Crafting State Priorities
Dev Raj Dahal
The context in which public life operates is in a process of fast change. Many trends stirring the world-technological acceleration, rise of new power centres, return of geopolitics, climate change, migration, crisis of values, etc. require skills to navigate the future. The world system is in a shaky equilibrium. It is hard to say whether the world system is anarchic where each state competes the other for exclusive self-preservation without the care for the system maintenance, hegemonic where powerful states dictate the less powerful ones, regime-oriented where each state cooperates the other for increasing its riches for security, power and wealth or self-help type were each state resorts to neo-mercantilism. In no way these impulses offer positive milieu for Nepali state’s safe adaptation.
The state, as a set of rules and rights, uses legitimate monopoly of force in a well-defined population and territory, runs governance, mobilises resources, musters citizen’s loyalty and enjoys global recognition. The indigenously evolved Nepali state invented its own knowledge, language, grammar, religion, reason and rituals of statecraft. Its vertical landscape enriched its resource endowments, social diversity, cultural syncretism, economic prospect to satisfy vital needs and honour the great engineering feat of state builders. But its struggle now to sustain social contract, culture, authority and identity is painful. The effects of changing world system on Nepali state’s decision making, its globally integrated market and civil society are enormous.
Nepali leaders need to keep abreast of the global trends for shaping the direction of politics and economic planning. In a world of interdependence, they need to explore the choices crucial to retain democratic national self-determination so that citizens’ priorities are taken care of while sustaining its historic role of a sovereign state. Freedom of Nepali state in the world system is central to the freedom of its citizens. But Nepali state’s defective monopoly on power has made it vulnerable to pre-modern and post-modern solidarities, geopolitical incursion, assertion of conflict residues and fluid issues. It entails to refresh priorities and bridge the gap between state’s welfare laws and decent standard of life.
The first priority of Nepali state is to put back its universal recognition of sovereignty in fact. Sovereignty remains empty if deficits are intense in areas of self-governing capacity of Nepalis on matters of security, politics, laws and public policies and political will fails to dispel fear and insecurity of citizens. The flux of its economic life, refusing the sanctity of national border and blind addiction to consumerism has besieged Nepali state by claim rights, liberty rights and power rights of citizens, huge migration of dynamic youths abroad for jobs and stagnating the native society and rising social costs for justice. Nepal’s per capita income is $1,047. Reduction of absolute poverty to 19 per cent is attributed to workers’ remittance. The contribution of tax to GDP is around 20 per cent which is deficient to finance the overloaded welfare state.
The second priority of Nepali state is to set its reasons for existence. Promotion of national interests spurs democratic legitimacy. But, if development goals are externally determined, not based on the general will of Nepalis, it feeds rationality deficit, polarises them and incises the dignity of citizens. Ironically, Nepali state, society, political parties, civil society and business are heavily penetrated by international regimes for their survival. International organisations, bilateral donors, INGOs, human rights bodies, MNCs and international norms, values and laws are denationalising Nepali society and pulling the state in a post-national constellation. It has stoked a patchy public sphere and imposed constraints in consolidating statehood where economic basis of participatory democracy can flourish.
The state constantly faces political challenge to integrative response to foreign security, economic and political policies. Mobilisation of opportunities for job, production, exchange, distribution and role occupation can offer vitality to the state’s resilience. But, Nepali leaders are divided on foreign policy: one set is lured by Indo-Pacific strategy, the other by BRI, others by classical non-alignment and peace zone and still others by the shade of ideology, not realpolitik, which entails historical wisdom of seamless coherence. The state thus is weak in policy coherence- aid coordination and alignment to national priorities, the government’s occasional howls of social engineering notwithstanding.
The third priority of Nepali state is to promote efficient multi-level governance. It is linked to ordinary citizens and aims to improve their lives. The institutional interest of Nepali state is to realise governance goals stated in the Directive Principles and Policies of the State (output legitimacy) on the basis of the rules of procedures (input legitimacy). The dense transactions of Nepalis within the national space can nurture a robust national constellation of statehood. Thick interactions of its people, goods, capital and technologies across the borders escape national loyalty, produce dependence and brew troubles for communication, coordination and regulation.
Foreign aid contributes nearly 5 per cent to Nepal’s GDP, remittance about 30 per cent and debt marks dreary 31 per cent. Its trade deficits amount to the size of annual budget. Import is 14 times higher than export. Lack of attention to fiscal discipline and investment in real economy- agriculture and industry, which can fulfil basic needs, will draft the nation into the cruelty of scarcity. It can flag state’s legitimacy acquired through election, sanity of statecraft and performance. Too much external dependence weakens internal legitimacy of social contract, external leverage and an ability to defy undue external pressure.
The fourth priority of Nepali state is to fortify institutional authority and integrity. Both matter for political stability and economic progress. The loss of institutional memory and authority of Constitutional organs to perform and maintain financial and moral integrity stifled their knack to respond to the recommendations of Auditor-General, National Human Rights Commission and the Courts. Undue partisan prejudice, frailty of authority and institutional ineptitude twisted social control and ethical conduct. Poor coordination among governing units renders them feeble to concert action. This is caused by no monitoring of performance and less compliance on rules by free-riders- coalition of failed political actors, thieves of state, cronies, caucus, interest groups, criminals and traitors for whom authority is an enemy.
The fifth priority of Nepali state is to harness historical and cultural resources for a common national sentiment, identity and solidarity out of its distinct local multitudes and give citizens common civic orientation to the value of synergy of hard power of institutions and soft social capital. The espousal of freedom, equality and peace demands Nepali leaders to take citizens’ rights seriously, satisfy their basic needs and bridge the unequal division of power for the promotion of the vision of an egalitarian society. The guaranteed freedoms of Nepalis do not provide immunity for political class, business, bureaucracy or powerful elites to crush them in whatever the name nor citizens to turn hostile to each other. It can set a Constitutional order, liberate Nepalis from pre-social condition, wild instinct and corruption of public power and wealth for private benefits.
The sixth priority of Nepali state is its embeddedness in native social knowledge, values, institutions and interests to satisfy the public good. It is expected to produce better outcome in state-citizen ties, adaptable to change and synergise the objectives of the state and society. Institutional boom in Nepal has opened an opportunity for citizens to leverage their interests at the various scales of governance. Internal cohesion enables the national forces to cope with globally expanding institutions, networks and social movements and adjust to national imperatives. Nepali leadership needs to acquire skill and resources to meet the challenge of citizens now and future in terms of organisation, planning, policy, resource, market potential, communication and coordination to achieve public good.
The seventh priority of Nepali state is to professionalise its security, civil servants, discipline, health, voice, civic and educational institutions and the axis of polity defined by legislative, executive and adjudicating functions. Nepali bureaucracy as the most modernised sector of the nation can contribute to administration, coordination, feedback, monitoring and supply delivery if self-serving pre-modern and atomizing post-modern politics does not crush their public spirit. Unwarranted penetration on impersonal state has weakened its outreach in society, problem solving capacity and common national purpose.
Nepal suffers from weak statehood now, polity is unsettled and the government has to compromise to fractious party leaders. As a result, social struggles, rebellion and corrupt elements of society free ride owing to their strong web of power. The peace accord could not fully silence the gun. Conflict residues are surging and the official task force mandated to hold talks with rebels remains. The jarring voices about transitional justice, human rights, polity, media, education and health policies cut the government’s pro-active ability, create the authority of the state and bring the coherence of national state and national society.
The eighth priority of Nepali state is to unify the state-bearing force. Nepali state’s consolidation demands an apt policy to put a tab on subversive elements and set a harmony of national territory, citizenship, resources, recognition and governance goals so that multi-level rule attain national equilibrium and nurture the feeling of we Nepalis so that each segment of population and space is dearly held. Nepali heartland, Kathmandu, needs to act as geopolitical pulls of high strategic culture to mobilise connectors of society, build the linkage of strategic areas with buffer spaces without which their elites harbour centrifugal tendency. It is vital to link the frontier population with the centre based on feeling of civic nationalism. It helps to manage core-periphery tensions through policy, administration, institutions, resource, communication and political education, restores the superiority of national over parochial interests and overcome the defencelessness of frontiers.
Political education of Nepalis about the state, political system, government, political parties, business and civil society is essential so that parties do not capture the impersonal state for partisan benefits causing what Garret Harding calls “tragedy of the common.” Nepali state is sovereign and permanent institution created by its citizens in a long struggle of adaptation and change. Democratic political system is a distributive regime. It survives by creating its legitimacy and producing more winners than losers. The government is autonomous, not sovereign. It is the executive arm of the state to carry out daily affairs of the state within its electoral legitimacy. The state is served by endless chain of the government. Neither party, nor government, not even polity can replace, subdue or capture the state. Democracy provides scope for the opposition to the government, not the state, which is regarded as sedition. Nepal needs enlightened and active citizens, as members of the state, who can keep the golden rule of politics alive hooking all under the general will of the Constitution.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues)