Monday, 24 January, 2022

The Guts Of Public Inquiry

The Guts Of Public Inquiry

Dev Raj Dahal

The Nepalis, sharing common values and contextual wisdom, have evolved a sober sense of inquiry about public interest issues and feel concerned with the mover of the highest political power. They are habitually freeing up their imagination of the nation and seeking explanation from top leaders about the governance of political life. The guts of inquiry are not an end in itself.  It is a powerful tool to determine what it means to be a truly democratic citizen, learning to influence them and bring them to the rule of law. Democracy has entitled Nepalis to ask, speak freely and openly to their leaders about the realisation of their promises and constitutional rights to attain the dignity of self-directed life. By crafting and posing questions they are not becoming the conformist on what they ask but confronting the reality of political polarisation, organisational control and varying scale of hegemony of relations.

It is a process of turning them accountable to what is good for Nepalis and connecting their views, skills and resources to a broad process of civic engagements as a practice of everyday political life. Once Nepali citizens play a vital role in politics other than staying as submissive onlookers most of the time except for casting ballot papers in the elections and constantly engaging in the guts of questioning their leaders, their awareness of public affairs becomes full of political consequences. This is the reason nowadays even ordinary Nepalis are being attracted to a deliberative process of politics and claim that their leaders listen to them and serve their interests to move public life forward. The mood of elections of party hierarchy in Nepal now has activated cadres and leaders in political relations by their lively interests. 

The guts of ordinary Nepalis inquiry about this are in no way insulated from the broader scale of politicisation of national life. They are expecting from their leaders to solve existential problems of poverty, inequality, joblessness and pandemic and allow them to explore life’s possibilities not only selecting or electing leaders in a deterministic, not reflective way. An inquiring citizen is the bedrock of democratic citizenship. This is the way to subject one's opinions to public query and validate the conscious coherence between the ends and means of Nepali politics underlined in the Constitution of Nepal. Free flow of communication, on balance, is a finer sign to disclose the democratic character of Nepali society and test constitutional ideals in practical life. It helps to transform the subject status of Nepalis into thinking, feeling, acting and judging citizens - a valid mark of civic competence.

Collective good
The guts of public inquiry reflect the popular gaze of grievance, concern, passion and emotion of Nepalis. It helps their cognitive orientation towards the exercise 1of rational choice and free will eschewing an atrophy of civic virtue of Nepali public life and non-exercise of all constitutional rights encapsulated into popular sovereignty, Janata Janardan. The mettle of public inquiry is often based on universal reason. Nepali leaders are responsible for giving reasons for their conduct and activities as per the Constitution’s spirit of right to know. It is this political power that wears the clock of legitimacy.  It is in this political sphere private interests can, at least in theory, be linked to public interest and collective good. It is hoped, perhaps suitably so, Nepalis incessant exposure to the free flow of information and socialisation can sap the power of non-representative and unproductive political classes of society who do not take any responsibility for the nation’s rational progress and modernity. Informed citizens are the backbone of democracy. 

The moral fibre of public inquiry about public matters is a positive trait of Nepalis. It strengthens their civic engagement for active citizenship. It sets them free from undue worry with powerful leaders who are blamed for serving special interest groups, uncommitted intellectuals located in ideological wasteland and rituals of crowd power that produce artificial consciousness not relevant to negotiate the public interests. The litmus tests of public inquiry in Nepal, however, remain: Are Nepalis questioning the worth of the public speeches of their leaders? Have they been able to make them accountable for their promises and actions? What is the rationale of public conversation and contestation in an unequal condition of Nepalis? Does such a conversation have an effect on political life spiking with the misery of psychosis, tremor and trouble?

A critical public is not silenced by artificial promises of their leaders. They clearly know that pleasing speeches devoid of essence are not the path of progress. Problem solving becomes an object of explicit concern to  leaders if they acquire will, skill, resources, create a sense of group power, engage in mediating the gap between what is the reality of Nepal and what ought to be done to realise the constitutional vision of an egalitarian society. A watchful public is habitually motivated, informed and engaged in learning a tangible link of leaders' announcement with policy gist and relates those to the quality of implementable laws. It seeks the rationale of their announcements and inquires whether their views are embedded in professed public policies or just reflect a sort of sound bite.

It is because the bureaucracy executes only those public policies which are crafted to address social problems, not the insatiable speeches, lofty words or voracious statements often rolling off the lips of the leaders unmatched by substance. The nerve of public inquiry seeks to establish an active link of knowledge to politics, politics to public policy and policy to the transformation of public life essential to deepen democracy. Nepali civil society groups are struggling to renew their civic life. Most of the Nepalis’ grievances are directed to the political society -- political parties, government and parliament and local leaders –as they are the ones who promise everything, even something unreasonable to exercise their power over the citizens. They assure them of solving all the social problems to make the life of the public better than before. Many members of political society came to power articulating the language of social justice. 

Nepali media and civil society remind this to the public time and again prompting citizens to exercise their negative rights and engage in universal human aspirations. Nepali leaders have hoisted many grievances against each other. Treatment of effect does not eliminate the causes that plague the spin of political life provoking pre-political tribal and post-modern solidarity politics. Independent intellectuals must ponder this matter earnestly and ask the political society to execute the social contract to protect the weak, help the state maintain a modicum of public order, security and peace, provide welfare services and resolve the spiral of problems of Nepali society. These are the primary tasks of the government Nepali citizens are expecting to be fulfilled so that each of them becomes the stakeholder of democracy.

If the government shudders in all these tasks, citizens must inquire into what is wrong with the politics of Nepal. Framing problems depends on generating new ideas and mobilising will, institutions and resources to solve them. Pre-political leaders are those who are engaged in patronage sort of transactions devoid of common good. The public character of politics differentiates itself from the world of business which is profit-driven or a mob thronged in a non-deliberative course of action or inorganic civil society specialized in sectoral interests.

In contrast, political leaders claim that civil society has yet to define its boundaries of action and bring the question of political consciousness into a culture of practical action. They have yet to discover the utility of activism for public communication and help in translating public policy as an educational necessity. The guts of public inquiry invert the traditional belief in fatalism and provide social energy, skills and leadership to change the organisational life of Nepali society. This is the reason democracy creates a public space where freedom of expression, communication and organisation are granted legitimate autonomy.

The irony of Nepali society is that the tendency to contestation has increased in every sphere of public life, but the guts  of public inquiry to seek a solution has yet to gain critical weight. This is a mortal sign of democratic shortfall.  Hair-splitting contestation without an inquiry about policy substance makes up the vacuity of public sphere -- where debates are for the sake of debates, not for knowledge advancement, policy reforms and bringing transformation. Democracy is a system based on contest of ideas, ideologies, identity, interests, institutions and programme of action. It can offer Nepalis choices entitled with constitutional and human rights and duties if elections in party leadership also engage in debating about right ideologies, policies, organisational strength and mobilise the power of faithful from bottom-up increasing outreach of diverse aspects and concerns of grassroots public life.

In most of such elections in Nepal, one, however, finds defending leaders’ own personal, group-based, professional or disciplinary interests. They are gripped in a profitable dialectic of power and pelf. If one only defends his/her position and interest, it can hardly shape the public culture of democracy and shape public opinion and democratic will-formation. Excessively fractious politics tears the sovereignty of civil society, easily erodes the freedom of thought thriving in the domain of diversity and subordinates leadership to the discipline of cultic power to seek control. Such a culture seeks conformity and rejects the critical ideas and opinions necessary for social reforms.

Nepali intellectuals have played crucial roles in all these issues, sometimes with watchdog agencies, sometimes with the court and sometimes with the critical mass of change agents. If the court is entitled itself to resolve the question of political power, its autonomy, objectivity and integrity suffer making justice costly to the powerless sections of Nepalis. Still, Nepali public is looking for a space where they can freely debate on making politics "public" and exercise politics as a tool of collective action and law workable in the sphere of justice, ethics and morality. It is the guts of public inquiry that vitalises democracy and uplifts public and national interests above the private or special group interests and thus serves the Nepali public.

(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)