Thursday, 3 December, 2020

Time To Shun Paternalistic Politics

Dev Raj Dahal


When citizens are confused about some issues they consult their leaders for advice. Leaders are, therefore, often required relevant knowledge and foresight and bear consideration of future problems so that they can tell citizens what is deemed good for them to make choice and allow to freely pass their judgment so long as their actions do not harm others. Paternalistic politics is rooted in a sort of traditional leadership in which those in commanding height serves security, protection and needs of those below who are loyal to them and internalise their values, beliefs and ideas like infants for sharing their burdens.
Leaders’ personal efficacy, rank, status and resources are the sources of group formation, belongingness and legitimacy. In a paternalistic politics any motivation to outshine rests on personal ability of leaders in the political ordering of societies. Mutual trust is institutionalised by transactions without following political or legal process. Soft paternalistic politics is advisory, consultative and persuasive often exercised by civic institutions, civil society, business and modern self-chosen associations. It does not hinder the civil liberties of citizens. The very purpose of democratic politics is to promote freedom of citizens and its civility is marked by self-discipline and rebellion against superstitions.
At higher scale, the hard paternalistic politics is compelling, restraining and directional based on the state’s coercive power to abolish the state of nature and create condition for cooperation, justice and peace. It occurs when self-interest knows clear boundaries and liberty of others are honoured by abolishing a state of chaos, anomie and authoritarian leadership. Without this, says Gianfranco Pasqino, “Citizens rights are subordinated to the clients’ privileges.”  The soft side of paternalism signifies the expression of generosity and armour of protective compassion, sympathy and support of leaders to their subordinates, cadres and voters easing their will to power and authority.
Paternalistic leaders survive on their uncritical obedience, not the rational capacity of subordinates, in return for the welfare opportunities they regularly extend to them and their children like parents in their realm. It is universal fact that leaders provide goods and services to the people of their constituencies in return for the votes they get in the election. But very often paternalistic politics fosters tribal sort of conformity to leaders, good or bad, which restricts their freedom of choice and personal responsibility in accepting the consequence of their action. Their patron justifies their deeds - good or bad. This cuts the birth of active citizens capable of making the leaders accountable and transparent in decision making. The state paternalism assumes its pro-welfare roles in the life of citizens from cradle to grave in matters of public good, law and advises so that they do not commit immoral activities out of ignorance, arrogance and selfishness.
Nepal’s socialist-oriented state has braced welfare measures from the right to work to food sovereignty, social protection, social security and social justice aiming to prevent citizens doing harm out of necessity and foster their wellbeing. Yet, the institutional and fiscal capacity of Nepali state to fulfil those rights is deficient pompting citizens to form associations, networks and social struggles thus turning the nation’s politics combustible. The lofty passion of revolutionary ardour in the nation, too, concealed the mask of paternalism recoiling Nepalis self-determination on many vital issues. In a democracy, citizens are not treated as welfare clients or recipients of government’s subsidy but claimants of liberation, rights, entitlement and opportunity for good governance. Leaders are not patrons like in Panchyayat regime which was abolished for breeding authoritarian political culture.
The sovereignty of Nepalis is recognised by all the post-Panchayat constitutions. It means they are authors of law and participants in the decision while leaders are answerable for their promises and actions. The shift of political relationship between citizens and leaders marks the necessity of self-rule of citizens, not consent manufacturing or unilateral imposition of agenda unappetising to modern temper. Ironically, many Nepali leaders have inherited old attitudes and a set of practices where they assume as patron, ruler and governing class for their followers thus lending continuity to the political culture of paternalism and social conservatism. It aims to escape the moral and constitutional limits to their power emboldening to exercise inordinate power over citizens through a thick interest among politicians, bureaucracy and business mediated by bichauliya, the middlemen, who often spawn illicit gains. The refusal to comply with the popular consent is thus tapering off what is valuable about Nepali life. Two factors - business distance of Nepali leaders and their moral capacity to realise the ideals of democracy to the life of ordinary citizens - can provide a hope for justice.
Personality cult of Nepali leaders is infecting political parties’ internal democratisation and institutionalisation and stifling a sense of intergenerational justice in politics. One can furnish three reasons why younger generation symbolises mere protégé mindset absent of a sense of courage and creativity: ample constitutional knowledge of Nepalis about their human dignity, roles and duties, the other is incentives their elected representatives provide at multi-level governance for the compliance to their rule or even threat of organised power in case of their defiance and still the other is weakening of mediating institutions of middle class and its replacement by selfish bichauliya who influence every spheres of Nepali life - election campaign, development contracts, laws, parliament, adjudicating institutions, agencies of public security and public opinion through the power of money, mobility and networks.
The hierarchical nature of Nepali party system and their various auxiliary bodies are based on this paternalistic model of command giver and command receiver. The later does not exercise the power of “autonomy” of civil society like in many democratic countries and able to defy social control over their personal and organisational life. The powerful incentive is: selective cooptation of some leaders from auxiliary organisations near to top party leaders into party committees and offering them lucrative posts while legitimising their influence and seeking deference to their initiatives from the general members.
In Nepal, the growing consumerism in urban areas is permeating to rural periphery whose dependence on urban elites is nurturing paternalistic politics, not participatory. Many rural Nepali poets have denounced urban life as artificial while urban poets deplore rural setting as a bastion of feudalism. The growth of distributive politics and standardisation of consumption patterns in Nepal now have eroded their cognitive and attitudinal boundaries. It is partly supported by remittance economy, the expansion of bureaucracy, regional development, expansion of education, health and communication and the social mobility even for the under-classes of Nepalis.  This new class, too, creates new enclave and ties and isolate themselves from the common Nepalis.
A strong correlation exists among the constituency development fund, cronyism, incidence of political parties’ networks, pressure politics and paternalism-all aim to increase the power of middle men in the inside track of decision making via access to the hub of power, political leaders and state officials. Citizens at the local and remote regions of Nepal need teamwork of elected bodies with them, not the middle men, in the planning and implementation of their programmes and minimise rent-seeking culture characteristic of paternalistic culture.
The development imperatives of the nation have institutionalised Nepalis’ struggle for social mobility and self-interest, increased their purchasing power and groupism in politics. The paternalistic politics in Nepal has, therefore, largely benefitted elites from business, bureaucracy and politicians whose concern for stability, success and profitability of enterprises whether in health, education, super market, consulting band, etc. is clear. They seek favour of political leaders, offer financial gift to them or provide share in their enterprises inverting the constitutional vision of collective emancipation. Growing predatory impulse, enormous economic cost of democracy and lack of bureaucratic capacity for self-transcendence continue to flourish paternalistic politics in Nepal. This is the way patrimonial politics, not entrepreneurial spirit, dominates its public service in a pre-capitalist way which is impervious to the rationalisation of its economy and society.
Bloated size of political class, easily available finance and weak human development pre-empt rational leadership and distorts Nepal’s development process. As a result of growing paternalism, system reforms in the bureaucracy and political parties in the nation’s history along the way of modern management and performance hit critical obstacles.  This unfolds a paradox of social change: between the status of the common citizens’ participation in the public sphere and the fulfilment of their rights granted by the Constitution. Only active citizens infused by a sense of patriotism can outweigh feudalism, external penetration and class, caste, gender and tribal loyalties.  Democracy entails autonomous and impersonal citizens capable of rising against childish virtue of parental dependence, cultivating self in the critical discourse with their leaders using scientific reason and imagining self as the master of their own fate.
Institutionalisation of civic culture and procedures in Nepal entails the formulation of class, caste and gender-neutral laws and public policies as per the constitutional spirit of creating an egalitarian society, not a paternalistic one sustained by group-exclusive rights, uneven scale of citizenship and spoil system like Pande Pajani where incumbent leaders recruit a mass of cadres in parastatal, bureaucracy and public institutions regardless of their merit. It weakens self-governing communities, the primary units of Nepal’s democracy and creates eternal dependence on the patron. The perennial problems of Nepali politics are the belief that political scientists and leaders have not been able to see them in totality and apply matching acumen to solve them so that everyone has a stake in it and work together for good life.  

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

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