Nepali Times
Needed- Nepali values


We may need them to ensure the national unity required for economic modernisation.

At a time when the country in such social and political turmoil, we may need to stretch back and derive support from our historical and cultural roots. We may need to find definitions of democracy and governance that are based more on our own values. Are the values of a western social order suited for us? Is there such a thing as a Nepali value system?

This is obviously a contentious issue. Freedom and choice are universal values. And we did experiment with a political system "suited to the soil" which didn't work either. But is there something in the Nepali psyche that needs a different degree of social order than elsewhere? The point I am trying to make is this: Nepali values may favour strong government with efficient and honest governance. That could be the pre-requisite to ensure national unity required for economic modernisation.

"Nepali values" implies social, economic and political characteristics that our leaders have to articulate based on shared values which are identifiable and distinct, and which transcend national, religious and ideological differences. These cultural values are based on ideals that have evolved in Nepali society since the kingdom was united, they have social and political characteristics that are distinct to the Nepali nation. But do these values really transcend ideology, culture, religion and will they help or hinder the social and economic transformation that Nepal needs?

The first problem with the thesis of "Nepali values" is precisely the ethnic, religious, linguistic diversity in Nepal's multi-cultural milieu. The second is the question of whether there is a correlation between such values and economic growth. This theory takes its cue from the argument for "Asian values" put forward by Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohammad which argues that economic prosperity hinges on a strong government that is accountable and honest, and when individual freedoms are second to social responsibility and collective rights. But the "Asian values" argument that western-style democracy is bad for economic growth is at best ambiguous.

Ad hoc

One could also argue: isn't it this very Nepali value system that lies at the root of the cronyism, corruption and lack of accountability afflicting us? The cause for Nepal's malgovernance and economic non-performance may lie more in the institutions, the systems of property rights and commercial law as well as the government's macro-economic policies.

The conclusion then seems to be that there is no direct correlation between the type of government and rapid economic and social development. What is important is whether leaders are accountable and concerned about the country's development. It is the quality of governance, not the type of regime that seems to dictate the pace of economic development. A more efficient use of private and public institution could result in improvements in income distribution accompanying economic growth. It will be the strength, quality and freedom from political interference that will support sustainable and more equitable development.

Nepali legislators will need the support of experts to design laws and monitor government functions in a synergistic campaign towards long-term growth. The present discretionary, ad hoc and politicised decision-making is hobbling development and economic progress. To break out of this vicious cycle the country needs transparent and accountable government and this can happen with the correct application of democratic norms, checks and balances. Fairness and rule of law need to be guaranteed, so that efficient, honest and visionary leaders are rewarded at election time.

Here, the role of the leaders of political parties is pivotal. They must come forward to build the institutional foundations of good government. They must help clarify, aggregate and legitimise various interests within society. They must help secure channels to articulate diverse views and muster public support for policy initiatives. They must be the consensus-builders providing continuity and stable policies, not the ones polarising the polity, as is happening now.

At present, Nepali political institutions remain fragile and unstable, which in turn feeds social upheaval and turmoil. The public has started to view parties as a part of the problem and a threat to democracy because parties have never demonstrated sensitivity to their concerns. One of the most destructive offshoots of this is corruption and nepotism. Corruption cannot be excused through cultural determinism, there is no society that has a monopoly on honesty, or plunder. Transparency in government comes from institutional checks and balances, and as we have seen from Hong Kong and Singapore, from a vigilant and visionary leadership that derives moral and political legitimacy from the public perception that it is accountable to the citizenry.

Weak government is the result of a weak application of the rule of law, inadequate protection of individual rights, and leaders corrupted by vested interests and criminal forces who bankroll their elections. The state through its national budget could subsidise representative political parties through an independent commission so they will not be beholden to political contributors.
Notwithstanding our cultural diversity and confused polity, I think Nepal can still build a shared value system and a common principle to promote democratisation and good governance. Nepal's strength lies in its nature-a soft state with its inherent resilience and adaptability to change. Still, given the present perversion of our polity through corruption, opportunism and outright pillage, there is an urgent need to instil a sense of responsibility and commitment on our leaders. The need is urgent since a government more responsive to local needs and one that can efficiently deliver basic services is long overdue. The people have shown they are not prepared to wait any longer.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)