Dev Raj Dahal
The defining challenge of the modern time is growing inequality of people. Equality of people is a universal value rooted in public reason, science and wisdom and, therefore, conducive to civic culture. It demolishes the fatalistic analysis of social inequality, hierarchy, domination and determinism. In an egalitarian society, all citizens are deemed equal, regardless of social position, wealth, caste, gender, faith, educational attainment, etc. This is the ideal basis of democracy. A number of policies of democratic institutions, technological progress and modernity have, however, failed significantly to improve human condition in a harmonious way.
Democracy affirms the aspiration of ordinary people for egalitarian society by means of political change, administrative reforms, institutional restructuring and reshaping the mode of production and distributive justice. It has an egalitarian effect on society as it tends to mediate the capital and the labour. But the tendency of new economy- and technology-driven stratification to block this egalitarian effect has stifled people’s desire to attain the pursuit of fairness. Unequal ownership of land, capital, knowledge, technology and institutions creates a zero-sum nature of politics, not democratic one where power is distributed, controlled, decentralised and devolved and public intervention favours the common people.
The vision of Nepal’s constitution is to create an “egalitarian society.” It has offered equal rights to Nepalis of all distinctions and recognised their sovereignty. The deference to these rights can set up a decent society if there is a balance between the capital and the labour’s share in the growth of national income. The remittance-driven Nepal’s economy indicates that labour’s contribution surpasses the share of business, tourism, foreign investment, foreign aid and trade. Nepali peasants and workers are, however, hardly seen organised for collective bargaining and political competition for leadership and welfare distribution. This explains that Nepal’s egalitarian ideals have an imperfect effect on politics.
Inequality in Nepali society is not a problem as long as people have passion to tolerate. But a sense of deprivation, marginalisation and low wage trap for those workers and peasants either working in informal sectors or abroad can bear red consequences. Deprivation of the opportunity for civic education and competence has made them vulnerable to radical appeal and cynical politics. Gross inequality in society does not create the efficiency of the economy to gear up the ability to respond to balance the demand and supply of goods and services and consequent outcome for democratic stability.
Nepali ruling classes have found the sources of inequality in feudalism, caste, patriarchy, religion, history and regional imbalance and sought to banish them in public life. Yet, the causes of economic inequality persist to add social inequality enmeshing the nation’s politics afloat along ethnic, gender, caste, regional and religious dimensions thus constraining national identity formation and the notion of equal citizenship. The affirmative action included in the constitution favoured Dalits, disappearing tribes and people of remote areas while positive discrimination for women sought gender parity in democratic and development process.
Still, equality in Nepal means many things as its policies embedded in the constitution and plan documents can temper the extremes of society through appropriate economic, legal and political equality and equality of opportunity for life-choices. It equally means equality of outcome being debated in development discourse, equality of general human condition and equality of status distinction. It also means equality of allocative efficiency of and different modes of access of Nepalis to political power, resources of the state, market and civil society.
Nepali democracy has provided both legal and political equality to citizens and the notion of private property. The latter is vital to create the space of freedom for poor people enabling them to become equal stakeholders of the polity. The principle of constitutionalism aims to settle the flurry of contradictions between freedom and equality under democratic welfare state. True freedom is often defined in terms of egalitarian policies of the state across geography, gender, class and caste hierarchy whereby people live a life of dignity without being excessively dependent on others for survival, preference, decisions and action. Equal distribution of public good in society is central to creating a hospitable environment for democracy which is being slanted at the moment in Nepal.
One can see the rising costs of essential goods and falling purchasing power of Nepalis affecting their fortune. Rising poverty and declining employment rate add another woe afflicting its vision of egalitarian society. In this context, income or economic equality has become a major component of wellbeing. Inequality creates unequal outcomes and consequent growth of anxiety disorder and stress affecting deeply the social psychology of Nepalis who have developed an enthusiasm to compare with others flourishing legally or illicitly. The vision of Nepal’s constitution, therefore, aims to create socialist-oriented economy precisely to avail material goods to all and prevent arbitrary power and domination of the powerful over the powerless.
Nepal has espoused the combination of many equalising elements which are vital for their rights, respect and self-esteem. Still, egalitarian society as democratic ideal of Nepal’s constitution entails many things: a just political system based on consent of governed and public opinion, sustainable economic arrangement based on broad-based growth of real economy in sustainable direction, equal social capacity to participate in the power and wealth-creation, distribution, circulation and exchange, civic aptitude, intelligence and education of citizens to make rational decisions, their civic competence to influence public policies designed for and by them and their representatives and bear their burdens and benefits.
These are imperative preconditions for an exit from the state of nature, acquire responsive institutions of governance and set fair economic and political practices so that Nepalis can get benefits from the advantage of social, economic and political order they desire. Nepali polity has to spread the institutions of democratic enlightenment, expand job-creating activities, cut inter-generational poverty, boost social spending, control the concentration of wealth and power, mitigate political instability and convert winner-takes-all game into non zero-sum one to stem social polarisation and the growth of inequality.
The constitution has adopted differential justice, group rights, proportional inclusion and representation for various social strata yet the conception of class and its national commission for the empowerment of the poor are feeble. The only glimmer of hope resonated by politicians and policy makers is the jobs for them in the unstable international labour market facing geopolitical polarisation, conflict and pandemic. The constitution has expanded social justice, social protection, social security, minimum wage, etc. to level up social conditions by improving the situation of the downtrodden and those at the bottom of the social development pyramid. This is necessary to prevent them from subordination to the powerful elites’ desire, wish and will but not sufficient as the economic base of the nation is pale.
In this context, most of the new social movements of women, indigenous people, Dalits, human rights, labour, etc. in Nepal have unleashed emancipatory impulse affirming the zeitgeist where the state has capacity deficits.
The current political predicament of Nepal is the legal equality of citizens and factual inequality of life-condition. Political participation of Nepalis at the multi-level elections is encouraging. But in no way it is a sign of their civic competence unless they are well informed about the impact of the exercise of their sovereignty and accept the effects that ensue. The struggle for freedom of Nepalis has given birth to the ideas of equality, social justice and liberation offering hope for the weak, powerless and oppressed and inspiring many others to uphold and esteem these normative values. Yet, the vices of unchanging human nature and its impacts on politics spawning ego, greed, jealousy and undemocratic rivalry remain awful and wakeful.
Therefore, one finds systemic prejudice of those at the bottom of social, economic and political hierarchy who keep these values alive and relevant in each generation for egalitarian struggle. This shows that the struggle for human rights of people for equality, entitlement and opportunity remains unfinished. Common interest of Nepali leadership in the wellbeing of all people has yet to become a focus of public policy in the local community, regional, national and global governance. The formulation of common policies aiming to keep common interest and perfect optimal satisfaction of communities at various scales is the bedrock of survival, justice, stability and peace. They set a condition for an egalitarian impulse.
The modern life of Nepali society is measured by what and how every citizen gets the same level of care, progress and opportunity in areas of life-choice such as food, health, education, security, liberty and social mobility. In a way egalitarian society aspires to return to full humanity and supports institutional ethics and integrity of those in power to their constituencies. Public policies of Nepal, whether based on sustainable development goals or practice of the constitution, affirm this. Yet, the binary scheme of education, health, communication, etc. between the public and the private sphere based on an economic model may not be suitable unless profitable private sectors are obliged to assume public duties. It intensifies inequality in society for those already in disadvantaged conditions lacking efficiency, competitive spirit and fighting ability.
Obviously, hideous inequality in society weakens the social base of democracy and its ability to dispense freedom and autonomy of ordinary Nepalis. Equality as social, economic and political construction and equal outcome has legitimised new development policy in the nation. Natural differences in genus and capacity require those more advantageous people to support those facing gross inequality through various rectifying measures - progressive income tax, donation, philanthropic and investment in social development works so that social peace is espoused as public good.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)
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