Dev Raj Dahal
In any society less mobilised, modernised and democratised by political parties, civil society and cultural industries, the unflinching social foundation of caste, class and gender pyramid and patronage determine its political and social life. It poses difficulty for leadership to manage the modern polity which has lost its old authority while the modern one is less disposed to escape from deep political quagmire. Authoritarian leaders are the product of pushy and rigid character in personal conduct though they often identify their personality with public and national interests. The business practice too supports this culture.
In Nepal, for example, it is family-friendly and hereditary here, not citizenship based. Therefore, the radius of trust among business persons hovers along kinship line, geographic location and network of transactions. Nepali leaders’ enthusiastic embrace of lean state that offered partnership with the business and civil society has become less productive now while the interface between bureaucracy and citizens is marked by general apathy. It exacts modesty and efficiency for forward movement. Lack of collaboration among the business houses has spoiled the scale of business and its ability to expand in the global sphere. So long as regulatory bodies are not freed from the influence of money and the legislature silently deserts itself from policy making and representational duties, it is hard to cultivate civic culture in Nepali leadership, a leadership fully capable of striking a rough balance between political equality of citizens and condition of economic inequality.
Only its civic culture can set the state’s imperative of stability shored up by history, heritage, cultural and religious tradition and modern freedom fostered by rationalism, science and enlightenment in a rough equilibrium. Democracy seeks to transform the evil aspects of its politics such as totalitarianism and dictatorship into a virtual circle. Authoritarianism differs from totalitarianism. In the later a single political party controls the entire machineries of the state or dictatorship where dissent and the pluralist voices of citizens are suppressed thus fostering a culture of silence, not a life conversation. Nepal’s intellectual tradition detests both yet reconciles authoritarianism rooted in its native utilitarianism.
The tendency of Nepali leaders to centralise political power and use it in less prudent way has incubated authoritarianism. It is wrong to say that authoritarianism thrives mostly in inherited traditional society, where individual political leaders seek absolute loyalty and compliance to their personal style of rule. They are less accountable to their political parties, polity or the state thus leaving a lesser amount of scope of freedom to citizens to exercise their conscious choice. Many electoral democracies and modernised sector of bureaucracy and educational institutions have descended into authoritarianism prising collective values and interests over individual life, innovation and productivity.
To political culture theorists a regimented polity can be dubbed as parochial and subjective, not democratic and participant ones. The latter is based on human rights, ecological, social and intergenerational justice and peace and allows the operation of the principles of freedom, inclusion and subsidiarity. The social solidarity of authoritarian political culture is rooted in the leadership distribution of personal gifts, positions, payoffs and lucrative business opportunity to loyalists and followers in a vertical way. It does not fulfil the expected standards of impersonal performance and achievement of leaders in their public duties benefitting all citizens that underlie the social contract.
Democracy demands ever increasing degree of self-discipline of leaders, widening commitment to its ideas and excellence in every field of life even collaboration across adversaries. Ironically, status-bound nature of authoritarian leadership fosters exclusive political culture, keeps politics of negation to non-conformists, restricts material preconditions for natural rights or civil liberties of citizens and creates deficient political order where each type of opposition is allowed to outfox the other, exploit the loyalties of division even suffocate public life. Such a tendency cannot transform primordial culture into a democratic one able to separate the sanity of public and private sphere that even Kautilya cherished long ago.
The general propensity of all authoritarian regimes is that they cashed their regime survival on the basis of certain level of development success, not democratic constitutionalism, rule of law, autonomy of citizens aspiring for self-governing polity and peaceful social transformation abolishing vicious cycle of politics. Underneath is kleptocracy where the value of money dominates leadership passion, political institutions and processes, not the dynamic balance of the government and oppositions of various types and organizations of the state to subdue chaos and citizens for fulfilling lives. If political frame or constitution aims unreachable goals and inserts ironies it normally produce authoritarian leaders. Its growth can be attributed to the perpetuation of fixed social and economic support structure, transitional politics endowed with the right of leaders to ease authority’s manipulative drive, persistence of unsteady social condition prone to radical appeal, etc.
The growth of authoritarian leadership in Nepal is value-neutral to ideological types and its governing style is top down. It is now facing corresponding authoritarian challenges from radical elements and the forces of reaction maladjusted to civic culture and facing rising discontent from within their own parties verging on split, fusion and fragmentation. Even middle-of-the-road Nepali political leaders have failed to allay the disaffection of social struggles, bellicose tone of democracy-compressing radical forces and militant elements within their own parties ready to indulge in harass and attack politics. It is deemed anti-politics as politics is a rule-based game played peacefully.
Many of Nepal’s top leaders’ personality can be called authoritarian for their tendency to keep informal polity, not constitutional traditions of politics, bypass legislature for the enactment of laws, introduce policies and ordinances incompatible with the spirit of Constitution, trespass institutional authority to perpetuate self in power and develop a predisposition to vitiate the laws of the land to be corrected often by the verdict of Supreme Courts. If one analyses the trends of Nepali leaders’ decisions since the nineties to now one finds consistency in their habits despite many political upheavals, regime change of diverse types and reshuffling of leaders of scores of ideological hues. Old habits die hard. Its outcomes are: democratic dysfunctions, loss of checks, integrity and accountability.
The historical amnesia, poor social learning and easy incentives for them from geo-strategic competitors in terms of power and legitimacy have centralised leadership thinking while less caring to electorates which devalued the constitutional tradition of politics. On the issues of protection and promotion of vital public and national interests their prerogatives are challenged by attentive Nepalis, critical mass of civil society, professional associations and the courts. They helped to discipline the prejudice of leaders to stay in, transform and use political power as per legitimate norms. Political power is public trust based on public opinion whose periodic renewal in fair elections keeps democracy circulate power across diverse social strata and generations.
To conclude, political culture of most of Nepali leaders bears many authoritarian traits. First, they seek conformity to their decisions rather than decide on the basis of sufficient deliberation with the public affected by them. Second, they often think themselves as givers and citizens as takers of public good, not sovereign ones with the ability of judgment. They consider self-superior over citizens except during elections or in times of mobilisation of mass protests against the regime. Third, their belief system has fostered a personality cult that requires submission of citizens and rigid adherence to inherited political culture, not the spirit of democracy, human rights and rule of law. Fourth, a sort of fatalism has reinforced tolerance to multiple authority and legitimacy — traditional, legal-rational and charismatic — that fosters emptiness in cognitive reflection, not exposed to rationalism of modernity, science and active citizenship.
Flaw lies first in the early socialisation of citizens into dependent clients, consumers, workers and voters, not autonomous citizens with equal rights and equal duties, and second, distribution of opportunity in a pre-modern style of patron-client. The ancient regime, Ranarchy with patrimonial leadership enforced the later tendency by coercion and fear of pande pajani (annual reshuffle of civil servants), Panchayat regime fostered patron-Pancha in top-down style and democratic dispensation incubated ruler and ruled and leaders and led, not a shared national identity. Yet, during various dispensations, liberal education and tolerance to religious and social pluralism have bred liberal authoritarianism that did not cripple the potential of civil society, business and constitutional bodies to perform certain critical minimum functions.
The nature of politics in Nepal is determined by the operation of sub-group process called leader’s class, even if it has developed a catch-all tendency of mass-based parties. They make the binding decisions to all citizens because they are authoritative undertaken by elected leaders. If they cannot distribute sub-group benefits in decision making to diverse population, the natural course of resistance and craziness unfolds infecting the tissues and cells of entire society. There is always a faction of crazy Nepali leaders who willingly believe in dark conspiracy theories of internal and foreign hands in every wrong rather than communicate among themselves properly, build national consensus and forge an understanding for collective action. Paul Krugman says, “The crazies no longer felt the need to moderate their tone; on the contrary, they began a sort of arms race, in which they competed to out-craze one another.”
The dilatory tactics resembles an irony of Nepali leaders. The arteries that dispose general political values -- family, educational institutions, media, political parties, interest groups, associations and federations -- and that shape cognitive orientation to political attitude, beliefs and norms is deemed as political culture. They need to generate enthusiasm for substantive reforms along Nepal’s welfare state, democratisation of the inner life of leadership, ideologies and political parties, integration of qualified specialists into civic culture, strengthen public sphere for mass education to liberate citizens from sullen passivity, uphold the autonomy of constitutional bodies, build trust between the leaders and citizens and keep the system’s integrity to spur moderation.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)
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