Sunday, 17 January, 2021

Watching The Watchdogs Of Democracy

Dev Raj Dahal


The watchdogs of democracy are civil society, media, citizens groups and civic bodies, which keep an eye on overall affairs of state for their transparency, accountability and legitimacy. Their universal duties are to monitor the dominant institutions of society, business, political parties, legislatures, courts, government, polity, the state and foreign activities against their wrong doing, deceit, misuse, neglect, bribery, delinquency, unlawful action, manipulative influence, abuse of power and authority, spoil of justice and violation of public decency. They mobilise public opinion to stop their immoral actions. The watchdogs are pro-active in performing their institutional dharma to the public and restraining the deviation of dominant actors from public needs in the various realms which might cause the erosion of the writ of democracy.
As custodians of conscience, they thus enforce and increase accountability by blowing the whistle or organising public action. Ironically, their affiliation with business, government, political parties and pecuniary interest flag their ability to fairly scrutinise issues and events. It creates a gap between the elites and the ordinary public. The stilted functions of many watchdogs, both official and informal, the world over led Luis Wirth to conclude, “With the loss of a common purpose and common interests, we have been deprived of common norms, modes of thought and conceptions of the world. Even public opinion has turned out to be a set of phantom publics." Nepal is not immune from the kind of problems the world is facing and the global watchdogs are paternalistically treating their Nepali counterparts.

Intermediary institutions
A vibrant democracy requires not only political parties but also a number of intermediary institutions to articulate society’s overall interests and respond to challenges created by the powerful classes seeking to monopolise power and wealth. The old Nepali society has a rich tradition of associational life between the family and the state, such as public libraries, literary societies, cultural groupings, voluntary organisations and self-help groups among different communities, public trusts and deliberations, etc. As these institutions were built on social trust they have regularly stirred public talking, thinking, passing critical judgments and engaging in people in civic initiatives so that dominant interests of society do not suffer attention deficits to public accountability.
Dharma-based governance and social organisations esteemed by intellectual communities are generally expected to protect and promote the well-being of all Nepalis and inform the public institutions to deliver essential services. Hindu-Buddhist philosophies regard power and authority as a trust and, therefore, leaders have to be accountable for their exercise. Its classical tradition of leaders’ consultation to the public on vital matters formed a link to deliberative polity and strengthened faith in ethics, religion, nationality and cosmological order. The generalised notion of shastrartha (critical discourse) in the public sphere sought to awaken people, lay down duty-based civil society and minimise the scope of contradictions and conflicts.
Nepal is now witnessing the explosion of rights and equally right-based watchdogs such as NGOs, advocacy groups, inclusive commissions, human rights organisations and social movements of women, Dalits, marginalised communities, consumers, ecologists, trade unions, student unions and professional bodies with a new burst of oppositional energy to reform and rationalise Nepali society and enable publicly legitimate collective action. They are penetrating deeper into every aspect of Nepali life with their involvement in networks for conducting advocacy, activities, research and analysis thereby adding energy to the associational life of the public. The constitution, plan documents and local bodies’ laws have set the legislative framework to facilitate, promote, mobilise and coordinate the activities of both state and non-state watchdogs in governance.
The greatest challenges for these civic groups are: lack of fair communication across uneven social, economic and political scale so that scope for freedom and intelligence is expanded to enable Nepalis to exercise choice in matters of leadership, planning, fund raising and financial management for meeting the welfare and strategic needs they want to pursue without deflating the laws of the land and running what Public Account Committee of the parliament once called “parallel government.” Many civil society groups are suffering from a lack of civic knowledge, skills and resources and, consequently, appears weak to exert either democratic influence in public life or become an active apologist for the education, organisation and liberation of oppressed. Still, they provide software of democracy for the citizens to counter the culture of hegemony and offer a public space in which diverse opinions, beliefs and values are being shared, shaped and debated in framing public policies.
Democracy has enabled Nepalis to become freer in their actions because they do not have any reason to feel intimidated by the powerful. But they nurse a feeling that the material conditions of their freedom are weak and watchdogs are less autonomous to defend their interests. Civil society opportunities for ordinary citizens are limited as many of their members are amphibious - stay in civil society while in opposition and desert their civic roles while indulging in power politics. Far from being public laboratories, they suffer from fragmentation and subordination to political parties and donors and hardly fill the widening institutional and geographical gaps existing among the people who want to exercise their guaranteed rights.
Most of Nepalis unaware of their rights have to tolerate their leaders who have not only diluted their legitimate hope for good governance but also underplayed their passion and greatness, ignored the value of the Nepali state to their welfare and the natural role of a proximate to both the Indic and the Sinic civilisations. Its capacity is weak, factionalism and rivalry have fractured political parties and civil society. This paradoxical condition of weak state affirms the erosion of pro-active roles of national watchdogs. Nepal’s dependency on external civil society, market, capital and the state hints its weak governance.
Monetisation of public life continues to liquidate the public sphere contributing to hardship and unrestrained exploitation of common property by powerful individuals where watchdogs are hopelessly watching. The high politics of money governed by economic society has set low politics - such as social cohesion, morality and public good and even contest of ideas in less salience. Nepal’s hope for a socialist-oriented economy too suffered as economic liberalisation became consensual point to firmly link the nation to globalisation. The current tendency of the internalisation of the external economy and polity without critical examination of local context has produced yet another paradox: ordinary citizens are losing control over both.
It is yet to be seen how long the ability of the system to solve domestic conflicts by constitutional means and maintaining basic liberty continue when many of the watchdogs themselves are polarised, partisan and geopolitically driven. The Western concept of rule of law that justice should be administered independently of political concern and that all citizens should be equal before the law, are yet to be established by the judiciary, an entity plagued by politicisation and demonstrating inefficiency in delivering justice to the poor. The Auditor General, Public Account Committee of the parliament and Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority, etc. too seem feeble to enforce economic accountability and integrity of powerful owing to the politicisation of rule of law.
One of the key factors of democratisation in Nepal is the media. It offers a range of topics for thinking and shaping public debate and agenda. The flow of news, information, issues, images and symbols enabled them to seize the political sphere. Political life in Nepal is dominated by interest groups. That is why political leaders and citizens talk less with one another than to the media. Yet, the political culture of the mainstream media seems dualistic: while private media tend to portray politics and the government with a much more negative slant, the public media has become sedative to the appetite of attentive citizens for critical information and kindle their passive tolerance though they serve as a vehicle of their right to information
As majority of media is partisan and controlled by organised special interests they obfuscate, rather than illuminate, truth. Synthesising their conflicting views is vital for shaping rational opinion. Others offer only supply-side rationale and do away with citizens’ spontaneous powers of imagination and reflection. This is why they cannot pass their judgment on issues on the basis of exclusive media knowledge and drive away their passivity. Others are eroding the cultural self-confidence of citizens and exposing the public to an odious sort of consumerism and theatrical style of politics. The media that conventionally served watchdog, holding the power holders accountable for their actions, have been reduced to being either partner, facilitator, spectator or instigator in the game of politics and, consequently, penetrated everyday life of the public.
The bulk of the private media, now free from government censorship, have passed into the hands of business and political tycoons or foreigners who use the newspapers for political manipulation of citizens and now also to fight each other by means of fiery exposé of each other’s unlawful, corrupt and criminal practices. Private media, after all, is a commercial endeavour and has very limited possibility for either a democratic political will formation or demand articulation. The style and tone of their news mills are, therefore, not much different from a war of words so abhorrent to sane citizens who lived peacefully for decades. The democratic media in Nepal, many claim, are suffocated by excessive lack of professional and institutional flow of information and proved inept to serve as a mirror of society.

Others are caught in a dilemma between national cultural defence and techno-economic determinism played out by geopolitical manoeuvre. Still others tend to manipulate the consciousness of Nepalis according to the frame of media ownership, control, finance and regulation. The factionalisation of media and their source thus represent communication deficits, deficits of watchdog functions. Democracy does not just attest for a certain style of rule, it is a matter of human values. Even if public debate is a basic condition of democracy, its core and the tangible source of those values spring from the public struggling to establish order, freedom, justice and peace.
Public opinion can serve as a potent check on dominant actors and, consequently, better their quality of governance, only if watchdogs have sufficient power to discipline them through solidarity of action and serving as living examples for teaching about democracy. The rule of law should not be used as a tool of the ruling elite to shape society in a way favourable to democracy. It must be supreme and exercised to all persons, regardless of their social and political status or official position. Only watchful citizens vitalise watchdogs which can set coherence between law and politics and emancipate citizens from the phony justification.

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

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