Civil society as aid to strengthening institutions

Civil society as aid to strengthening institutions

Some, like Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, have warned against the ‘tyranny of civil society’ and its attempts to usurp the legitimate functions of the government. Civil society activists claim the right to speak on behalf of the people and to propose policy options and the laws to be enacted by parliament. Large crowds are assembled to show popular support for their movements. The ongoing debate has not, however, helped to clarify the legitimate role of these institutions and the manner in which they should interact and influence each other.

A good starting point is to spell out what civil society is and what its role should be in a democracy. The roles that the state and market institutions play in a society are clear to most people. Civil society plays a role distinctly different from these two. It refers to the third sector where associations of citizens come together to solve their collective problems, including those that arise in their transactions with the state and the market.

Citizens who are not part of a government, and hence can speak and act independently, constitute the core of civil society.

In general, all democratic governments provide reasonable space for such civil society initiatives and movements to function. Their role in critiquing government policies and actions and organising and pressuring governments to listen to their views is widely accepted the world over. It does not imply that civil society represents all people. Nor is civil society a monolithic entity. There will be diverse views and movements. Attempts to enforce uniformity among them are bound to fail. A citizen is the ultimate stakeholder in a democracy and has the right to speak, protest and hold her views on matters of public interest.

The extreme view that once an elected government is in place, there is no such role for civil society is inconsistent with the basic tenets of democracy. Even in the US, which claims to be the greatest democracy, the civil rights movement would have been suppressed if this view were to be accepted. In most countries, reforms and legislation on the environment, womens’ rights, voting rights, etc were the result of civil society action, and not due to the initiative of their governments. Rather than view civil society initiatives as a subversion of the institutions of governance, it is best to see them as aids to improving the functioning of these institutions and taking corrective actions before a crisis erupts.

Beyond dialogue

The basic issue in the present context is less about the legitimacy of civil society action, than about the modes and methods of interaction between the state and civil society. Government leaders are signalling that Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev have crossed the limits and that the methods adopted by them are not acceptable. They argue that they have gone beyond dialogue and negotiation to dictation and threats (fast unto death).

Thoughtful members of civil society need to reflect on the implications of this argument.
Civil society movements play a useful role when they point out and challenge government’s failures in important areas of public policy and action. Tackling corruption is a multi faceted issue. The Lokpal bill may deal with a part of the problem. What should be the scope and content of the bill, however, can be determined only through a process that examines the pros and cons of its provisions. There can be legitimate differences of view on the inclusion of the higher judiciary or how much power should be concentrated in one superbody. The same is true of  the black money problem. These contentious issues deserve thorough discussion and debate.Since laws are enacted in Delhi, civil society has turned out to be a Delhi centric phenomenon, given the concentration of government, civil society views, media and commentators in the Capital. India is a large and diverse country and its civil society is widely distributed. Yet, demonstrations and fasts in Delhi seem to have become a substitute for the involvement of civil society across the country.

Civil society’s role is to challenge abuses of public power, and influence policies, laws and public action through the power and logic of its ideas and arguments. Five people in a Lokpal bill committee do not represent a billion people. All they can claim is the citizens’ right to present their ideas to the government for a law that is long overdue. We already have representative institutions. It is their failure that necessitated the creation of this committee. It is the wisdom and persuasiveness of the civil society members that will make the difference, not their claim to be representatives of the people.

In many countries, when such dialogues and protests fail, civil society may demand a referendum on critical issues. Sometimes, such referendums are combined with elections. Given India’s large population, this option may be difficult to implement for some time to come. That leaves our periodic elections as the only option to unseat a government that does not listen to its citizens. It is a difficult and cumbersome process, but then, that is the nature of democracy.

(The writer is a civil society activist)

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