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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Playing fast and loose

‘Civil society’ abets its own brand of authoritarianism

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
June 3, 2011 3:41:52 am

It is an unseemly sight. First,the government loses all moral authority by its complicity with corruption. The political class abdicates its role. Civil society steps in to fill the vacuum. Hunger strikes begin. And the government of an aspiring superpower,instead of behaving like a government,succumbs to blackmail after blackmail. There is something medieval about the image. The “Baba” arrives. Practically all of government that matters shows up in attendance. God forbid if the Baba curses them. You have to sympathise with these artful ministers. They are valiantly trying to make up for the fact that the Queen Mother,her Dewan and the little Prince run away from the most ordinary governance that matters. They have outsourced all leadership and thinking. A few ministers are left to pick up the pieces.

Then there is the gloss on this bizarre spectacle. First,abdicate. Then,cravenly submit. Then call it responsiveness. Such corruption of language signals a deeper corruption. A responsive government is one that in its routine functioning discharges its responsibilities: enforces the rule of law,dispenses justice,provides good management of the economy and so forth. Submitting to every whim of self-appointed civil society advocates is not responsiveness. A responsive government would govern,not sleepwalk to airports.

Meanwhile,civil society activists act as if they should have the last word on everything. The outrage that drives them has some justifiable basis. But civil society is,unconsciously,abetting its own brand of authoritarianism. First,the sensibility at work in this self-appointed civil society is to enhance state power. Most of them hate the one thing that has made a brighter future possible for India: liberalisation. It took us decades to struggle against the stranglehold of the state and concentrations of power. Under the guise of combating terrorism,the state encroached on our freedoms. Under the guise of promoting accountability,civil society now wants new concentrations of power. How else do you explain that a Baba who advocates the extension of the death penalty to economic offenders,whose views on sexual minorities border on the fascist,is now the saviour of our moral fibre? How else do you explain the fact that every bill the NAC touches is closing doors to experiments in the social sector? It played fast and loose with important constitutional values in the prevention of communal violence bill. How else do you explain the sensibility that says the solution to the problems of the state is more state,the solution to weaknesses of existing institutions is more institutions,and the key to dealing with the fact that most laws remain unimplemented is more laws?

The second element of creeping authoritarianism is the punitive mood. The presumptions that should remain dear to a liberal society,even though there may be costs attached to them,are all being tossed out of the window: like the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. In this climate,can you even think of a judge being able to give someone bail fairly? Merely that act will expose her to the censure that she is corrupt. This is the tenor of much of the allegations our civil society representatives are bandying about as gospel truth. No one denies that “due process” has been a fig leaf to let many holders of power off the hook. But that is no justification for creating a climate of opinion about whole classes of people that is punitive rather than discriminating.

The third element of creeping authoritarianism is the erosion of a proper sense of balance. Each group is pursuing a single-point agenda as if that is the only thing that mattered. Each value like transparency is being taken to an extreme point where it could become dangerous. Sunlight may be a disinfectant. It can also blur your eyes. Disclosure of the assets of public servants may serve some functions,properly handled. But there is something invasive and unseemly about the way in which the whole persona of public servants is being defined in public discourse through an obsession with assets. The RTI Act is a wonderful instrument. But its use has to be measured. Recently,the CIC ruled that all confidential reports be made public. We can debate that ruling from an organisational point of view. But the large philosophical premise behind it is disturbing: information is a right. Privacy is not a right. Therefore the former trumps the latter. Remember the core of all authoritarianism is the claim that the individual is always subordinate to the collective interest. Transparency always trumps privacy. The core of totalitarianism was the claim that individuals be subject to a field of total visibility,so that slowly the whole notion of public and private disappears. A whole range of institutions is taking us down that path.

The fourth element of creeping authoritarianism is the invocation of the people as an abstract concept. All authoritarianisms mistrust the representative process. The concept of the people then becomes an abstraction; each group can claim to represent it simply by their self-proclaimed virtue. Each disagreement becomes a sign of treason. The people must be a unity. If anyone disagrees,they must,by definition be against the people. If you have different views on the Lokpal it must be because you are against the people: classic authoritarian rhetoric.

The fifth element of authoritarianism is endless confusion of roles. Baba Ramdev has solid achievements to his credit in raising consciousness about yoga. It is heartening that citizens take more interest in public affairs. But there is a presumption that accomplished individuals,by virtue of their achievements in one sphere,can leverage that authority everywhere. This confusion of roles is almost everywhere. Parts of the media cannot decide whether they want to be trustworthy institutions of record or tools of partisan,rabble-rousing demagoguery,with editors donning the mantle of revolutionaries. But the short-term gains of this activism will come at the price of long-term credibility. True change will not come from this confusion of roles; it will come from each profession discharging its responsibilities to the best.

A morally insidious vacuum in government. A self-proclaimed civil society displaying its own will to power. A media age where being off-balance gets you visibility. A public whose mood is punitive. An intellectual climate that peddles the politics of illusion. And all this in a context where government paralysis is enhancing the two biggest risks to the well-being of the poor — entrenched inflation and slowdown in growth. Instead of clamouring for visibility,we should follow old Baba Ramdev’s advice: take a deep breath.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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