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Getting above themselves

Civil society members can help strengthen democracy, but are they doing their job? Varghese K George writes.

india Updated: Apr 26, 2011 23:10 IST
Varghese K George

The activism of civil society against corruption has caught the imagination of many Indians. Arguments put forward by representatives of the civil society organisations (CSOs) can be summarised as follows: 'All - at least most - politicians, ministers, bureaucrats are corrupt. Voters are incapable of deciding what is good for them. The police, Central Bureau of Investigation and the Central Forensic Science Laboratory, and all other agencies of the State can never be trusted. Judiciary too is corrupt. Therefore, a new institution called Lokpal must be formed with the powers to charge, try and punish'.

Several commentators have observed how this discourse undermines democracy. What then is the role of civil society? Civil society is that realm that falls between the State and market, two most powerful structures in a liberal democracy. Their role has historically been contextual. For instance, in western democracies some CSOs worked to boost popular enthusiasm in elections. In authoritarian regimes, CSOs became a counterweight to the State.

In democracies, CSOs take up issues of the minorities that politicians, who have to work towards majorities, would not. For instance, it is not easy for politicians in Haryana to move against khap panchayats, but CSOs have taken up the issue. Only political parties that had no stake in the Gujarat elections stood up for Muslims but CSOs took the issue to the National Human Rights Commission and the apex court, when the executive failed. There are innovations to meet newer challenges. Now they analyse corporate contributions to political parties, indicating how market and State relate. Social audit is a recent and effective tool that brings more accountability to State spending.

But two kinds of drift are apparent in the functioning of CSOs. One, many of them move too close to political parties, State and business. Second, some CSOs imagine themselves as replacing the political process and the State! The anger against politicians and bureaucrats gives them this false sense of purpose.

These drifts have been related to the political economy of liberalising India. The years preceding 2004 were marked by a trend of politicians boasting about growth and ignoring how it affects the poor. The genocide in Gujarat in 2002 demonstrated the shameful failure of the State. CSOs mobilising public opinion on these issues and the Congress, which was then in Opposition, developed a common ground. It was good thus far. CSOs were playing their role, namely, of mediating between arms of the State and society.

The formation of the National Advisory Council (NAC) broke down the line between the political process and the CSOs. Instead of being a lighthouse for political decision-making, activists yearned to control it, by gaining backdoor access to Sonia Gandhi, who holds the political authority. Too soon, the authority that the Congress won from people was subject to the satisfaction of a select group. Gandhi had sensed the danger in this and was reluctant for a second NAC when the UPA returned to power in 2009.

The NAC was also in the process of drafting the Lokpal bill when another set of activists declared themselves as the voice of the people. The Jantar Mantar activists were those who failed to find space in the official scheme of the Congress. Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal had lobbied for Kiran Bedi as the Central Information Commissioner and failed.

The people's will cannot and must not be gauged from bursts of anger at Jantar Mantar and on Facebook - in Egypt or Tunisia those may be the only indicators. In India, people express their opinion through ballots, a process that holier-than-thou activists and extremists organisations such as the Lashkar and the Maoists loathe. Elections are not true reflections of the popular will, they argue.

Those who argue that ballots cannot force change must take note of how popular will, reflected though voting, changed the entire course of economic liberalisation. The defeat of N Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh and the BJP-led NDA at the Centre in 2004 was an expression of what people wanted. The 1991-2004 phase of liberalisation worked on the social Darwinism that Naidu articulated the loudest. Post 2004, governments have realised that growth is unsustainable if it is not inclusive. Inclusive growth became the new paradigm of liberalisation in India. The people of India wanted it that way and the political process has no option but to be responsive to that.

The interests of democracy and transparency will not be served by discrediting institutions but by strengthening them, which would act as checks and balances on each other. CSOs must play their role with a sense of humility and accepting that they do not hold proprietary rights over people's will. And certainly not by questioning democratic processes.