Whither civic sense?

January 7, 2018 00:20 AM Meena Bhatta

Political stability depends on political culture of political actors and the extent to which citizens carry out civic responsibilities

Nepal concluded historic elections of local governments, provincial assemblies and federal parliament in 2017 ending over a decade long political transition. These elections were the biggest democratic exercise we participated in within a year. And they are historic in the sense that they are expected to change our political landscape and ease Nepal’s transition to prosperous democracy.  The country is also expected to return to stability and move towards the path of development. But this is just a good wish. The success largely depends on behavior of political actors.  

Behave yourself 
Political stability is contingent upon two factors, the political culture of those who are directly involved in political process (such as parliamentarians and others) and to what extent will citizens at large carry out their civic responsibilities. In both the cases the behavior of an individual towards society and state becomes important precisely because it is the behavior that ultimately culminates into political culture. These things are also dependent on the level of awareness and education. But the educational awareness is not always enough as it does not necessarily produce civic and political culture. Yes, level of education in Nepal has certainly gone up. Adult literacy rate stands at 65 percent and youth literacy at 89.88 percent. These are encouraging figures but they have not necessarily generated required civic awareness among Nepalis. 

There are enough examples of educated persons getting involved in uncivil activities. For example, there were reports of a voter voting for up to 120 times, that too, right under the nose of the polling officers and agents of the political parties in the first phase of the federal parliament and provincial assembly elections.  Some other voters were also found to have voted for 70 times each.  The truth of such incidents needs to be validated but these misconducts portray clear lack of civic sense among people. Sadly, such uncivil activities were not limited to electorates. Reports about the candidates distributing money and throwing feasts to win votes and males stamping the ballot papers on behalf of women stating that the women could not vote rightly were common phenomenon observed in some polling booths. This decline in civility among both the elected and the electorates have come out in such a way as if Nepal has experienced elections for the first time and as if Nepali voters were using the ballot papers for the first time. 
Nepal has a long history of elections. Nepal conducted its first general elections in 1928. These elections were conducted at a time when the very idea of election was in its nascent stage in some of the western nations.  Since then, Nepal has intermittently conducted many types of elections under various kinds of regimes—both democratic and autocratic. 
What happened during the recent elections shows we have not reached the level of maturity we should have inculcated over the period of time. These examples also do not necessarily herald good political future in the days to come. Yet, there were voters who voted very honestly and enthusiastically in the recent polls. 

Teaching civility 
People at large want stability and prosperity after this election. But this can only happen if we could change the course of the way we do politics. And more importantly it can happen only through the change in our behavior which is only possible through civic education.

Civic education helps to inculcate civic duties and responsibilities among citizens and is intrinsically linked with generating democratic citizens. It is through the civic education that citizens can improve the knowledge and skills to participate in the affairs related to their community and nation. But to our dismay, the kind of civic education that the Nepalis hold is designed only towards making them aware but not fully responsible citizens. Civic shortfalls have extended beyond voting in Nepal. Politicians in Nepal who are often caught in group contests even at the expense of weakening the political authority are examples of decline in civility.  The unruly behavior of politicians is embedded in their political culture and is responsible for politics of gridlock, confrontation and mutual paralysis rather than mutual accountability, tolerance and compromise. 

Politics in Nepal has largely turned out to be an individual and behavioral affair rather than institutional one. To attain political stability and order is civic education that teaches citizens not only about elections or voting but also about civil responsibility is needed. 

As we talk about making citizens responsible, there is also a need of stable civic institutions that will ensure general balance in the polity. Samuel Huntington says institutions are the manifestation of the moral consensus and mutual interest of the citizens. Therefore, the absence of institutions able to give meaning and direction to civic interest results into civic mistrust and political decay. This is exactly what is happening in Nepal. 

By and large, it is only the informed citizens who can prevent the manipulation of democracy at the hands of powerful actors through use of skills, money, nexus and network. Transforming voters into attentive citizens is the need of the hour in Nepal. 

We need to impart civic education and apply it in the best way possible. It should not be limited to ‘something given or accomplished’ thing. Civic education should be a continuous process to transform human behavior. The better educated our citizens are, the better equipped they will be to foster good governance. We must start reinstalling civic sense through civic education for stable political future. 
The author teaches at Department of Conflict, Peace and Development Studies at Tribhuvan University and Kathmandu University School of Arts

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