Democracy is not perfect. Partly, because it begins by placing the abstraction of scattered and disunited ‘people’ at the heart of political process; and mostly, it ends up creating two distinct political classes of the rulers and the ruled. But the best thing about democracy, elevating it highest above all other political systems, is that it leaves the space between the ruled and the rulers for intellectual activities by guaranteeing basic freedoms.
As Nepal’s budding democracy is girding itself for uncertain elections, besieged by the vanishing trust among political actors, people expect our intellectuals to bridge the gap between the rulers and the ruled. Intellectuals, by definition, are the people who deploy reason and logic in the works they do. Society distinctly categorizes certain jobs as requiring intellect. Intellectuals, spread across the civil society spectrum, are thus identified not by the jobs they do but by the approach they apply in doing those jobs.
The promise of a democratic system lives because of a simple thread of ‘trust’ linking the people with their political leaders. In a polity like ours whose hallmark adjective has been ‘trust deficit’ and which has gone worse after the dissolution of Constituent Assembly, intellectual innovativeness must transcend the political schisms.
Nepali traditional intellectuals have lost their influence. Organic intellectuals, by contrast, have been so opportunistic that they have degenerated into political playthings.
‘Trust’ is a very simple-sounding word. Its depth, however, is so powerful that it guides our individual and social relations, provides meaning to life and reduces hostilities. Our intellectual space expects a profound unity of the actors within democratic perimeters. It rests chiefly on the shoulders of our thinking professors, commentators, journalists, teachers and professional leaders to convince the people that the democratic system we are trying to institutionalize, despite its flaws, works for us and therefore can prove how a budding democracy can at times fall, yet stand up and move ahead.
The widest form of democratic practice in today’s world is identified with the right to vote, a means to articulate the public trust, wherein all individuals participate in the process to select people who would govern. Universal suffrage is the latest of all developments in democracy followed by constitutionalism, rule of law, freedom of expression and human rights.
People’s ability to articulate public trust is contingent upon a society’s intellectual tradition. Doomed to live under educational darkness through 1847 to 1950, which otherwise was period of intellectual enlightenment in the rest of the world, Nepal could not develop a strong intellectual tradition in its modern history, except for the occasional sparks of individual brilliance of the likes of Baburam Acharya or Naya Raj Panta. But Nepali people are extremely responsive to the ups and downs of politics in general.
Given the proliferation of communist and left parties in Nepal, dominant method to explain Nepali intellectual tradition fits into Antonio Gramsci’s categorization of intellectuals into broad ‘traditional’ and ‘organic’ brackets. Deployment of these categories into the polemics of ‘status quo’ and ‘progress’ was his theory of interpreting intellectual movement of his time. Michel Foucault later discovered a ‘specific’ class between the two which pursues a rather idealistic ‘politics of truth’, unable to connect to the world of realpolitik.
Underestimated for decades for being a Marxist, Gramsci was a forbidden territory to the communist parties, Nepali Maoists included, who considered him theoretically blasphemous. Democratic intellectuals chose to maintain a distance from his works since he was also a communist party leader.
When Gramsci’s contribution has made into sociological discourse today, he is so misconceived by the so-called progressives that his whole interpretation is corrupted by presenting him as advocating for the need of organic intellectuals to serve interest of a political group. Saying that the need to promote a social-political movement ‘evolves’ organic intellectuals is different from saying that such movements ‘require’ forestalled intellectuals to advocate for it.
Gramsci drew his conclusion from the two opposite political overtones prevalent in the intellectual space of European society the nineteenth century as well as between the two World Wars. The first one was the focus on consolidating existing values as exercised by the traditional intellectuals. The second was an emerging cohort of intellectuals as a part of the leftist labor movements.
Traditional intellectuals from Gramsci’s book thus seek reason and truth in favor of the gradual transformation of society. Trust for them comes in parcels during the pursuit of truth. Organic intellectuals, on the other hand, earn trust while building revolutions and aim to promote radical cause.
Nepali traditional intellectuals, oblivious to the change the society is undergoing, have lost their influence in politics. Organic intellectuals, in contrast, have been so opportunistic, jumping from one bandwagon to the other that they have degenerated into political playthings.
Many of today’s visible Maoist leaning writers, columnists and ambassadorial appointees, whom the society calls intellectuals and who are now competing to prove oneself more Maoist than the other, were until a few years ago bargaining for spoils in Nepali Congress and UML, and some with the King. Other than the temptation to be around power corridors and a feeling that they had squeezed far enough from the ‘old’ parties, no sane explanation justifies this shift. Integrity is a key intellectual character, a bridge of trust between the political leaders and the society.
Intellectuals in Nepal must come to terms with Loktantra, a new popular parlance for more democracy, which wrongly tends to project political parties as indispensable. Only the people constitute the indispensable part in democracy. Political parties stay relevant as long as they function to strengthen the sovereign people. Politics of vested interest makes no distinction between Kamal Thapa and Puspa Kamal Dahal. The moment the thrust of the democratic system shifts to political parties from the people, democracy relapses into ‘partocracy’; leaders dominate the political process without public trust. Our intellectuals must speak up now; take the lead in changing themselves while professing for change in society. Concerted attempts of all intellectuals will eventually persuade the political actors to revive the ‘trust’, a missing link between our politics and the people.