Dev Raj Dahal
The state is a central concept in the study of political science. Its robust ecological, social, economic and political structures lay the foundation of public order and peace. The classical notion of the state is polis or an idealised political community of citizens organised to set security, individual freedom and public order. Nepali state formation is indigenous emerged out of its Hindu-Buddhist virtues rooted into dharma. It is not only about the fulfilment of personal and national needs but an adaptation to sanatan dharma, the cosmological ordering. The modern state does not symbolise the unitary power of the public. It has multiple centres of authority and competency with a single chain of command at the core, heartland, to decide vital choices while authority on other areas is devolved to the sub-national and local levels. Democratic state as an impartial arbiter of competing values and preferences has to serve pluralist interests of Nepali society, regulate citizens’ lives from birth registration to death, offer livelihood means, mediate differing impulses and aspirations, settle conflicts and maintain security, territorial integrity and sovereignty.
The rationale of state’s constitutional separation, balance and devolution of power is derived from the Western belief on the murky view of human nature and the need for a powerful Leviathan to discipline and punish the wrongdoers. The Hindu-Buddhist worldview views human nature divine one and the purpose of education is to realise this divinity and humanity. Its view of state is not a Leviathan to absorb the freedom, energy and strength of society but to make its institutions operational in accordance with the codes, rules and practices. Now the transformation of Nepali state from dharma to law and contractual ties affirming constitutional welfare state demands a multi-level social contract to improve citizens’ livelihood, hone their ability to self-govern and manage technology and ecology-induced change as survival strategies.
The recent comeback of welfare state is based on the retreat of universal ideologies that misjudged the rollback and withering of the state, return of geopolitically driven nationalism, shabbiness of regional cooperation schemes to address the sources and effects of COVID 19, reliance of states on self-help, strict migration control, enormous costs of rescue, relief and rehabilitation of workers abroad, weakening of multilateralism and international institutions, growing roles of the state agencies in the supply of health equipment, medicines, food and job and demands of citizens for relief and welfare-maximisation.
As the pressure on Nepali state for globalisation has faded, it is demarcating the realm of national and international order enabling it to play pro-active role in matters of public goods, especially in security, rule of law, health, education, climate change and infrastructure development essential to improve output efficiency of polity in containing the spread of coronavirus. The insecure framework of international system for uncontrolled transactions in matters of trade, commerce, transport, tourism, foreign investments, connectivity and human mobility has opened bigger scope of Nepali state action. National capability enhances its viability and room for choice in the web of geopolitics and helps in balancing ties with great powers.
Each state now is competing with the other to acquire protective masks, medicines, medical oxygen, tracing of virus infection, testing machines, other health equipment and conducting scientific research to invent the anti-COVID 19 vaccines. Some have begun to manufacture their own tools with the notion of security of their own citizens first. This has re-nationalised international relations making the state the only viable actor in crisis time while compelling the policy makers and leaders to rethink what the state can do to protect public and national interests while non-state cannot do this for their profit motives. The surging value and growth in the scope of Nepali state and state-bearing institutions such as Nepal Army, Police and bureaucracy in surveillance, quarantine, border control and management of protest and mass gathering are salient.
The government is calling the business, civil society and conformist forces to collaborate with the state and pay taxes so as to optimise their pro-social local orientation on a national scale. As the spread of COVID-19 constructed a new context, the vision of Nepal’s constitution for social welfare state has become vital to realise Nepalis’ fundamental rights from the rights to life, health, education and work to social security aiming to create an egalitarian society ensuring freedom and social justice. With the publication of redrawn national map, Nepali state is redefining its own identity and passed new citizenship laws.
An array of legacies that strain its strategic orientation needs to surmount: troubled coexistence of personalised leadership with impersonal institutions, recruitment of party cadres in public institutions, subordination of the state to market power, poor boundary keeping between political parties and constitutional bodies, partisanisation of bureaucratic structures and economy through the leverage of union politics, cycles of power struggles within and across political parties regardless of public purpose, convergence of powerful elites across the input side of politics such as civil society, NGOs, consultants, media and business on global policy regimes than affirming the renewed imperatives of Nepali state. The critical gap between traditional politics and modern aspiration of Nepalis has stymied its capacity to execute constitutional laws and policies and accomplish development targets in time.
Democracy turns imperfect if the Nepali state does not have monopoly on power to act impersonally, immerse in the life-world of citizens, remain autonomous of dominant interest of society, conduct international relations on the basis of sovereignty and carry out humanitarian obligations. Democratically-constituted state ensures security and wellbeing for all irrespective of geographic, economic, social and cultural distinctions. The ongoing lockdown of the nation has, however, squeezed the productive capacity of its economy to rebound and achieve the vision of economic independence. Through elections, Nepali citizens compose legislative power of the state and it is amenable to work as per public opinion. But the Nepali state cannot be reduced to the power of parties, legislature, executive judiciary, class or market power which emasculates its potential. It is by virtue of legitimate monopoly on power and control on economic resources by the ample mobilisation of tax, aid, investment, natural resources, etc the Nepali state can set realistic policies and elicit citizens’ loyalties.
It is vital to revive production and supply chains and meet economic needs of its citizens, their security, cultural diversity and distinctive way of life representing national unity. Reducing discrimination along ethnic, regional, caste, class, gender and geographic lines for social cohesion and nation building are underlined in its constitution. The means is redistributive politics and give Nepalis a tangible feeling of togetherness. Nepali state has widened institutional space for many non-state agencies for different response to coronavirus in consonance with constitutional spirit to improve its capacity, coordination and outreach. Yet, politicisation of virus-affected Nepalis along subsidiary identity lines makes them vulnerable to radical appeal and weakens national identity.
Nepali state has to cultivate civic-minded policies and resolve the tension between the demands of local and state authorities for more resources, power, authority, autonomy and initiatives in setting priorities, policies and laws. This enables the heartland, Kathmandu, to coordinate and perform basic state functions, manage frontier communities and those in the margin so as to enhance Nepalis’ access to the values of popular sovereignty, constitutional and human rights, social inclusion, proportional representation, affirmative action, self-rule and the provisions of public good. Nepali state’s social welfare character has obligations to secure socially just policies beneficial for its citizens and claim authority of public power for governance. The shift in its paradigm from neo-liberal minimalist position to society-centric one has enlarged its roles in inter-group transaction and esprit de corps. Now, public policies are codetermined and projects are required Nepalis’ ownership and participation. Even foreign aid is expected to align with the national priorities while mutual utility of states by the scale of transaction flows.
At the moment, Nepali state is weak by the constant fluidity of its government, polity the constitution and short of its own adequate tax, revenue, remittance, tourism, agriculture, industrial and natural resource bases to finance. It is functionally dependent on the solidarity of international community. To cope with the COVID-19, a pre-modern approach to the mobilisation of sub-national groups - tribes, ethnicity, gender, caste, region and religion - does not generate citizens’ identity and political solidarity. Success in the sustainability of public good related programmess can stabilise Nepali state’s authority and legitimacy, muster its will and power and its ability to foster authority and legitimacy for state-citizen coherence. This means breaking the stabilisation of clients’ networks is essential to strengthen Nepali state’s independent authority across diverse geographical locale and citizenry is vital to foster national identity and the concept of statehood. Client groups focus on individual leaders, not the institutions of political parties, as a basis of allegiance in return for patronage.
In Nepal, each political movement allowed the opposition to consume the incumbent regime and its constitution, but not its political culture of paternalism. It helped to perpetuate the new status quo of power and privileges leaving its poly-structural population and territory waiting for fair treatment. When leaders are habituated to survive in anomie, networks and internal rows for power without risk-sharing and with no firm stake in civic order, it will be uphill task to combat COVID-19. Each political movement of Nepal has only expanded elite base of power and sought to strengthen the regime but not the state and its citizens nor did it reset the emotional connect of the better future from nostalgic past.
The spoilers of political stability continue to confiscate the capacity of Nepali state to assert its internal autonomy, solidarity and collective action and external sovereignty and achieve resilience of durable progress and peace. Nepali leaders need to ponder on its rich historical wisdom and create moral standards to remove the policy shortcomings in tackling the pandemic. Public interest can be served only by consulting the public and linking frontier communities with the resources and reach of the heartland to ease the comeback of Nepali state and its enhanced role in the shifting configuration of future world order.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)
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