Denigrated Public Sphere in Nepal

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The public is the fulcrum of democratic life. Democratic norms, values and institutions are deep-rooted in the public philosophy and flourish with the integrity of citizens.

By Prof. Dev Raj Dahal

Prof. Dev Raj Dahal

The public is a self-ordering mass of free-thinking citizens. It is a symbol of democracy governed by rational spirit of inquiry about their leaders’ promises of stability, prosperity and good governance.

The gathering of citizens opens a context for a common focus of attention and conversation about their dreams, ideas and expectation. They share views about local, national and universal condition and burning issues of the day. Conversation can take place in bus, train, public place, university, club, tea shop, temple, monastery, market, chautari, pati-pauwa, dharmasala, etc.

They engage not as a society of strangers, but concerned citizens. The site of public sphere differs from seminar, conference and convention as they are formal with definite agenda, fixed participants, goal and place governed by fractional interest devoid of public access. The crowd or the mass, like an eager robot, operates in a linear way under the directive of top leaders, interest group or geopolitical agency.

The public sphere renews itself by way of freedom, participation and civic action. The style of conversation in Nepal is informal and oral, not legal invoking their right to information, which opens the vital decisions to the public scrutiny. The sense of belonging may be local, national, regional or global public sphere, like shastrartha in the old days, where all were engaged irrespective of social status. Now, the rise of social media, based on self-advertisement, has formed a jarring public, without producing unified interest in the public good and mediation of conversation.

The public sphere transcends human nature to embed itself in the sociability of citizens. In Nepal, for long, the state sector has assumed public character. It symbolised the will of all citizens and its expansion was justified by democratic nationalism, mass welfare and equal citizenship. The attrition of Nepali state’s institutions has enfeebled democracy as a power of public and marked the beginning of refeudalisation of public sphere.

The democratisation of cultural industries can restore public policy to Nepali parliament, avert the erosion of general interest in national politics and delink it from anti-political trend. Public sphere is neither status-based nor authority governed. It is not bound by physical, gender, class, caste, religion, or ethnic barriers which enhances its value for democratic consolidation. The nature of citizens’ engagement in the conversation is mindful and systemic like in a participatory democracy. Their active involvement in public life shapes the civic character of the Nepal’s polity. A lively public sphere evades the polity’s impetus to absorb the self-organising power of Nepali society while it opposes the lust of market to atomise, disintegrate and dissolve the society for private profit.

The economists have reduced the public to consumers, sociologists to class, gender and ethnic groups while political scientists to interest groups, lobbies, caucus and political parties.

The public is the fulcrum of democratic life. Democratic norms, values and institutions are deep-rooted in the public philosophy and flourish with the integrity of citizens. But when interest groups identify themselves as the public and the public is silent, it reduces citizens into a spectator vulnerable to advertising, propaganda and manipulation like leaders’ vulnerability to the experts. The fusion of politics and business in Nepal marks an awful decay of the public life. Technology and value-free professionalism have further faded its glitter.

The economists have reduced the public to consumers, sociologists to class, gender and ethnic groups while political scientists to interest groups, lobbies, caucus and political parties. These predatory moves have reduced the public to disciplinary domain aiming to thwart the transformation of Nepali society from domination to the rule of reason and public opinion.

The immunisation of Nepali state from the forces of “rollback” and “withering away” is vital to stop the subordination of Nepali public into mini identities. If the state is sterilized by inner forces on vital issues affecting them by virtue of their membership of a hierarchic set-up of society (political party, caste, class, gender or party hierarchy) or anarchical international system, it is the duty of public sphere to question, discuss and free them through common focus of attention. This fortifies the voice of public opinion which is a basis of public policy and public action.

Democratic culture in Nepal demands the public sphere to balance citizens’ pride about their rights but ignorance about duties. This ignorance reflects the failure of the media, parties and civil society to offer civic education. When they are oriented to leaders, business magnates or lucrative projects of donors, they serve the interest of feeders, not the public. An articulation about the dearth of editorial freedom in Nepal means controlling the society and preventing open discourse on diverse views for the resolution of issues. Civic culture in Nepal needs the liberation of these actors from fetters that cap the air of conscience and stands as barriers in the creation of virtuous public capable of nurturing a good society where the question of rural-urban dualism, gender and income gaps are mediated by an opportunity to the poor to rise socially.

The quality of public debates in Nepal today reveals the din of tension between the voice of reason and rhetoric and partisan and public interests. Even public opinion is shaped more by sensation than by reason, by professionalism than by journalism and by objectivity than by human care leaving the bulk of Nepalis ill-informed.

They engage not as a society of strangers, but concerned citizens. The site of public sphere differs from seminar, conference and convention as they are formal with definite agenda, fixed participants, goal and place governed by fractional interest devoid of public access.

Religion hardly sets an ethical code in the politics of Nepal because it has been privatised and secularised with no soul to liberate the oppressed. The grim threat to Nepal’s public sphere, thus, comes not only from the mal-distribution of wealth but also from the non-performance of institutional duties by the elected leaders and resolving the tension between constitutional ideals, deeds and action.

The remedies require: public policy to limit the dominance of money outside its sphere and commercialisation of the public goods to keep the plurality of public sphere; exciting the interest of public life in media, parties, civil society and charity groups to generate trust for providing human security, justice and identity in a world of many competing values; and obliging the new social movements actors for the transformation of society into productive and equitable social relations without looking for its own privileges. 

As capital and technology integrate the globe, the wretched Nepalis fear that its governance, controlled by bureaucrats and corporate elite, consumes their national space and revives social fissures thus rusting the state’s writ from above and decomposing it from below by fostering worldwide link of local actors devoid of national affinity. Already privatisation of public wealth has evacuated the public sphere from its material stuff reducing Nepali democracy to sound bite, lacking reasonable public security, order, justice and peace. Globalised elites are neither obliged by citizenship duty nor patriotism, the ideological glue of democracy.

It has disabled the power of system mediators to balance rival interests and create economic self-reliance. Nepal’s private economy, health, education and communication barely serve a locomotive for social cohesion and system stability as they, like commercial houses, make the circulation of elite in decision making hard. Nepal’s education is rushing to create a society of social blindness, historical amnesia and economy of disaffection forcing poor youth to find solace in migration while educated ones in brain drain detaching them form the condition of national life. As a result, majority of Nepali became non-stakeholders of regime and often seek regime change in each election.

If democracy does not balance the desire of citizens to circulate opportunity in each generation, its deepening becomes a daydream. The public culture of democracy aided by ethical milieu can be a unifying symbol in Nepal to generate congruent outcome for all without finding an enemy in class, caste, gender, ethnicity or region while aiding the nature’s resilience in producing life-enhancing sources. 

A virtuous public sphere in Nepal presumes to move beyond the ideologies of market materialism and historical materialism as both take over the non-material “life-world” and suit partisan prejudices, not the promise of political freedom. The market claims not just self-interest but an enlightened self-interest that sits with ethical conduct. When the market infects the family it is the child who suffers the most. When it infringes the society, it is the poor who are left out. 

The crowd or the mass, like an eager robot, operates in a linear way under the directive of top leaders, interest group or geopolitical agency.

Nepali democracy needs critical values and issues for public debate, not just information. Its modernity has already personalised politics through self-reflection. Without social conscience, however, this can tarnish the image of democracy as only a fleeting power pact, not a good way of life. The power of public sphere can immunise it from the atrophy of civic virtues. In Nepal, rekindling the public sphere requires inter-subjective research, media advocacy, vibrant civil society and autonomous judiciary.

*Professor Dev Raj Dahal is a Political Scientist

Source: The Rising Nepal