Dev Raj Dahal
The growing political disenchantment with the way representative democracy is working now has entailed scholars and politicians to invent and communicate the rules of deliberative politics embedded in the modern doctrine of choice. Deliberative politics where an individual citizen has a genuine opportunity for self-realisation arose as a response to the weaknesses of traditional politics based on sheer elite contest for power and procedural and non-responsive to citizens’ legitimate needs, rights and aspirations. It rests on the equality of citizens and leaders and rejects “external constraints” on the use of political power and decision making. Citizens are “required to have some direct part in decision making,” and “the constitutional essentials that regulate deliberation” that are internal to the political process” says Antonino Polumbo.
The rise of inquiring and reasoning public marked its prospect. Deliberation helps each citizen to know other’s interests and views and settle the litigious one through listening, talking, negotiating and compromising in the pursuit of common good. Juergen Habermas has forwarded deliberative democracy to improve the quality of governance. It continues to exert legitimating role in many spheres. For him, “political deliberations extend to any matter that can be regulated in the equal interest of all,” where “the power holder must remain neutral with respect to competing and mutually incompatible conceptions of good life.”
Deliberation is a central frame of decisional consensus in a system of majority rule keeping the spirit of constitutionalism. It liberates citizens from the state of nature to ethical life and internal and outer strain easing expression of rational thought vital for inter-subjective life. Including the plurality of social life- even women, minorities, workers, etc. within the public sphere for critical deliberation from a variety of perspectives it helps to reach an understanding for common course of action. It thus spreads democratic intelligence at multi-level and multi-scale rule. Each level and scale is a learning phase, a new reflection which is better than the preceding one.
But without building a culture of deliberation in each layer of committee across various civic and public bodies and legislative committees on useful knowledge, policies and laws and their diffusion in the media citizens become less informed in their choice. They are unable to move beyond their own ideas even if they lead a mindful life. New knowledge is crucial to deliberative conceptualisation of reality. It bears double functions: critical analysis of macro variables and corrective, vigilant action that treats the future as freedom, not fate.
Nepal’s constitution says state powers spring from the people. This social contract has included the right to information to make decisions and actions of public institutions transparent to citizens. Deliberative process is adopted in constitution-making and policy ownership aiming to improve democracy by involving citizens on vital matters of public life – political parties, business, media, civil society, culture, sports, academia, etc. Two reflections are vital: assured participation of enough diversity of citizens in setting the vision, not imposed from above, so that they have stake in politics and transform current practices of ruling legitimacy from electoral efficacy to resilience in performance.
If associational safeguards of watchdog agencies are not placed, there is a risk of subversion of public interests by interest groups’ power of money and media unbound by the rule of law harnessed by the scale of justice. The legitimacy of Nepali polity rests on the success of its many sub-systems, such as ecology, economy, technology, innovation, entrepreneurship, etc. With healthy economy financing livelihood, education, health, job, ecology, infrastructures, etc. deliberative democracy can offer citizens freedom from necessity and engage them in learning, renewing their bond, infusing responsibility to the common and conducting reforms of public political life.
In Nepal women, Janajatis, Aadibasis, Dalits and workers have formed counter public sphere for the contestation of central power, ideas, laws, policies and practices in line with the global awareness of the necessity of voice, inclusion and dignity. Other left out groups find uneven distribution of attention and seek fair distribution of power, resources, knowledge and skill vital for lively deliberation and a big push to subsidiarity. In this politics, leaders value citizens more than ever before, realise their jobs, rear public and national interests and find the benefits of flow of diverse schoolings without inverting its moral-rational culture.
Ancient Nepal had prized shastrartha (critical discourse) on the validity of knowledge and its use for the socialisation and statecraft and reform of the society for better social cooperation. Since this discourse was independent of power and authority and opened to all sections of society citizens could differ on peripheral matters while agreeing on core thoughts. It thus aimed to improve the virtues of citizens and leaders opening them to reason, sought mutual understanding about ethical life and serve common good. Nepalis of all hues still deliberate in chautaras, temples and monasteries, tea shops, public buses and local assemblies. They discuss on context, values, issues and policies and build collective self of Nepal identity which is vital to deepen democracy. Deliberation generates reflective thought on common life beyond private pursuit.
In Nepal, deliberative democracy has certain benefits to offsets the vices said above: First, it can only flourish if political parties, leaders, media and civil society educate the younger generations about the common values of Nepali citizenship. It is important in Nepal as youths, dynamics agents of productivity, are in the process of migration, brain drain, alienation, protest and succumbed to partisan scuffle. Socialising them to higher spirits of cooperation, responsibility and tolerance helps to transcend grubby politics by means of collective decisions and collective action. Second, associational explosion in the nation has given impetus for citizens to know around them, organise in groups and articulate their interests. Associations also provide them skills in leadership, profession and scope for deliberation.
Third, deliberative politics helps in balancing the budget in priority areas of citizens and opportunity to plan, execute, monitor and evaluate the projects. Balancing the budgets prevents political polarisation and ensures the sustainability of projects. Fourth, deliberative politics as a means of resolving conflict in Nepal is very old. It eases them to take all the perspectives and makes decisions acceptable to all sides. Fifth, deliberative politics practiced in Nepal’s local bodies now can foster trust among public officials, elected authorities, local civil society and functional groups of attentive citizens organised into communities, business groups, cooperatives, consumer associations, etc if their imperfection arising out of patronage politics is remedied. In a society of great diversity like Nepal only a vastly expanded communication, education, policy outreach and deliberation can offer opportunities for citizens to avoid populism, turbulence and rebellion and settle their concerns to sustain a shared future.
The irony of Nepali political culture is the mass migration of voters and local leaders in every change of government across established political parties although the differences among parties have narrowed. They do so more in line with their local and national political leaders’ shifting affinities indicating that the idea of rational voting and creating authority is shaky thus making the social base of democracy less deliberative and more direction-oriented. Nepali voters’ considerations are governed by the familial proximity to leadership, interest on material benefits, caste affinity, job promise for their children, development needs, etc. but also bandwagon effect of wave, not the critical issues they face.
Voters’ instability is visible as they shift from election to election between parties. The tendency to defeat the sitting power is expressive. This is a sign of political maturity, the judgmental ability of Nepalis about the government’s performance but also a sign of political instability. Voters’ mobility provides them a sense of political freedom as they do not have to stick to family affiliation in their entire life in the same party if that does not function properly. Anti-establishment parties do not offer viable alternative to raise hope for the connection, communication, connectivity and responsiveness to citizens’ demands. They lack power and credibility. Democracy merits rational decision over the irrational ones and entails enlightened self-interest over the instrumental one.
In Nepal, inter- and intra-party factional fights have infected the paralysis of power. As a result, none of the elected government has so far completed its full tenure in office as per popular mandate and implement constitutional goals. Nepali constitution has expanded citizens’ rights including social justice. It has paternalised minorities by quota, organised majority inclusive commissions and group rights, marginalised affirmative action and elderly, disabled, oppressed, single women, labour, etc. social security and social protection. Still the condition of scarcity separates bulk of Nepalis from the modern life especially those below the economic ladder. They find no liberty to control the forces that governs their lives.
Independent brains are acerbic to the gap between the promise of socialist-oriented economy and the reality peasants and workers face. Deliberative politics makes citizens contented because those who participate in it know the delivery capacity of the polity and put only legitimate demands, not radical one. The flow of information about Nepali citizens’ rights, their charter, public hearing on budget allocation, special programmes for weaker sections of society, social audit, public services and local dispute resolution committee from the bottom up has surged the velocity of Nepalis expression.
The wisdom of leaders is rooted in the belief that a system of order created by conquest, competition and coercion cannot sustain for long. Learning from the citizens about their changing aspirations and needs is essential to solve their problems. Informed deliberations offer insight for scaling up this. Nepalis’ ability to reason can check populist politics driven by emotional impulse of the mob. As deliberative citizens, infused with sovereignty, they do not will to give their power away anymore for they know that they compose its source and legitimacy.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)
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