Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Semantics of democracy

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen wrote that among the great developments in the 20th century, he does not have any difficulty choosing the most prominent: the rise of democracy. He observed that in the distant future, when people look back, they will find it difficult not to accord primacy to the emergence of democracy.

It took five centuries for the Athenian democratic ideals, improved and redefined, to flourish on a global scale. Yet, some of us are left to question the universality of democratic values. It is one thing to indulge in pep talks about democracy and another to actually see to it that it grows and matures during your lifetime.

Looking at the events of the past few weeks, it becomes obvious that Nepal’s great democratic experiment that began over sixty years back hasn’t made much headway even as we enter the second decade of the new century. This must be frustrating to everyone, especially to today’s generation used to instant technological gratification or posthaste demonstrations. The 20th century is already an old chapter, a distant past.

Sen’s argument—universal consent is not required for something to be a universal value; rather, the claim of a universal value is that people anywhere may have reason to see it as valuable—balances idealism with pragmatism. But the continuing tension between seeing the value of democracy and being deprived of it raises a question as to why it should be so.

No doubt, mankind has entered an interesting social and political environment where the old philosophy of democracy, of freedom and liberty, of equality and human dignity is being vigorously re-examined as well as indiscriminately propagated. This is happening even as our world is peculiarly torn between the haunting divisions of the past, waves of new ruptures, the seemingly common future, and of confusing transitions of the present.

The core problem in this has been who defines the sought after commonality of “values”, who promotes them with what motives? In Nepal, the conflicting semantics of democracy have always been advanced by a small elite that is itself fragmented, fickle and self-serving. The idea of democracy remains incoherent, disparate, and indeterminate; prajatantra, loktantantra and now ganatantra all lumped into one, and sometimes dithering between these variants. Democracy is at once an old lady, a young woman, and a lass, almost stripped of her garments, made to suffer the Draupadian shame and horror. The would-be Krishnas, staunchly divided over the choice of guniu-choli, kurta-suruwal, and skirt and stockings, are nowhere in sight to salvage her.

Suddenly, the makeover drama has come to an abrupt halt, adding suspense and anticipation. The “grand assembly” is no more there to unveil the properly-dressed up Lady Lokatantra and to grace the long-awaited function.

The ideological divide somehow reflects generational split in perspectives and tastes. Values and ideas have become like fashion. They change fast as adopters alternate between banners or tags at whim, or shift alliances irrespective of their founding doctrines.

Long ago, the Greeks introduced the concept with a simple meaning: Demo (people) kratos (rule). Today, it means many things to many people. For some, it may genuinely reflect self-rule embodied in the ideal, and for many it must look like anarchy as reflected in practice, with many more other variants in between them.

Numbers are adored in a market economy; menus, catalogues and options flourish. There are as many types of convenience stores as there are types of democracy. Conservatives, liberals and radicals of all hues proliferate on both the right and the left. They all resort to conceptual stretching of democracy to serve their immediate hold on power. As democracy scholar Andreas Schedler writes, there are today as many as 550 subtypes of democracy around the world. The resulting chaos has made democracy’s semantic universe cacophonous.

So how many subtypes do we have in Nepal? A friend wondered the other day. And does it even matter?

Looking at the many political parties registered officially and the not-so-uncommon splits and factions, one can safely assume there are several scores of subtypes, if not hundreds. The disparate “noise” emanating from these divergences must be too much for the general public to meaningfully absorb, assess, retain and recall. Moreover, to be relevant and current, we also have to catch up with realignments in terms of emerging paradigms like regionalism, ethnicities and other socio-cultural attributes.

Political literacy is different from following partisan political drama, characterized by brickmanship, doublespeak, conspiracies, and power-tussles. We saw these in abundance in the past four years and before. The word “rajniti”, does not clearly subsume the public, the foundation of democracy. Nepali politics is rarely guided by rational choice, genuine participation of citizens and dialogue. Personal ambitions, family names, group loyalties and the manipulation of public opinion, etc. have been hurting democracy since long. A closed-door meeting of a few leaders is enough to dissolve the assembly of people’s representatives and to silence their voices.

There is a serious gulf between political leadership and public aspirations. While years of advocacy and activism by non-governmental organizations and political parties have dramatically raised public’s aspirations regarding direct or deliberative democracy, formally, the closest democratic institution we have had so far is nothing more than a feeble representative democracy. Political literacy will involve inculcating a shared understanding of this gulf as well as training in methods of deliberation and participation. Otherwise, our politics will surely continue to repeat what the Romans did 2,000 years ago before the decline of their dominion: voter intimidation, inciting of riots, roughing up people by hired thugs or gladiators.

Nepalis need more than just political rights and civil liberties. The majority needs the abilities to critically understand their polity, their government, and the social and economic agenda of the country. They need the skills to separate facts from propaganda. They need the tools and resources to effectively participate in the political process.

Periodic public opinion polls and citizens meetings are some common methods of participation in modern times. Such polls are seen as a form of plebiscitary democracy. While such polls do not facilitate direct involvement in decision-making, they certainly allow the public to “speak” on every subject of current interest and thus to influence the policy process.

Often, media serve as intermediaries through such polls. However, media polls on public opinion are recent phenomena in Nepal. One may question the reliability of some of their approaches since polls within a week report contradictory findings, sometimes without even mentioning the margin of error, or sampling frame. So without a systematic approach, it will be hard to tell the aggregate public perspectives.

Representative democracy is far from being people’s rule. Let’s not forget recent cries of public dissatisfaction with the “601” representatives. Again, plebiscitary democracy can complement delegative democracy. It can empower the public to function as their own legislature by means of issue voting as opposed to candidate voting. Perhaps this can be effective in voting on some critical themes of our future constitution, if it is to be written at all.

Now that the political parties, at least a few of them, have started beating their campaign drums, the majority of the disillusioned public may understandably find solace in indifference and apathy. Even a consensual election will require creative ways to restore public trust and confidence in the democratic process.
Mere slogans of “free, fair and credible elections” will ring hollow. The next generation of leadership is undoubtedly with the youth of the country. Already, a virtual manifestation of this can be noticed in the social media initiative “Leaders for Nepal”.

Most citizens are young in the country, with the median age of only 20.3 years. Young leaders will not only come with fresh faces and energy, but also with the vision, strategies and plans that resonate with the lives of the majority of people. It is also fair to give this tribe their own leader. The discredited faces from the older generation must disappear from the scene. To rephrase Sen, let’s hope we don’t have to waste another century finding it difficult to fancy our nation.

Published in Republica, June 06, 2012