to swallow many normative and development prescriptions of uncanny effect.
The democratic process was rooted less in the articulation of periphery of rural Nepal than of India, Kathmandu and vital urban nodes, finery of party personality and their freedom of gaining and entitlements without liable to the public. The weak national base of electoral regime failed to upset the patrimonial structure of power though it tried to derive political stability by means of reforms while retaining the continuity of state institutions and the social order built by the ancien regime based on patron-client ties. The feudal elites as the governing class of the state thrived in privileges and impunity. The inordinate clout of the old political culture of revenge in the face of spineless political leadership prompted the monarch to stage a putsch in December 1960 and to innovate party-less Panchayat regime.
A rising aspiration of a large section of middle class for a better life lent its support to the putsch because of their dependence on the state for job security, social mobility, entitlements, business opportunities and recruitment in civil and political institutions. The authority of monarchy have equally undergone changes from active, captive, parliamentary, assertive, constitutional monarchy to secular, federal democratic republic now in tandem with civic activism. The bureaucratisation of regime allowed an accommodation of talented persons, rebel leaders and ethnic, women, Madhesi, aadibasi and caste sub-elites as representatives and engaged them in clear political acculturation, not innovation.
A tiny critical mass now articulates the literature of combat, a will to human freedom expressed in terms of time and space seeking basic change in its patrimonial culture. The People’s War has only fused the interest of elites of various political hues and radicalised democracy and human rights beyond Nepali state’s capacity to sustain. The dissolution of Panchayat and constitutional monarchy and the fragility of one-party rule now, however, did not change the nation’s political culture. The ordinary citizens thus hardly feel the politics of difference other than their power of electoral choice and voice. The new political class appeared weak to break with their habits of patronage and wise enough to plan for the future as per national priorities.
The traditional style of governance to single out scapegoat to explain the cost of their ruinous policies still persists with the mismatch of leaders’ critical mind. The failure of democratic institutions to satisfy citizens’ rights included in the constitution of Nepal, demands for economic growth, social justice and personal security is exerting pressure on the regime. Erosion of checks and balances is fading the rule of law and democratisation of the new political class. As the mainstream political parties restricted their activities to official power they seem to be alienated from nation building. The state is hobbled by its downsizing and suffers from authority crisis. Bulk of citizens is frozen into economic insecurity. The lack of will of leaders to pursue larger national interests trapped them into high stake game of geopolitics unable to act independent of postmodern identity politics.
The patrimonial regime deselected public interests, cut competitive politics and boosted status quo. Factional fight in each party now appeared because the incumbent weakened its rival’s capacity to exploit non-elite and extract public resources. So long as residues of socio-psychological aspect of power linger and a move towards the democratisation of political structure and political culture falter rural masses will breed party functionaries while urban nodes decision-makers. So long as political parties slot vital intellectual, administrative, managerial and political posts to their own party ranks and maximise the difference between their power potential and that of various forms of rivals, Nepali democracy will be gripped in a byzantine complexity. It will fail to write farewell to the political economy of bichaulia and skirt the inverse correlation between the celebrity of leaders for career desire and the misery of citizens.
The deception of citizens with “optical illusion,” fashioning their promises appear and disappear often find no solace in scapegoats. Hit by a lack of statesmanship, Nepalis have forsaken to rely on their promise of turning Nepal into a galloping progress, began to place doubt and woke up from the illusion of their insight. Reforms are needed in removing its patrimonial traits: run into action without sincerely debating on consequences, atrophy of civic virtue, that is, the life of political community is de-linked from ethics, primacy of private profit over common good, lack of broad citizen participation, absence of professionalism, dishonour of predecessors and reliance on outside.
They hide in a void of new ventures, like economists in percentage and lawyers in Articles, suffering from schizophrenia, not evolving a single vision. In the light of the problems Nepalis face, there is no way other than to resolve its drift towards litigious culture, where personal and political questions enmesh with the legal system perfecting the art of patrimonial regime.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)
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