Monday, Oct 03, 2022

State of civil society

Why we need to be precise in how we define ‘civil society’?

Civil society” has dominated popular discussion for the last few months. It may be hard to recall how rare the use of the term was only some years back. In 2002,when I published a book analysing the role of civil society in preventing,dampening or inciting communal riots,I was asked in a television interview whether I was overstating the power of civil society vis-à-vis the state. And in an interview with a Hindi journalist emerged the inimitably phrased query,“Yeh civil society kya cheez hai?”

From the cloistered walls of academia,the term has now fully penetrated our everyday discourse,thanks to Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev. Those working at the local level,sensitive to movement politics,or familiar with the history of Gandhian modes of political conduct,had always known the potency of civil society organisations. But,arguably,at no time in India’s post-1947 history has the storm caused by civil society been so evidently noticeable. JP’s movement was undoubtedly more powerful,but no one used the term “civil society” at that time.

When a term acquires popular currency and power,we need to be more careful about what it stands for and how we should formulate our responses to the actual phenomenon it represents. Terminological precision is routinely craved in universities. The case for such precision is perhaps greater when the stakes are so high in the “real world”.

So what is civil society? Is the distinction between civil society and political society,so often drawn,sustainable?

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Hazare and Ramdev both claim to be non-political. In some intellectual circles,too,it is customary to draw the distinction between civil and political society. But this distinction is deeply implausible. It is premised upon equating politics with elections. It also implies,or openly suggests,that civil society,a middle-class phenomenon,is governed by laws; and political society,driven by elections and mass politics,is deeply compromised in patron-client deals and riddled with corruption. Civil society is virtuous; political society lacks morality.

The first problem with this formulation is that the middle-class also violates the laws. Middle-class associations and NGOs,not simply the political parties,can be dens of corruption and unaccountability.

Second,politics is not only about elections. It is also about values,visions,issues that shape political consciousness. Some of these values and issues,of course,can determine election results. Of late,I have been travelling in Tamil Nadu. While I don’t have statistics to clinch the point,my overwhelming impression is that corruption had a lot to do with the DMK’s massive election defeat. But politics does not have to be about elections only.


Moreover,there is no guarantee that the current leaders of civil society will not run for elections tomorrow. India has a remarkable history of such transitions. The Congress after the rise of Gandhi in 1920 became a movement,but it also participated in elections: provincial elections in 1937 and municipal elections before that. The Self-Respect Movement in Madras Presidency led to the rise of Dravidian political parties. After an enormously popular peasant movement in the 1980s,Sharad Joshi and his Shetkari Sanghatana ran for office (though unsuccessfully). Whether or not the Bhushans will be candidates in elections,can we be sure that Baba Ramdev will not be? Movement politics has often seamlessly morphed into election politics in the past,and might well again.

The distinction between civil and political society,thus,does not make sense. They are deeply intertwined. A more precise definition of civil society has to do with its relationship with the state. Civil society is not necessarily non-political,but it inhabits the non-state space of our life. It deploys any political means it can get to pressure the state to achieve its goals,but it is not part of the state. Indeed,the classic definition of civil society is that it is the organisational space between the family on one hand and the state on the other. In this space can exist social organisations such as Lions and Rotary Clubs,festival organisations,soccer and cricket leagues,yoga ashrams and bird-watching societies — some of which can also be used politically. But trade unions and social movements,too,are part of civil society,and they are,more often than not,explicitly political.

It is this customary and deeper understanding of civil society that has been violated by Hazare’s movement. Hazare and four others are formally part of the government committee that is to draft the Lokpal bill. That is not what civil society does. Civil society can agitate for a particular kind of law,and obstruct or promote its implementation,but civil society does not make laws. In a parliamentary democracy,the power to legislate and make laws belongs to the elected executive and legislature. Even the judiciary cannot make laws. It can judge the constitutionality of laws,exercise oversight,or push governments to make laws. But only the elected can make laws in a democracy.


This criticism can also be levelled at the National Advisory Council (NAC). It has drafted legislation on a whole range of matters: communal violence,food security,right to information,rural employment guarantee,etc. The current NAC document on communal violence is not a statement of principles and priorities — which is what civil society does. It is a detailed legal draft of a possible legislation.

Unlike Hazare,the NAC can certainly claim that it is not part of a government committee,only a council advising the leader of the Congress party. But given the rather unique system the UPA has developed,in which the prime minister is neither a professional politician nor directly elected,this argument effectively breaks down. On Hindu personal law,prime minister Nehru could take on Congress president Purushottam Das Tandon in the 1950s,ultimately forcing Tandon out. His enormous personal probity notwithstanding,Manmohan Singh simply does not have the political stature to rise against Sonia Gandhi.

At the heart of the current political impasse in Delhi lies a paradox. Without the awful decline in the legitimacy of elected politicians,brought about by corruption,civil society would not have become so powerful. But,equally,whatever the faults of India’s elected politicians,a democratic system cannot give so much power to civil society without hurting itself.

Let civil society agitate and even persuade the electorate to throw out a government that is corrupt. But law-making is strictly a function of the elected wings of the polity. If we undermine that,we attack the basic principles of a democratic political system. A movement sponsored by civil society is democratic; law-making by civil society is not.

Starting July 1,the writer will be Sol Goldman Charitable Trust Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences and Director,India Initiative,at Brown University; he is also VKRV Rao Visiting Professor at the Institute of Social and Economic Change,Bangalore

First published on: 14-06-2011 at 01:29:24 am
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