Friday, 31 May, 2024

Shifting Democratic Form

Dev Raj Dahal

Every age has produced its own texture of democracy and its own features. The modern version of democracy is no longer driven by old notion of citizens’ representation in the state only. Its discourse ever more questions all forms of power relations and institutional utility and disrupts all kinds of unfreedom, inequality, subordination and domination beyond politician’s preoccupation with left-right and top-bottom boxes. The density of local civic life of citizens will bind them for cooperative action in levelling processes and foster efforts to control political power they have unleashed through voting.
Human reason requires the warranty of existential means and absence of fear thus linking democracy to livelihood means and security. Citizens dictated by necessity are paralysed in their rational judgment on vital issues affecting their lives and liberties. The growing menace of climate change is reshaping human-centric democracy seeking solution of scarcity and ecological complexity across time, space and future generations. They question the inadequacy of faith in the technocratic solution of human problems as they face renewed failures.  In this context, democracy as an inclusive procedure allows the resistance of citizens with plural identities and aids multiple constructions of their social struggles against hegemony of the system that creates hierarchy of social relations, centre-periphery cleavages and limits their freedom, equality and justice.
The old normative and spiritual ground helped Nepali society achieve social cohesion, animating the pulsation of life. As Nepal’s left, centre and right political parties suffer from the servitude of their own interests and mismanagement inside their pluralism acting as an adversary, the anti-system and anti-constitutional parties are adding load to their dynamic through an annoying ploy. Party system in Nepal is less characterised by stability than fusion, factionalism and sharp bitterness beyond the spirit of constitutionalism. The novel aim of citizens’ struggle is to influence knowledge, power, agencies, laws and policies that lodge hurdles to their fitness and attain common good for all citizens without unfairness. Democratic duties entail mutual duty of Nepalis to help each other in attaining this, create the stake of all in the polity and remain bound by the social contract as a remedy for eternal political flux.
Nepal’s democratic struggle each time enlarged the scope of franchise for women, Dalits, workers, professional groups and civil society, enriched their associational life and boosted the scale of citizenship rights from political to ecological, social, economic and cultural ones and thus the galloping electoral turn out. Political change sought to remove barriers to justice in the field of labour, work and emancipation through individual entitlements and separate group rights which set the stage of identity politics and the utility of fringe parties for the social struggles of destitute. Nepal’s adoption of a slew of radical paths to social inclusion, proportionality, representation, affirmative action and recognition to diverse identities as statutory obligation to alter power and property relationship will open the state to new social fissures.
If right doze of civic education, acculturation and opportunity are not placed they may create geopolitical fault lines. The dissident elements in the nation stoke endless grievances of the Other indisposed to nation building. Each political party in Nepal claims nourishing sublime democratic ideas than the rest while the others dig their leaders’ past vices to vilify. The new discourse and social struggles against the bureaucratisation of the state, political system and political parties and capitalisation of political life are aimed at reclaiming self-governance. The surge of individual rights and self-expression through social media made personal life political but not enough to secure its material base. Social solidarity is a vital engine to uplift Nepalis’ humanity, reform the condition of their existence and ignite a hope in cross cultural dialogue for the solution of the problem of coexistence bred by new stratification driven by the outpouring of new ideas, economy and technology.
Democratic ideals helped Nepalis to deconstruct caste hierarchy and patriarchy aiming to drive the society to an egalitarian culture envisaged by the Constitution. But it has created class inequality. The class boundaries within Nepali parties and society are widening. In this sense, the practice of constitutionalism in Nepal is essential to wards off three scenarios: carry on special privilege of political status quo through communication, cultural particularism and a shift of political brands to conservatism, confiscatory distributive struggle of the oppressed, and elites’ tendency to subvert democratic outcome by reducing it to electoral choice of elite selection rather than executing the Directive Principles and Policies of the State.
Nepal’s earlier adoption of neoliberal subordination of politics to individual freedom only bred the consumer society and converted citizens into a mobile labour. It has skirted the Constitutional vision in the same way as neo-conservative lure to reject equality of citizenship or leftist version of democracy as single logic of class struggle for the control of political power which reduced the role of welfare state and its egalitarian effects. Freedom in Nepal means not only liberation from the government’s arbitrary rule but also from social discrimination, bonded labour, untouchability, ignorance and indoctrination for the valuation of ordinary Nepalis and their civic ability to pass critical judgments on important issues and initiatives that valorises their freedom.
The entry of business persons in Nepali political parties diluted the class interest of leaders in restructuring property relations and policy making while the birth of special interest groups, middle men and pressure groups cut the power of civil society to act as a Trojan horse of social transformation and democratisation unhampered by the persistence of partisanisation and group egoism in politics lacking rational capacity to reflect on others’ needs. The transformation of Nepal into secular, federal democratic republic has not moved beyond symbols to make an upbeat knock. It did not change the political culture of leaders fixed into sociological determinism - egoism, cronyism and patronage. The attrition of ideology opened Nepali politics to every sphere of society altering both private and political life.
Nepali intellectual find multi-causal account of the nation’s malaises of its democratic values and institutions and find a lack of collective learning process of leaders about the civilised means of democracy. First, Nepali state lacks monopoly on power to discipline non-state actors, execute all constitutional and human rights of citizens, execute development policies to keep multi-level governance on track and uphold an autonomous ability to act as neutral arbitrator of conflicting interests and ideas. Rights of citizens are the means to subordinate political power in their service and liberate them from natural selection of life. Certain degree of systemic balance, integrity of leadership and prosperity of citizens is vital for them to enjoy corresponding level of freedom.
Second, the government is in a bind, fearful of internal subversion within the party and popular loath to sordid geostrategic fixture. The latter has limped the government and major opposition parties - Nepali Congress, Madhesh-based parties and RPPs - but they do not help to heal internal schism and gain legitimacy to avert the scary crisis of governability. Only a lawful behaviour can free them from neurotic self-absorption. The third is that Nepal’s all public institutions are in the grip of internal friction devoid of public purpose. Nepali demos are also pluralised along leadership lines, each faction trying to infantilise the other. Only the virtues of a patriotic platform can unite them for collective goals and enable the polity to keep autonomy from the special interest groups of society to impartially deliver public good.
Nepalis in the future will reassert against the party bureaucracy and technocracy as they discover that life is not governed by automatic laws. As the growing recognition to planetary issues, international law, global civil society and governance will spread, they will feel their duties to human and non-human species. This innovative awareness and practice will revive the social spirit of grassroots citizens. The fourth is keeping operation of market compatible with democratic competition and regulation rather than unleashing free market economy which is governed not by moral code of the constitution but by the interest of economic forces, supply and demand and the structure of incentive for profits.
But democratic power as a public trust of citizens can muster authority and legitimacy and regulate its torrents of vices to support a redistributive regime so that wretched of society do not resort to revolt or jubilate eternal regime change but find welfare measures spread across all strata of Nepali society as a moderating measures. This is vital to build their stake in democracy and its institutions.
Ironically in Nepal, democratic erosion arises from its adherents and non-democrats for reasons of personal interest. In the absence of civic enlightenment, democracy as a public philosophy loses its lustre. If private interests supersede public and national interests and subvert the middle of the road politics as mediating force of opposing groups’ interests and create the scarcity of public good, democracy suffers terminal douse. The constitutional outreach to post-state forces is equally vital both to reap positive benefits and minimise the negative effects to boost citizens’ substantive participation in global opportunities including labour market, maintain the system in balance and evolve a tendency to interdependence where each nation is committed to maintain the system - big or small - and build shared capacity to reap benefits of democratic life worthy of civic culture.

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