Monday, 17 June, 2024

Fostering Local Democracy & Governance

Dev Raj Dahal


THE perceived belief of Nepalis that their ability to participate in civic life at local governance affects the course of politics prompts them to assume public responsibilities and make a difference in their personal and community life. Nepal’s skewed level of political education has negative impact on cultivating civic virtues and work ethics while top-down institutional innovation has posed problem in the adaptation to changing aspiration of citizens. As people’s agency, Nepali political parties have vital roles in the political socialisation of their leaders, cadres, followers and the general public towards the goals of polity.
Leaders organise political mobilisation, interest aggregation, mediation of policies and rise to power with the promise to satisfy multiple needs of citizens. Local issues bring together many community members of a variety of political hues for consensual path to progress and make cooperation a necessity despite top leaders’ unchanged selfish mindset and factional orientation that is veering to decompose the constitutional and institutional process. The constitution of Nepal has set three conditions for political parties: democratic statute, elections of officials in every five years and inclusive of social diversity. These are salient to shape civic culture.

Social contract
Trust in social contract across Nepali parties can produce better democratic outcome for the efficacy of local self-governance and engage citizens in common projects, reduce the rate of violence and conflict, foster business environment and a number of worthy ecological, social, economic and civic activities for their general wellbeing. Instant communication and mobility are speeding up Nepalis’ struggle against injustice. It is a powerful reminder for political leaders that unfair play can be self-mutilating in the long-run. But in no way Nepali parties have fostered mixed public space that can cultivate social specialisation, democratic equality and sensibility among age, gender, caste, class, regional and ethnic formations beyond formal rules and regulations.
Instead creation of auxiliary organisations along identity lines more to expand electoral base cuts the prospect for democratic citizenship vital for problem solution and nation building. Regular civic education of cadres and citizens about their rights, responsibilities of running complex institutions of the state and non-state together in a concert can empower them to demand responsive and accountable local leadership at the level of state institutions, civil society, political parties and development bodies, monitor them and seek transparency and accountability of their functions.
Local party committee is a laboratory for leadership growth and training. Yet, in Nepal, leadership production by senior party elites within the circle of coterie stifles natural growth and decentralisation. This circle of coterie removes the leaders from the mass yet serves as an effective communicator to the media with the ability to project its patrons’ image and pool resources from various networks. They focus on the cult of personality, not party programmes, policies and ideologies that are essential to distribute equal outcome.
This means local leaders must be socialised before they occupy political posts so that they are able to act more than command receiving units and act in tandem with inclusive policy especially to overcome social powerlessness of women, Dalits and minorities and improve their social status, abolish discrimination on the basis of class, caste, gender, ethnicity and geographic remoteness, attain social justice and fertilise a healthy local governance with full ownership of its inhabitants.
Nepali political parties, no matter whether they are conservative, reformist or radical have, however, failed to fully mobilise the social capital except in the case of large-scale political agitations for system change. This mobilisation ended in a partisan calculation of leadership power, its personal network and survival imperative, not building organisational ritual, leadership efficacy and policy craft which are the lifeblood for stable party system. Businessmen have greater skills in homogenising the mainstream parties’ policy through financial contribution, image building, disproportional representation in the parliament and greater say in party committees than their counterpart.
As lobbyists around the leaders influence public policy, the institutional culture of parties are weak and their original goal during the political movements for democratisation and social modernisation suffered setback. This is the reason why various types of fatalism and determinism, not democratic choice exist in local Nepali society. Fatalism exonerates leaders and citizens from taking personal responsibility for role performance. The competition for business funding of the party candidates has professionalised the doubtful practices thus weakening democratic spirit of political volunteerism and business ethics of value creation, not only profit extraction.
Building the back of Nepali state entails robust local self-governance. Local party committee is the critical link between political parties and citizens. Expansion of institutional and economic pie and increased access of citizens is another area where local party committees at the ward level can be a conduit for inclusive, articulative and integrative organisational life. The analysis of social justice embedded in Nepali constitution highlights the breaking of privileged wall that shatters the notion of active citizenship at multi-level governance.
Still, the effects of fractious politics at the central and province levels continue to infect the economic and civic vitality of local leaders. As a result, one can see the social fabric is tearing as Nepali parties have tendency to stratify the population and expand their political and electoral patronage. Local party committees do not have common civic education course to teach what are negotiable and what are not in the democratic process and how polarisation on common development concept can be overcome. The surge of militancy of various groups in Nepal indicates that the utility of violence in politics has not ended even after peace, constitution and electoral legitimacy.
Nepali parties have pledged to protect the rights and sovereignty of citizens in legislation, policy making and public action. Harnessing the centrality of local power and amplification of the integrity of local authorities hone desired level of financial and human development commitment to common good thus keeping ordinary Nepalis hope in the middle path. Yet, local leaders have yet to foster vigorous community entrepreneurship and working skills so that they do not feel disconnect in a world of connection and flows -- information, knowledge, capital, labour, technology, business, etc. and even common risks such as climate change or even pandemic.
The critical challenges for local party committees are: domination of centre and city-centric politics, inexperience of elected representatives, authority and security vacuum and absence of adequate personnel in sub-national offices. The authority vacuum stays while Nepal Army is setting up its intelligence units at all local bodies to overcome security deficits. Capacity building of local party committees and elected bodies and their interface and coordination of the public, private, business and civil society in the implementation of development, control corruption and enforce accountability are vital tasks.
Local authorities claim that inadequate resource allocation by Singha Durbar through line agencies limit the execution of broad-based development. Lack of consensus among the competing demands of parties has bred conflict between the government and political agencies. Resource allocation to the upliftment of disadvantaged population is scattered in too many small projects with puny effects despite the line agencies priority to allocate certain budgets to them. The most of new political leaders with elites, middlemen and NGO background ignore plans of attentive citizens while information sharing in remote areas is pathetically poor.
Development at the village level requires the capacity of local governance to meet demands for the rebuilding of infrastructures and reconciliation of human relationship torn by violent conflict, meet the basic needs of family, community and society and secure their rights to shared and self-rule. Neo-liberal modernisation has fatally cut Nepali state’s role as producer of goods and services and outsourced them to reluctant private sector, NGOs and civil society. In the three-tiered governance, the existence of multi-stakeholder mode of cooperation among the local state, party units, communities, private sector, NGOs, media, federations of local bodies and donors reduces transactional costs and increases the development synergy. But there is a general weariness in coordination of tasks as partisanisation of these bodies has cramped their impersonal performance.
New opportunities for constructive participation of ordinary citizens, rural sukumbasis (homeless squatters), youths and women through feasible distribution of land and property ownership can raise their stake in local governance. Participation and co-determination hold them with jobs in the villages, de-bureaucratise services and build the connection between local parties, democracy, development and social peace. The tendency of national and sub-national bodies of the parties to use local party committees only for resource collection, membership drive and electoral mobilization, agitation and movement has increased their awareness and participation on issues but not democratise the internal life of political parties. The deepening the tentacles of democracy at the grassroots can only empower citizens with unequal abilities and endowments.
So far local parties are only command receiving entities from higher authorities. Democratisation and decentralisation of the latter can ensure autonomy of local committees and enforce their accountability to community, wards and villages and increase their voice in determining public goods and services. This is in tune with the spirit of popular sovereignty, subsidiarity and social inclusion -- the key elements of participatory democracy. The formation of inclusive local party committees, deliberative mode of deciding public policy, non-intervention of higher political authorities and consensus-based development activities can directly benefit ordinary Nepalis, place a set of checks and balances and reduce the level of corruption, monopoly and arbitrary actions.
The top-down and bureaucratic nature of party building cannot contribute much in enhancing the empowerment measures. Obviously, institutional pluralism and competitive agencies at the local level are expected to offer cost-effective service deliveries to the citizens and marginalised groups if local administration discharges their tasks sincerely. De-partisanisation of local institutions working in education, health, drinking water, irrigation, saving and credit, relief, environment and users and management of common property resources increases their coherence and efficiency in responding to community needs through the management of community-driven process.

Political culture
On the contrary, one can see how political corruption by all-party committees in the past caused popular protest and their dissolution while illegal loot of social security by local officials prompted the government to change the mode of payment. Elected local committees have the potential to strap up civic political culture that is suitable for citizens' participation in politics and control local government. In this case, local parties represent the will of citizens. A culture of deciding things in common motivates the representatives towards consensus building for common good and keeps a balance between demand and response capacity of local governance institutions.
Effective implementation of judicial bodies can resolve local disputes, deliver conflict-reducing and justice delivering measures, repair the broken relationship and build confidence in sustainable local development. Coordination mechanisms between the donors, local state institutions, local parties and NGOs also help identify resource gap, avoid convergence of resource in better off sectors and regions and foster the efficiency, transparency and accountability of aid in improving the lot of citizens thus synchronising the rhythm of progress.

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