Mockery of Democratic Polity

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Strong leaders and weak institutions have converted Nepali democracy into an informal type, devalued politicians and their legitimate platforms – channel of communication, political parties and parliament.

Professor Dev Raj Dahal

Prof. Dev Raj Dahal

The English notion of politics is translated into Nepali rajniti denoting the state and policy. Similarly, netritwo(leadership) in Nepali implies those who are in the commanding height of public policy and their raj dharma(statecraft) is to perform duty-based moral conduct. In Nepal, deliberative formation of public opinion relevant for policy and the right exercise of state authority for good governance are prized goals. Political leadership needs awareness about public policy before deciding its stuff. The formal politics operates under constitutional and institutional domain of Nepali polity and promises to foster public interests. The informal one operates behind the scene. It is driven by personal, behavioural and unwritten code aiming to advance selfish interests. In Nepal, democratic institutions are weak and less autonomous. It has strained the necessity of cultivating post-electoral performance legitimacy, authority and efficiency. More skills and resources are needed for leadership to build trust on formal institutions to respond to citizens’ demands and sustain democratic stability.

Lack of election for a long time provided ruling elites’ oligopoly of power and barred non-elites to compete while brain drain and migration of youth abroad for jobs deprived Nepal the most productive force alive in society for national reconstruction. Informal politics in Nepal is defined by competition for private rents extracted from public revenue and erect a shadow of power through their nexus with business, bureaucracy, police, dons and unregistered donors. The division and dispersal of power and authority in the Constitution aiming to control the capricious behaviour of politicians remain feeble before the “invisible hands” having power to viciously perpetuate informal politics. This has amplified the cost of politics for Nepalis living below poverty line and undercut the ability of formal politics to eradicate deep structural ills that convulsed citizens into poverty, inequality and marginality nullifying their freedom.

Official consultants of Nepal have habitually imported vital policy ideas without the ken of leaders, notice of parliament or the ownership of the public. The alienation of Nepali politicians from their promises and suitable policy to upscale life-standards do not make politics political and assume duty to execute the Constitution enabling citizens to reclaim dignity. For leaders, bureaucratic and technocratic elements are easier to deal with than critical mass of civil society for their adaptability to informal politics and less articulating conduct. Both know each other’s gifts from abroad–jargon-ridden ideas and ability to see each other what they want to see in repulsive conformity and innocent esteem. The insulation of public policy from the public opinion has only served Nepal’s political stasis.

Ordinary citizens’ hope for democratic dividends, however, prompted legislators to engage in executive domain of constituency building and infrastructure support projects. But the patronage-based politics aims to silence the sub-elites of society and prevents the surge of counter-elites’ ability to challenge the authority of sitting elites. This implies that Nepal’s society, economy and politics are largely informal while political legacy, patronage, coterie and personal networks are highly stable for whom dysfunctional rules are often rewarding though it hits social contract and public order.

Strong leaders and weak institutions have converted Nepali democracy into an informal type, devalued politicians and their legitimate platforms-channel of communication, political parties and parliament. Owing to the erosion of ideology, leader-oriented factions afflict each political party reducing them into interest groups. Now, for the majority of Nepalis, the rules and rituals of leadership is less determined by collective reasoning on common good than utilitarian passion. As a result, their coalition behaviour and choice are decided by partisan interests. They pursue this profession by recruiting political followers and clients. Most of the advisors of top state offices are party clients, not the enlightened persons who have achieved eminence in life by valued national contribution.

Owing to the erosion of ideology, leader-oriented factions afflict each political party reducing them into interest groups.

As most of Nepali leaders have increasingly lost their interest in formal institutions of policy making, they began to cultivate their informal conduits with the clients in mobile sites– circle of relatives, friends and networks of interest, NGOs, firms, etc. blocking the flow of money at the bottom of Nepali society and clogging citizens to acquire their own fullness. Lobby and caucus influence policy for selfish benefits, not the public interest. It cannot be considered political. Owing to a lack of boundary between modern constitutionalism and traditional unwritten code of society, rule of law and lobby to stifle it, common good and sectoral interests and leaders and sub-sectors of society Nepal faces the challenges of order, peace and durable progress. 

Operation of a syndicate regime implies distortion of rules and incentives, weak governance and informal polity from top down allowing elites to freeride. Informal polity rears in personal links to get power, position and privilege through patron-client ties which is unfeeling to the needs and rights of citizens. In informal politics, citizens’ personalised ties with leaders are stronger than with the impersonal party, polity and Nepali state. Party leaders wield greater control in decision than state authorities while party brokers negotiate with business for rent favouring tax-exemption, release of criminals and deal with donors to get support for their NGOs and auxiliary bodies. This does not make economic surplus of the state rich for redistributive justice and Nepal’s future irrevocably different from the recent past.

Informal politics serves particular will, not the general will of Nepalis. The insider and outsider interest groups of the state often collude to advance their benefit. Certain political, bureaucratic and business leaders form a triangle to influence policy, gain media attention and place their concerns in the parliament. Political means the public but the reduction of political to interest groups and relatives, business and pressure groups stripes off its public character. This is why free media of Nepal often reveal the social links of Nepali leaders to diverse constituencies, some even opaque. Erosion of political mainly arose out of the fact that leaders do not trust impersonal institutions such as the state, polity, constitutional bodies and bureaucracy and, therefore, created civil servants unions and federations as leverage of politics. It bred a partisan basis of polity, not a national platform, to articulate national interest.

It is happening because many Nepali politicians have not developed a national character that can transcend their primordial, pre-national loyalties organised around ethnicity, tribe, class, caste, territory and language. Their ancillary bodies are mostly set up along these lines to flag national identity. This means Nepal needs social engineering for nation-building and overcome the parochialism of informal politics that favours cronyism, nepotism and favouritism, not meritorious virtue, efficiency and innovation the nation badly needs.

Now, for the majority of Nepalis, the rules and rituals of leadership is less determined by collective reasoning on common good than utilitarian passion.

Nepali leaders need civility in public life and fulfil the promises they made to the public. Civility because they should not provoke protests that spiral out of control and inflict terrible blow to society’s resilience to coexist in diversity. The informal politics in Nepal is defined by personality-based, patriarchal style and obsessed with identity politics. It has not internalised the value of the equality of citizen common in modern democracy. The informal polity is sustained by a weak Nepali state which lacks a lawful monopoly over the use of authority, weak tax base and divided loyalty of citizens. The tools of its coercion are controlled by political elites with their dons which are challenged by another set of armed groups, radical parties and divisive forces. These elites do not prefer the democratisation of political power for fear of assertiveness of citizen equality, removal of hereditary privilege and arbitrary ways of running public life. Informal politics averts the formal institutions not stand as barrier to their power pursuit and citizens to realize their natural gift.

In informal politics, Nepali citizens are losers of political game. Breaking its web through effective law-enforcement is vital. It fortifies the national integrity system of polity and realises democratic aspiration of citizens. Nepal also needs to remove the primacy of unwritten code of society that has made law-enforcement selective, impunity insidious and delayed the transformation Nepali leadership from traditional or charismatic to legal-rational one based on renewal of legitimacy by election and public opinion. Democracy consolidation requires tapping opportunity for those citizens who so far remained immobilised and giving them a sense of civic competence to participate in rules of governance. This is vital to free them from the political culture of patron-client ties, break the informal power grid and brace impersonal institutions of the state for their well-being. As a trust of citizens, political power can survive with popular consent and dies when they withdraw it.

But informal politics is played without frontiers. Erosion of the autonomy of democratic institutions in Nepal marks political inertia and loss of public faith in the polity that it is accountable for their well-being. The informalisation of politics, personalisation of leadership and lack of interest of parliament to formulate public policy are attributable to Nepal’s current state of manifold sclerosis. Nepali leadership must bring informal politics into formal domain of public sphere so that they cannot escape from their duty to serve public interest, do not lie and do not orient to self-love only. A recovery from the atrophy of civic virtues of leaders is vital to restore their ability to establish rule of law. Citizens of Nepal must break their silence, work collectively to reverse democratic recession and educate the leaders about the meaning of politics, leadership, policy, law, citizenship and democracy and create a future worthy of future generations.

*Professor Dahal is Political Scientist

Source: The Rising Nepal