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OPINION

Building Civic Capacity Of People



Building Civic Capacity Of People

Dev Raj Dahal

Democracy rests on building civic capacities-- cognitive, practical and participatory-- of people so that they believe that their behaviour affects the course of governance. The nation-wide election for local self-governance slated for May 13 in Nepal is the right time to build their capacity for correct reasoning, choice and activities especially because many political parties in the fray seek to pull them in various directions and offer scintillating promises, even something unjust, as a vote-catching strategy, not democracy promoting mobilisation and positive action at the grassroots level. The more the people feel that they are well heard and attended to by candidates, the better they become active in political life and acquire knowledge of selecting representative authority for self-governance.

Civic virtues of Nepalis then enlarge a sense of volunteerism and reduce the costs of electoral politics. The nation-wide diffusion of voters’ information campaign by the Election Commission (EC) can avail some vital facts and figures about procedural matters on how to vote. It has opened its channel of communication to various stakeholders of society so that people can justify claims on the basis of their constitutional rights. Supplying facts and procedures about elections are also the jobs of party cadres, civil society and the media. If the first local government election is any guide in the midst of elections code violations and many other shibboleths, manipulation of cultural industries and malpractices by candidates occupied EC’s attention away from order, balance and harmony which are essential for fearless and fair voting.

Civic knowledge
The EC, in no way, offers organised civic knowledge and general understanding on critical democratic values about why to vote, how their votes count and their opinions are taken into account. Why to vote comes with mature thinking by oneself beyond primordial considerations, applying prudent reasons and wisely choosing the representatives by oneself without the direction of others. It requires reflecting on one’s own sovereign and legislative power that is the source of political authority and legitimacy and also answering to many other inquiries. What are the benefits of rational voting? How can people steer the course of politics on public issues and local governance? And how can they gain access to and influence over the functioning of local governance?

These are important questions on how to liberate people from indoctrination, financial inducement, muscular practices or irrational voting. It enables them to make a distinction between what is political and what is not and how the private sphere of profit and political sphere of public good are balanced. Indoctrination of cadres and followers by political parties at a time of ideological void is unreflective of human rationality like the dogmatism of blind faith. In this sense, only reflective civic education is a means to good political life of people. It helps them to settle competing standpoints of candidates in the middle path of democracy.

Nepali leaders too need civic education so that their propensity to paranoia against each other, hyperbolic expression and mutual accusation in the idioms of political scorns do not emotionally inflame the voters threatening the cultural decency of people, local democracy and sustainable development. It enables the moral improvement of Nepali people uncorrupted by elite politics. For the powerless it helps them to grasp the policy purpose of politics, not just passively accept electoral games enabling the winners to lawfully control economic and political power regardless of its consequences.

One can see the rise and fall of the popularity of various Nepali political parties in terms of changing voting behaviour of people, their low partisan attachment drenched in a sense of bandwagon effects or even succumbing to a wave owing to their leaders’ movement away from principles, policy and programmes while resorting to a sort of sadistic way of thinking and dependency-fostering psychology of sedative, clientele politics, not unremitting pursuit of freedom and dignity. This is why Nepalis have fated to celebrate all regime change in the past due to a sheer lack of stakeholding, their proper civic awareness and leaders depriving people of benefits of the system they have often promised and coded in the Nepali constitution and international obligations.

One obvious reason is Nepali political parties’ schooling system is based on self-lifting, vote-catching, short-term and instrumental traits, not anchoring democratic socialisation and acculturation necessary to build civic competence of people and civic culture shared by all political parties. The spread of light of civic education and wisdom can only enable people to stay with their conscience and conviction and struggle to remove prejudice, blind faith and vices of society. The other reason is the swinging alliance of leaders for power-sharing. It made them less value-oriented and more political manoeuvring thus blurring their social, political and economic boundaries and opening eternal contradictions.

In this sense, training, exposure and building constitutional and political knowledge of people on participatory awareness, resources, tools and institutions and offering them material support, giving voices and social, economic and cultural reconstruction are vital elements to enable them to control their own destinies. It enthuses in them a belief that leaders respond to them, respect their judgmental ability and ultimately help them find a suitable role in the local democracy. The edifice of egalitarian, just, peaceful and prosperous society envisaged by constitution can be built from the shared experience of those who love to hate power monopoly, negation of the other, violence and hope for an open human relationship of masses and elites of diverse distinctions and persuasions.

The aim of building civic capacity is to help Nepalis, as members of state, attain a level of self-reliance and self-dependence so that they can manage their own needs, issues and problems effectively, equitably and efficiently or through their representatives and make sure that they carry out their sovereign will. Largely passive, apathetic and alienated people do not care about sustaining the social foundation of democracy. They need to be motivated, politicised and activated to informed participation. Building civic capacity is also expected to enable each Nepali voter, especially those at the bottom of development statistics, to cope with the deep-seated irrational social, economic and political practices and customs and build personal, interpersonal and organisational networks to tap fresh opportunities offered by local government elections.

Civil society, NGOs, political parties and professional associations must complement the steps of EC and assume sustained civic initiatives to help Nepalis achieve social competence through first, door-to-door counselling by relatively autonomous electoral mobilisers; second, employing community-oriented backwardness and ignorance-coping strategies; and finally, strengthening their grassroots informal and formal institutions so that they can themselves create civic awareness of local election, its rules and procedures and make voting decisions. The objective preconditions such as resources to secure education, livelihoods and dignified life help them escape from the trap of poverty and scarcity. Building partnership of people with the government and business has become an imperative to beef up their power to deliver services in impersonal manner.

Building civic capacity of Nepali people transforms them into active citizens and purports to apply democratic values in redesigning and negotiating the prevailing caste, class and gender relationship in society through locally owned efforts rearing local associations, enlarging their choices and spurring indigenous capacity for constructive social change. Nepali women’s shared memory of engagement in politics, emotional experience and ability to transcend political, social and economic differences as witnessed in the past have offered other social strata of people important messages for coping with the disadvantageous condition, serving as connectors of society for reshaping a common future and cultivating cooperation within the political communities they live.

Given proper training, the electoral mobilisers can be the potential mediators of Nepali politics at the grassroots level. Ironically, ignorant voters may enjoy the spate of escalating backbiting and scratching each other’s image by Nepali leaders. The discerning ones find in such practices tribulations as they tear electoral decency and unravel the fabric of Nepali society breeding distrust, animosity and social disintegration and inflicting on people their poor image. The electoral political socialisation and social mobilisation are dramatic moments of democracy’s legitimacy and authority. In this sense, Nepali leaders cannot be seen as wise and clean by slinging mud to others rather than offering competing visions and programmes of building villages and cities as habitable places for people.

Public trust
Building civic capacity of Nepalis in general and poor and uneducated in particular entails long-term planning. This means the civic capacity building process will continue for many years as causes of deculturation persist unabated, producing more and more social vices, woes and malaises in day to day life, not just electoral politics. Genuine civil society, media and community organisations have to train Nepalis on the values and principles of democracy because genuine ones subject themselves to moral and humanitarian laws. This means the burden of these intermediary bodies is disproportionate to their capacity yet they set a learning exercise for the improvement of political life of Nepalis. Well-grounded security and election-friendly environment are common goods. Climate of political trust and collaborative efforts of all stakeholders of society are vital elements.

Just order at local and national levels, provides a sense of safety, a trust and a confidence of voters into the future. Building civic capacity of people becomes ineffective as long as the vicious circle of violence and impunity remains unbroken. Confidence in the future can boost the morale of Nepali people if the mistakes of the past are rectified, justice is done and positive relationship building is developed within a period of time for the equal share of social power by social diversity of local space. Given the socially diverse nature of Nepali society, it is equally important for political parties and candidates to craft competing development programmes that can strengthen cross-community relationships and grant them a sense of ownership in the institutions of local self-governance.

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