Elite decadenceThe Nepali media, both print and digital, has been reporting stories of corruption involving the high and mighty in government, and yet those whose names are mentioned never bother to show any reaction and treat the whole thing as something that is not of concern to them.
The Nepali media, both print and digital, has been reporting stories of corruption involving the high and mighty in government, and yet those whose names are mentioned never bother to show any reaction and treat the whole thing as something that is not of concern to them. The politicians or the bureaucrats named in a corruption scandal by the media seem to treat the whole thing as a normal phenomenon that does not in any way require them to respond. The unstated assumption seems to be that to be corrupt while in the government is the “new normal” of politics and those who do not understand such a preliminary lesson of Nepali democracy should be ignored. Impunity against corruption is the new name of the game and the whole idea of “naming and shaming” is becoming increasingly irrelevant. In fact, those who take their public duty seriously and view the best use of the tax payer’s money as a sacred responsibility are increasingly on the defensive. Cunningness, dishonesty and a lack of compassion are now the new “virtues” and are ingredients of a new normal among the ruling elites in the country.
In a democracy, elections provide particular parties with the legitimacy to rule for a stated time period. Once in power, the task is to maintain it while carrying out policies and programmes that benefit the people. Both these goals can complement or contradict each other depending primarily on the vision and values of the leadership. If there is a contradiction between vision and values with weak feedback and corrections, periodic elections alone will not automatically lead to good governance; they will instead be the cause for a loss of faith in democracy and the search for alternatives may lead to internal conflicts and threaten the basic fabric of the nation.
Democracy as a system does not automatically solve the problems of corruption and the abuse of authority by those in power. If the people who make up the leadership—particularly in terms of politics—see their survival primarily in self-serving activities rather than in the welfare and interests of the common people, democracy can become the instrument of its own demise. This is the ever-present threat to a liberal social order. However, as a people based system where the government is the agent and people are the principal, democracy provides the conceptual underpinnings for a whole set of constitutional tools to control corruption and to foster a set of
values where the interest of the community cannot be ignored for individualistic, self-serving goals. Nepal’s constitution recognises these possibilities. And yet in actual practice, Nepal continues to be one of the most corrupt nations that is strong in rhetoric about uplifting the down trodden and the poor, while working for the interest of the elites in power. It is this contradiction between the manifest and latent political goals that is creating havoc in the nation and posing a threat to the nascent liberal democratic order.
It is remarkable that the elites in Nepali society whether in politics, business or bureaucracy view their acts of corruption and abuse of authority as something that is their right and privilege. In one clean democratic sweep, gangsters become new politicians promising to deliver development to the people; by the same token it seems that top elite luminaries become gangsters especially when they contest elections or spend their time in closed door meetings to assess the extent of loot and plunder of public money.
A gradual decay in the morals, norms and standards of ruling elites to achieve their individual, self-serving goals or of their political organisation in the name of a liberal political order is a sure sign of elite decadence. It means that the social and economic conditions of the poor are ignored while the ruling elite try to build a financial and organisational cover to withstand any political setback in the future. It is a slow and steady process that no one seems to care about in the rush for prestige and power. But once this process begins, it can gain momentum of its own where even the corrupt and the dishonest find it profitable to lament about the deteriorating condition of the country while indulging in all sorts of pillage and plunder. The hypocrisy and the absurdity of this whole process remains ignored. A classic example is the sorry state of the reconstruction programme that was designed to help over four million people who lost their homes and property in the devastating earthquake over two years ago. The earthquake caused 9,000 deaths and brought untold suffering. Yet, after two years, a majority of the victims are still living in makeshift shacks and are forced to face the weather without any help from the government. While people suffer, the governing elites squabble over which party cadre gets the top post, confident that this is their opportunity to make money for the party or to provide employment to one’s own party cadres.
When democracy becomes a license for loot and plunder, with weak or non-existent checks and balances, it is a recipe for “democratic anarchy”—a state of affairs where electoral legitimacy is used for illegitimate purposes to benefit an individual or a group, destroying the link between the polity and the masses in the process. The illusion of democracy becomes a vehicle for institutionalised bribery and leads to the designing of numerous legal loopholes and legal interpretation where any serious criticism of the ruling elite can become a cause of being thrown in jail. In this framework of elite decadence, poverty remains stubborn and inequality increases over time. Pockets of affluence in a sea of poverty will dot the economic landscape creating the basis for political instability, conflict and socio-economic polarisation.
Democracy should not be a tool to legitimise anarchy of the ruling elites where the interest of the community takes a back seat. But this is the kind of reality that we face today. Those at the helm in different arms of governance use the constitution and the legitimacy that it provides not for the interest of the masses, but for promoting individual and partisan interests while challenging the very notion of the government as an agent working to promote the interest of the people, who are theoretically the sovereign. What is most appalling is the apparent willingness of the governing elite to impose this value system as being the reality of “power politics” that is unavoidable and therefore necessary. It is this attitude that constitutes the core of elite decadence that is likely to encourage alienation of the people with the leadership and lead to another round of social tension and turmoil in the future.
Lohani is the chairman of the ARPP (Nationalist)