Institutional Stability Matters
Dev Raj Dahal
Institution is an analytic concept. It links individuals to organised life and incubates norms that define their predictable behaviour. Trusting institutions means complying with their procedures and goals. Institutional dispensation determines the dialectic of inclusion and exclusion, underscores reciprocal duties among their members and come up with a legal regime that enforces contracts and secures property rights. Multitude of institutions in specialised areas defines the rules of game of life and activities and addresses many challenges of society. They set the norms for shaping collective decisions. If all the actors are regulated by impersonal institutional rules they aid orderly interaction of various preferences of citizens and leaders, coordinate their behaviour, control free riders and promote shared benefits. They transcend the persoanlised position in an organisation.
The political culture of personalised leadership creates a tension with impersonal institutions of constitutional state and its rules and opens a gap between traditional politics and participatory democracy and development. Life of an institution such as the state endures even to influence the life of posterity. It arbitrates competing policies and interests of society aiming to create security, public order, justice and peace. Each group of society set around particular institution has its own type of performance even the same type of institutions yield different outcome based on work ethics of their members and incentives to them. The rationality of institution brings capital, labour, land, knowledge and technology practically closer for cooperation for productive activities while its deficit dampens each to achieve optimal potential. Political and economic performance is mainly determined by the underlying quality of institutions and incentives. Samuel P. Huntington says that the stability of the state, polity, parties and public institutions rest on how “adaptable, complex, autonomous and coherent” they are in their performance.
Democracy does not need strong men to govern. It needs robust impersonal institutions, rules and procedures so that no one stands above the constitution, acts capriciously and changes laws for private gain. The institutional gains foster citizens’ stakeholding in the polity. Trusting the Constitution of Nepal presumes gaining knowledge about its principles, objectives, rules, values and institutions shared by all citizens as they are binding to them. But frequent change of laws by extra-constitutional means does not foster a culture of constitutionalism. Nepal’s constitutional history is its example. Unconstitutional behavior rears parallel political culture posing a threat to the unity of Nepali society. Nepali polity has offered both institutional pluralism and dispersal of power which means collective action is needed for the realisation of Directive Principles and Policies of state. But extension of party politics in constitutional bodies and public institutions skews fair distribution of institutional public good. Political opening in Nepal has provided space for institutional proliferation. The nation needs the synergy of countless associations, federations, societies, cooperatives, civil society, local institutions, etc and channel parochial interests into common benefit. Some of these institutions are mediating forces of society while others are informal pathways to peddle influence.
Nepali political parties are stratified to assume partisan action. Those unhappy from partisan action seek to destabilise politics and justify their acts on ideological ground. Unequal distribution of political outcome and a tradition of alienation of oppositions including the radical ones have provided a rationale for political and social movements beyond the formal institutions of the state and the established political parties—CPN, NC, RPP and Madhes-bases ones. They enable state authorities to check a relapse of politics to a state of nature, negotiate their genuine grievances, asset power to bring obstreperous actors into social discipline and smoothly set leadership succession. Majoritarian institutions in a society of micro minorities like Nepal may not produce decision fairness if their concern is not balanced and democratic consensus based on a series of decision making steps remain tricky. Tyranny of majority has been the cause of rebellion in Nepal’s history. The civic space of civil society in Nepal often acted as change agents beyond the nexus of left-right politics and its hegemony. But they are now silent about the execution of economic model of polity which has endlessly bred absurdity in Nepali politics between the imperative of mass for wellbeing and the passion of elite for power beyond the ability of institutions to convert democracy into non zero-sum game.
Institutions divide the private and the public realms. Unfairness in the institutional behaviour of actors tears the trust and blurs the boundary between the two thus easing the personalisation of public wealth. If institutional rules evolved by Nepali society to regulate life and things are evaded, politics offer no muscle to leadership to deal with problems and achieve governance, economic growth and welfare. The integrity of institutions rests on being non-corrupt, non-abusive of authority and efficient in goal attainment. In Nepal, however, the distribution of public posts to cronies, election financer, highest bidders and party affiliates without any expertise or performance criteria has caused institutional atrophy. If the state, political, civic or charitable intuitions do not autonomously perform as per constitutional mandate, the system it creates suffers from the legitimacy crisis and maladapts to technological change. The waning faith in Nepal’s public institutions arose out of official primacy of the private sector, their profit-orientation and patronage network. Learning to reform institutions is vital to feed their fibres worthy for ordinary citizens.
Nepal’s parliamentary institutions are frail. Left parties favour presidential system. This shows that Nepali leaders are unable to settle the vital institutional issues central to the task of governance. Rule-based system is more stable than power-based one. But rule of law becomes weak in the absence of autonomous civic power of judiciary, media and civil society. The election of local bodies in Nepal has increased citizens’ activism in the institutional life of political parties, civil society, economic institutions, NGOs and community organisations. This has increased the expectation of Nepalis for better life. But their performance is marred by the lack of experience, resource and infrastructure deficits and weak administration. Nepali leaders have replaced duty-based society by rights-based, inherited to contractual one, caste to class and gender-oriented and informal to gender-equal and legal ones. But institutions to stabilise this shift are feeble. In a condition of non-equilibrium, inclusive transformation entails building participant culture conducive to social inclusion, political stability and wellbeing of citizens associated with the performance legitimacy.
Stable institutions enforce predictability, impersonality and efficacy of rule. They build trust on structures and functions. In a less stable regime like Nepal, powerful elites bend rules and use arbitrary means which becomes a source of friction. In a personalised regime, trust radiates around family networks and clients, not rule and, therefore, their institutions are weak. They are vulnerable to capture by powerful elites. Usual reshuffle of civil servants, police and development workers in Nepal in every government change has killed institutional memory which is crucial to their goal attainment. Federalism helped to regionalise public expenditure but whether it will empower citizens is unclear. It has increased the size of political class and expectation of Nepali citizens from the government and public institutions but the “transition politics” has dragged by federal debate is straining their performance and realisation of citizens’ rights. Merger of series of parties has ignited optimism but the power struggle inside them has marred solidaristic action for the efficient promotion of common good.
Similarly, boundaries of social inclusion have expanded the participation of women, Dalits, Janajatis, Madhesis, Aadibasis and other groups of society but the capacity of Nepali state to shoulder its duties and political culture to sustain optimism in the governance are lean. Entrenchment of group rights has stabilised social cleavages into the polity enabling their national commissions struggle against weak state and corrode its authority to defy geopolitical pressure. Economic and political success rests on the quality of institutions and the attainment of goals. Nepal’s history offers good examples of negotiations at sub-system level. Such as corporatist institutions of business together with the government and trade unions settle wages and resolve industrial disputes. There are many informal institutions at societal level run by Thakali, Tharu, Koiri etc whose community leaders settle local grievances at the optimal satisfaction of all sides and nurture social peace.
In Nepal, many institutional models imported from outside litter without deep roots in Nepali society. In the West, institutions are better rooted in their political culture and relatively clean and uncorrupted. Institutional power provides high prestige for leadership. Nepal’s constitutional engineering found fault with religion, region, institutions and geography, not the political culture and habits of leaders rooted in selfish human nature. So long as politics in Nepal is marked by selfish clash of interest, values, ideologies and identities against the background of search for power, common constitutional and institutional frame alone cannot steer the actors along the state policies. Dynastic succession and patrimonial nature of leadership are incompatible with democratic political institutions and culture. So do proliferating interest groups, caucuses and lobbies as they reduce the efficiency of institutions in service delivery and leave political life divisive and unstable. Therefore, political and administrative reforms must address the issues of institutional coherence, complexity and efficiency.
Nepal is holding the fourth Summit of BIMSTEC next week. The regional body is expected to discuss various issues pertaining to connectivity, investment,...