Shifting Democratic Values
Dev Raj Dahal
Democratic feelings of Nepali citizens and their defense of universal values of liberty, equality, justice and peace are running high, at times to a scale of anomie. But education to improve their civic virtues is unadorned. Quality education to nurture inner vigilance to control one’s own passion is scruffy. Democratic desire flows from the benefits of a set of ideals, institutions and political culture. Its normative ethos is rooted in civic virtue of actors. Leaders can manage institutions, rules and procedures if they promote fair amount of progress, social unity and accommodation of diversity. Nepali citizens’ democratic expectation demands the solution of systemic problems arising out of scarcity of public good, bureaucratic charade, incitement of primal prejudice by alien forces and unsocialised behaviour of certain actors who regularly hit the streets.
Participatory democracy builds self-governing public sphere where attentive Nepalis can wilfully deliberate on coding national vision, choices about public policies and pass reasoned judgment. Knowledge about civic skills and rules of civilized life can unshackle them from irrational social control through indoctrination, socialisation and arbitrary authority. This public sphere, formed by the rational discourse of Nepalis for engagement, public opinion and policy inputs, serves a bridge between citizens, non-state and the state. The meta-ethical commitment of Nepali leaders to values, rules and institutions constituted by the necessity of global governance forms a part to the solution of global problems.
Democracy professes to secure good life for its citizens through popularly elected leadership. It can thrive if it is nourished by Nepal’s positive democratic values of social pluralism, tolerance of diversity, syncretic culture, temperate habits and feeling of solidarity. The sanity of tradition shores up the state’s imperative of security and order. In this sense, Nepali democracy can flourish if it can arrest the history’s universal zeitgeist. The execution of modernity fortifies civic institutions’ affinity to freedom, autonomy, shared and self-rule and rational change. It also tries to balance the minorities’ struggle for recognition and majorities’ imperative for accommodation for a shared political community based on the virtue of equal citizenship.
By ingraining 31 civic rights, Nepali constitution seeks a horizontal equilibrium of power within the polity for specialised functions and adaptation to shifting roles of the state, the market and civil society and vertical devolution of power at the local level guaranteeing the dignity of every citizen. This is the way to stitch Nepalis’ love to native soil, acquit from herd mentality and learn universals to the enduring flair of solidarity at multi-level governance. The elegance of democracy is shifting from the formal representation of elites to a more deliberative participatory process. Ordinary Nepalis rightly expect ownership of the formulation of public policy and accountability of their self-serving leaders.
The affirmation of popular sovereignty validates that law is not a static concept. Democratic laws have to match with general will and public opinion and capture the spirit of changing times. Legal disposition is the core of constitution which sets to coordinate the antinomies between law and politics, rights and duties and authority and freedom and fulfil many unrealised democratic possibilities in each generation of citizen. The disparate understanding and practice of democracy exercised by Nepali political parties have, however, exposed each other’s leadership flaws, thus failing to achieve the collective national goals and adopting laws and policies compatible with the rights of citizens. Nepali citizens’ greater identification with powerful leaders than political parties, ideologies and policies echoes the uncanny feature of democracy.
Participatory democracy seeks a shift from the patrimonial leadership that knows no division of public and private spheres and cares less about inefficiency of economy and administration to transformational ones. It shifts laws from the tradition, power balance and interpretation of judges to expanded terrains of civic space for citizens, civil society and business to engage them in settling the dysfunction of vision, laws and institutions. Some actors holding contradictory worldviews of democracy are guilty for this. Others are throwing radical doubt on state-led project of modernity and aiming to execute the project of deconstruction of history. Still others are sponsoring disbelief on a constitutional rule without changing its contents on the nature of polity, representation and recognition of identity. Without the transformation of all the perspectives in the interest of common good, a state of wellbeing for all is impossible. Obviously, gender and ecological justice demands consensual politics, not the conventional adversarial, cruelly deterministic or geopolitical driven one.
A rational participatory reflection on public sphere can dispel the fear of fatalism, politicise the discourse on human rights, legitimise citizens as authors of law and endorse deliberative politics. It is a mode of modern law making and structural change expecting to reform wretched human condition of many Nepalis with expanded labour market, employment opportunities and fulfilling lives. The tying of law and politics has widened the frontiers of both and sought to set up the rule of law according to historical experience and general principles. Law is a non-arbitrary institutional requirement to the rule of law.
But, in Nepal, the recourse to agitational form of political change every time has stymied the hold of law without any marshalling of public reason. It made the state institutions partisan, fostered public insecurity and stifled the coercive potential of law authorised by the Nepali state. As a result, the continuity of violence as a tool of politics stays marking the underperformance of cultural industries in their acculturation projects. This trend slabs the prospect to bridge the gap between distributional struggle of poor and the assertion of state authority and legitimacy. Now, law is feeble to create law-abiding good citizens as a source of Nepal’s democracy. Legislators are inclined more by party interests than the broader goals of public legislation. The subordination of the integrity of judiciary to partisan politics has left the justice supine losing some of its gleam. Civic political culture ploughs the habit of public action, not fuel the cauldron of seething discontents about public life. Social solidarity can break this puerile politics hitting civic nationalism, the unifying symbol of Nepali democracy.
Those who know the rules of leadership avoid cultic politics and learn from feedback of citizens. The art of virtuous Nepali leadership supports public interests while its effectiveness rests on mobilising resources to achieve them. Nepal’s institutional opening has turned the nation’s rule inclusive but by no means stable as central leaders from all the parties are facing adversity. This opening of other channels of participation through public sphere, civil society and social struggles has begun to flatten the sordid culture of conformity, lift critical awareness about the world and shift the functional domain of politics beyond the monopoly of political parties. In the long run, this may free Nepali leaders and citizens from being slave of passion, necessity, populism or habit-driven culture devoid of historical experience and institutional posture.
The capacity of local governance structures to absorb the newly mobilised groups will spur the democracy to participatory turn. Alternative means of participation are democratising the institutions, roles and relationships of political parties now rife with internal tensions, civil society acting as limb of development projects and multi-level legislatures facing strain among law, bureaucracy and task performance of local leaders. Reconciliation with democratic beliefs, morals and judgment can inspire attitude change of leaders and liberate the marginalised with fresh initiatives of positive discrimination like the one recently declared social security.
Nepali political parties require the coordination of public action in the civic project of democratisation and eschew an instinct to absorb civil society for their stir politics. This means leaders must be able to cope with looming spectre of national and post-state issues rising from diverse causes and use polity in shifting power equation in favour of the weak. One way is through public education, communication and civilised coexistence, the other is shaping civic culture with faith in a rule-governed polity and still the other is setting the rule of law. But it entails the fairness of justice and revitalisation of a condition of ethical life perfected by constitutional life.
Democracy is not a self-encapsulating project. As a process the profound leap of democracy in Nepal entails: bolstering the vital bits of state institutions seeking citizens’ allegiance, pledge, ownership and civic engagement in the polity; maintenance of relative autonomy and integrity of disciplinary, elite circulating, communicative, administrative, economic, service delivery and value-promoting agencies and their responsiveness; formulation of an inclusive economic policy that supports suitable distribution of common good for all citizens beyond instrumental calculations about costs and benefits; consolidation of the values of constitutionalism to manage opposition and rebellion and optimise the position, interest and identity of all stakeholders in the polity; upholding the supremacy of performance legitimacy and electoral authority of leadership; and finally, continuous democratic education for leaders and citizens so that the later can exercise virtue-ethics and personal choice and maximise welfare upholding faith in democracy.
Aid bureaucracy needs to align its projects with national institutions and priorities and mitigate the mixture of pressures. Integration of diverse perspectives into the public laws and public policies assumes the capacity building of Nepali state to implement all the constitutional and human rights it has endorsed. Democratic politics entails establishing a fairness of legal condition which will allow all Nepalis to lead a dignified life, for if justice vanishes there is nothing to take hold of its varied society’s vitality and resilience. But, the execution of equal rule for everybody is not feasible without equal playing field for everyone, equal zeal for cutting poverty, reducing inequality and sincerely executing welfare system.