Elitism And Democracy

Dev Raj Dahal


The elite’s positive notion implies a class of persons who does socially meaningful activities, holds position of eminence, specialises in certain vital functions of society, possesses most of power and resource, control public opinion and institutions and exerts influence in decision making. It also imbibes negative anti-democratic tinge for its jackal-like manipulative vocation marking a difference from the intellectuals who exercise their brahma, intellect to engage in free inquiry and speak truth to power. An eternal strife persists between few powerful elites or leaders and the vast general citizens creating a chasm between co-nationals.
From the days of Aristotle to now elite remains a central political authority. Aristocrats claim their rights to rule on the basis of their wealth while democrats claim the moral right to rule on the basis of popular strength.
Like in ancient South Asia, classical liberals offered the solution of this rival claims in the middle path. Elite, no matter its wit and ability, possess skill to shape worldview and acquire, use, display and expand their power from above under all regimes. The liberal hope is that social contract, welfare state, tax reform, minimum wage, collective bargaining, public investment in social security, education, health, ecology and infrastructures will shift the balance of power toward the poor, women and minority and foster egalitarian virtues of democracy and legitimacy. The circulation of every strata of population into elite through fair elections turns society dynamic and improves the quality of democracy. But, the periodic elite attacks on liberal politics faded its optimism waxing the vocal outburst of left and right wearing down the efficacy of democratic elites in the middle and their competition on policy matters.
The governing elites or the leaders are highly resilient to revolt of the citizens for egalitarian yen of democracy through the invention of new tools and exert social control to continue the status quo. They set rules for the society, shape the values and norms, control the levers of social, economic and political power and fabricate ideologies, culture and decisions for non-elites. The enlightenment belief in the rights of citizens to shape their destiny through free will has been cut by elites using class, market, caste, ethnic, gender, regional and cultural differences. It has made democracy a ritual for non-elites where they have the power only to vote, protest and agitate through their own political agencies.
To fight growing global poverty and inequality Thomas Piketty defends the state intervention, higher taxes for wealthy and redistribution of resources to save democratic social contract. J. M. Keynes and Douglas North rightly believed that institutions of society, not only the market, determine the allocation of public goods. The constitutional state is, thus, devised to act in an impersonal, autonomous and embedded way spurring a social balance. Now, the revolt of elites by the use of alluring borrowed notions of progress stoked sharp reactions prompting scholars and leaders to find new values for democracy and SDGs, not fully exiled from native experience. It includes civic engagement, social inclusion, power devolution and principles of affected avowing human rights and human dignity.
In Nepal, elite refers to any thulo manchhe (higher echelon of society), thalu barga (the dominant class) and even bhaladami (gentlemen). Thalu and samanti barga (feudal class) had positive image in the past. Ansuverama was a great samant because he had done great social service to the society. Now, it assumes pejorative meaning in the hand of counter-elites who have opposing symbols for power contest and remain more comfortable with the informal polity than rule of law. Nepali elites come from multitude of sources—landed aristocracy, civil society, educational institutions, caste system, class position, business, political parties, religious tradition, technology, media and geopolitical links. Their costs and size have increased but their utility in lifting the nation to a height of progress is largely dry.
Economic historian M. C. Regmi says: “Every Nepali of the present lives a vicarious existence, with the atavistic urges for political power and economic security and feels strongly that political rivalries among the political elite today are no less pronounced than they were two centuries ago.” The sporadic popular rages run out of steam soon with the cooptation and split of counter-elites. In Nepal, elite formation, and its ideology elitism, emerged from ascriptive backgrounds such as blood, lineage, family, tradition, caste, privileges, aristocracy, etc. They are superfluous in terms of performance bearing effect on the secular process of achieving elite status in Nepal through education, skills, elections, charisma, technology and specialised roles. Its democratisation process has, however, inducted some universal values into its caste, gender and class structures, laws, planning, organisation and bureaucratic rationality.
Nepal has also embraced proportional election and elite accommodation in the political parties opening power-sharing space for the new elites. As the old elites have offered limited scope for the circulation of new elites Nepal endlessly faced inertia in its political culture. Now new elites foster network politics through communication and common interest position and cultivate catch-all tendency with the division of labour in the national and international society through politics, technology and organisations and made Nepali elite more adaptable to the zeitgeist than accountable to disadvantaged citizens.
This has become possible as all of Nepal’s political movements ended in a compromise of interests between the old and new elites with little change in the nation’s basic institutions and style of governance. Lyricist and poet Kali Prasad Rijal reveals “Despite the rhetoric of ideals and theories, the mentality and attitude of family rule of Ranas, monocratic Panchayat polity and current republican disposition mark no difference” as all fostered a culture of cronyism and sycophancy, not meritocratic promotion of the right person in the right place. Nepali political elites thus face a tension between political socialisation along traditional line and acculturation to modernity and universal values of democracy, human rights, social justice and peace. The division of critical masses of social change and migration of bulk of youth abroad in search for jobs stifled any possibility to challenge their authority, although their effectiveness and legitimacy in governance are continually questioned. The continuation of pre-modern politics, law and externally-determined progress favoured particular elites that hinder both social learning and critical reflection on native human condition defined by labour market opportunity and newer forms of work culture though it resonates with secular, federal democratic republic.
Republic means popular sovereignty which is exercised through direct legislative power of Nepalis in local bodies and through their deputies in provincial and federal politics. Yet, it is deinstitutionalised. Secularism is contested by their own measures of caste, racial and religious national commissions. As a result, the polity loses checks to stay neutral on moral and religious issues. Federal autonomy is impeded by resource, personnel, legal and infrastructure limits, constituency-oriented fund and tendency of political leaders toward centralisation.
Nepal needs an inclusive citizenship where diverse cultures can get along and distributive justice is shared by all. The Constitution’s flexibility offers a remedy to rectify these malaises through the weight of public opinion. But the institutionalisation of many national commissions, including National Human Rights and National Inclusive Commissions with overlapping roles casts doubt whether they act as centripetal forces or unleash new strategy of division and social control through identity politics. Don’t secular commissions such as NHRC and NIC address the concern of all citizens and prevent the non-secular commissions’ instinct to tribalise Nepalis posing challenge to the nation of equal citizens? Democracy does not thrive in Orwellian atrophy of civic virtues where some are more equal than the others. John Rawls strongly defends “independent standards of fairness” valid to all citizens. Since Nepal’s peasants and workers contribute bulk to the nation’s GDP fairness can uplift those at the bottom of progress and create their linkage and stake in politics, law, planning and policy.
Progress liberates the nation’s energy by harnessing cultural, natural and human capital in a systemic way. The economy alone cannot do this for its long exit from ecological and human system. An inclusive transformation in Nepal requires a balance between property, political and civil rights and the state’s capacity for governance. This needs bridging sovereignty, governance and peace gaps between Nepali state and its citizens exciting a leap into modernity and bolstering leaders’ capacity for adaptation in the internal and global power shift. Nepali state has enlarged social rights of women, Dalits, Janajatis, Aadibais, Madhesis, etc. adopted positive discrimination in education, health, income-generation, security and peace-enhancing activities. Still, informalisation of jobs, wage differentials and lack of possibility of job re-entry after youths returns from foreign jobs beat their prospect. This means learning constitutional and universal standards and an ability to think critically can change attitude and liberate them for public action. Their will and capacity for social change rests on becoming equal citizen and closing the social, gender and intergenerational gaps in every spheres of life.
The rebellion of bureaucratic, political and legislative elites for privileges, in whatever forms—wars, agitation, techno-knowledge control, bargaining, etc. continues to confront the prospect of participatory democracy. So long as the dialectic of inclusion and exclusion stays in the process of selection of elites, institutional transformation becomes an Achilles hill. The omission of Labour Commission marks either weakness of labour class’s solidarity for collective action, inability to assert, capital bias of leaders or cohabitation of workers’ leadership in party structures. Still, the Constitution bears many progressive features where workers can seek to rebalance the power of labour and capital by reclaiming the state for strategic action, use their rights, social justice, right to work, etc. and resolve the paradox of Nepali politics where political power lies with the masses and economic power with elites. Democracy is a rule of stakeholders. It can flourish when Nepali elites support citizens’ battle for a pyramid of values- security, livelihood and dignity and both come out of their boxes to engage in democratic nation-building.

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


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