Popular Sovereignty

Dev Raj Dahal


The Constitution of Nepal has considered citizens sovereign and the source of state power. Legislative power of citizens is the core of popular sovereignty. It is a source of legitimacy to rule and its authority to exercise power. Popular sovereignty in Nepal is institutionalised in citizenship equality, inclusion, self and shared rule, non-religious and non-hereditary nature of politics, expanded citizenship rights and engaged and active citizenry who treat future as a choice. The constitutional basis of democracy presumes rule making and enforcement of the will of citizens and, therefore, leaders are responsive to them. The wellspring of popular sovereignty, however, presupposes indigenous determination of politics, law making and enforcement and parliamentary formulation of macro and local government micro development policies based on historical, ecological, intellectual and cultural experience of Nepalis. This sovereignty equally entails each citizen aware about it and engage in leaders’ selection, formulation of laws and policies and exercise rights and duties for contented existence.
J.J. Rousseau and I. Kant have pioneered democratic doctrine of popular sovereignty based on the general will of citizens. This sovereignty cannot be revoked by or ceded to anybody, represented by others, alienated, divided or reduced to class, elite, leader and institution. They challenged the prevailing concept of human nature, nature of society and the state detesting lumbering leviathan demanding uniformity and conformity or parliamentary control of citizens, even withering away of the state instead focused on enlightenment, public education and citizens’ self-legislated laws for regulation and compression of free will of anarchy. Nepali constitution’s faith in citizens that they are capable of exercising popular sovereignty through deliberation, self-determination, judgment and action sets the path to transform representative into participatory democracy. The quality of this democracy rests on their ability to exercise this sovereign power beyond the ritual of election of political, civic, economic and civil society leaders. The preconditions for the transformation of the ideal of popular sovereignty into actual practice rest on constitutional state and individual rights. Their self-alienation from the institutions of sovereignty imposes difficulty to fulfill basic needs, constitutional and human rights and authentic representation of self as citizens and human beings. Popular sovereignty requires citizens’ deputies at multi-level governance act as the real mediator and protector of their interests and concerns with civic sensibilities.
The ideal of popular sovereignty supposes Nepali state possess legitimate monopoly on power and its embeddedness in the life of citizens, not only driven by the pulls of globalization or undergo democratic shortfalls of accountability, transparency, equity and welfare measures and deviate from its ancient ideal Janata Janardan (people are like gods) where the role of citizens is uppermost. Now it is drenched in contradiction with individualistic nature of modern human rights and traditional conception of group rights. Both undercut the democratic idea of impersonal and equal citizens and their intrinsic orientation to common good. Nepalis’ undue group and party mentality and division of public goods such as education, health, communication, etc into the public and the private have cut the clout of popular sovereignty. The control of cultural industries by political parties, interest groups, business and external powers further polarise the socialisation agencies as they use spin doctors, consultants and manufactured experts to sell their ideas and policies. False consciousness strains the freedom of Nepalis fit to exercise popular sovereignty within the state’s reach.
Nepali leaders’ excessive obsession with electoral prospect cannot address the generational problem of misery and migration. When citizens become a mere symbol to contest for power and wealth producing decisions in their name without their knowledge and participation on vital issues popular sovereignty suffers ill fate. Juergen Habermas, therefore, stresses on comprehensive protection of individual interest by independent court, legislative oversight of administration, judicial review and subject to law and the separation of the state and society to prevent the conversion of the social into bureaucratic power. Crash pursuit of self-interest in the public sphere of national and international community risks the return of state of nature. The recent inclination of Nepalis to sub-national and transnational attraction, loyalties and affinity debase both popular and state sovereignty. The shift of international to global relations governed by rival impulses and divisive pursuit of security, order, wellbeing and peace at global scale and Nepal are unsettling and precarious
Popular sovereignty is constituted by free citizens for equality, respect and integrity despite heterogeneous background for unity and collective will formation. But it has to be sensible before the higher laws of morality. The constitutional state is vital to eradicate the state of nature and socialise pre-political identity into a national solidarity of deliberative public. Everything the Nepali state does is accountable to the citizens. But the spiral of violence threatening to internal peace weakens the right to popular sovereignty. The state of nature in the national and international sphere implies the might of politics and geopolitics, not norm-governed order. Therefore, Nepali citizens demand their autonomy in the national sphere in the same way as their state demands independence, justice and identity in the global sphere. The basis of popular sovereignty and the world community rooted on mutual recognition is measured by liberty, justice and progress. The re-composition of Nepalis will to struggle for these ideals sets a consistency for a harmonious order.
The Constitution once created by citizens must be binding to them, the state and all the actors in between. The constitutional grounding of rules and process of governance sets reasonable limits on both the government and citizens so that they do not indulge in sovereignty-free action. It is important to maintain the cohesion of multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-religious Nepali society and harness each other’s strength for nation-building at this time. Globalisation has pooled both popular and state sovereignty in multi-national disposition of multisided global relations. Many global issues such as climate change, finance, commerce, migration, technology and terrorism demand international institutions for global governance. This has made Nepal’s popular sovereignty and state sovereignty problematic as multi-actors share national policy space and internalise global norms of public international law, diplomacy, human rights and SDGs without a concept of mutual accountability for their failure. Nepal’s membership in many international regimes has entailed it to adhere to their norms, values and processes and reap shared benefits. But increasingly denationalisation of Nepali society through social engineering and lure to global job markets have increased transnationalised interaction of Nepali state, market, civil society, solidarity based groups and citizens. This is, however, deconstructing the unity of territory, economy, culture and citizenship in the national space which for long was the basis of state sovereignty and a source of its resilience.
An exercise in popular sovereignty by Nepalis requires their civic competence in planning, administration, management, finance, execution and monitoring of projects. It is linked to the capacity of state to execute laws and policies and maintain sovereignty in the conduction of independent foreign policy especially in aid, investment, commerce and beneficial transactions. Sovereignty makes a state different from other institutions. Internal autonomy makes it impersonal in providing security, rule of law and service delivery enabling citizens engage in peaceful competition and cooperation aiming to seek liberty, wellbeing and identity. A state whose capacity is confiscated by interest groups and alienated from its citizens reflects not their desire, interest, experience and culture but merely acts for other’s geopolitical interests. Conflict-prone, party-dominated, patronage-based and dependent state, in this sense, loses capacity for independent action on behalf of its citizens. Such a state only robes the nationality and humanity of citizens.
Popular sovereignty demands relative autonomy of Nepali state above caste, class, gender, ethnicity, region and religion and its justification to laws and policies. But it has to be sensitive to the plight of poor, elderly, disabled and citizens of backward regions across all strata of population and uplift them through welfare means. The universal human rights and popular sovereignty are reciprocal. It prizes Nepalis right to national self-determination. Nepali state is obliged to protect freedom of its citizens for reason of their membership. But it requires citizens and leaders civic education about their context, rights, duties and opportunities as well as agencies for collective action on public and national interests. This means civic and economic institutions should be opened to building local self-government’s creative capacity for social innovation, production, distribution and financing reaffirming the self-rule of local democracy. Nepalis’ popular struggles lend fillip to surge of democracy in various periods of its history but did not spur grand reconciliation in the golden mean vital for political stability, economic progress, social cohesion and durable peace. The protracted political transition in Nepal has thus left the Constitution, multi-level governance, polity, popular sovereignty, institutionalisation of political parties and democratisation of their inner life and transitional justice unsettled. It needs fixing before the concern of civil society and international community. Weaning politics off violence and a big push towards subsidiarity down to local bodies can give Nepalis choice in the art of government, avoid the centralisation and regionalisation, repair the bond of family, community, society and the state and build a virtuous interface between popular sovereignty and state sovereignty.

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

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