This spectacle has led many to despair that democratic politics is locked in a stalemate and is incapable of self-reform. But focusing on the conflict between an increasingly defensive political society (parties and state institutions) and an increasingly vocal and assertive civil society may be missing the larger point. First, it’s important to recognise that political and civil society are almost by definition in tension, but that this can actually be healthy for democracy. Second, while civil society is neither inherently democratic nor universalising in the way its cheerleaders make it out to be, it can play a vital role in containing the excesses of political society as well as in strengthening key aspects of democratic governance.
From Aristotle to Amartya Sen, a long line of social thinkers have argued that there is more to democracy than elections. Going to the polls at regular intervals provides, at best, a blunt instrument of accountability. Political parties are motivated by short-term electoral calculations that don’t necessarily align with the public interest. In an unequal society with increasingly regionalised parties, patronage and populism prevail and governance suffers. But a vibrant civil society can act as a countervailing force, holding politicians and bureaucrats to account on a continuous basis and raising issues and concerns that don’t fit into the rather narrow and simplifying calculus of getting re-elected.
That this leads to conflict is inevitable. Politicians in every democracy want to claim a monopoly of representation and in India in particular, the state and the political class have claimed an outsized role. But at a time of rapid social and economic change, the deficits of representative democracy have become quite acute and have fuelled demands for greater participation. The result is that the past decade in India has witnessed a re-balancing of the relationship between civil and political society. For starters, political parties no longer set the public agenda. Civil society formations have become better organised, more independent and more effective at projecting their issues into the public sphere and sometimes even into the state, as in the case of the Right to Information (RTI) campaign. What this means for democratic deepening depends on two questions. First, will civil society simply amplify the interests of the more powerful and organised, or come to represent a broader, and more universal set of subordinate groups’ interests (reducing poverty, expanding rights for all, universalising access to health and education, making cities more inclusive)? This is an open-ended question, especially at a time when corporate power is growing and the influence of money threatens the deliberative premise of the public sphere. Second, can civil society pressures be translated into political and administrative action?
To answer this second question, we have to recall that civil society can play two key roles in strengthening democratic life. One is problematising the unproblematised: civil society actors can give voice to social, economic and cultural concerns that don’t fit into the electoral calculations of parties or the bureaucratic logic of the state, but can effectively re-frame social preferences. In India, as in most democracies, some of the most important issues of our times — the environment, gender and minority rights — have been “named, framed and claimed” by civil society. If nothing else, IAC has started a vital public conversation on corruption.
A second key role is experimentation. Few would disagree with Atul Kohli’s succinct formulation that India is a well-functioning democracy that delivers poor quality government. Bureaucracies and parties are not renowned for being good incubators of innovation. Even when reformist impulses gather strength in one part of political society, they are often thwarted by other organised political interests. This has largely been the fate of Panchayati Raj. So, where will change come from?
Much as is true for markets, a diverse and pluralistic civil society can be a source of tremendous innovation. If NGOs grab the most attention when they are in a contentious mode — as when IAC goes to Jantar Mantar — much of the hard work they do is building local capacity, developing new policy or institutional design and collecting data. As Amita Baviskar recently pointed out in this paper (‘They all fall apart’, September 21), the difference between the IAC and RTI campaigns is that the latter was built from the ground up and that whatever the long-term effects of its legislative achievement might be, its biggest contribution has been empowering villagers to demand good governance. A similar example, which also points to the ways in which civil society action can complement political action, is the People’s Campaign for Decentralised Planning in Kerala. The CPM often gets the credit for having passed the necessary legislation to devolve real power and allocating a third of the planning budget to panchayats as untied funds. Only a party could have done this. But the campaign itself, which involved developing extraordinarily complex institutional designs and mobilising thousands, was largely the work of the Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishath, a community-based organisation that, for decades, has experimented with participatory budgeting, local resource mapping and self-help groups.
Whether it is the creative innovations to combat corruption, such as Janaagraha’s “I paid a bribe” website, the role of the education NGO Pratham in collecting data on the quality of rural schooling (something the state had not done), or SEWA’s successes in developing new forms of informal worker organisation, many practical problems of democratic governance are already being addressed. This is hardly a substitute for more representative politics and more robust public action. But such experiments, by creating new spaces of citizen engagement and new practical solutions to governance problems, are the prosaic stuff of democratic deepening. So, even as it is difficult to imagine a breakthrough in the current political stalemate, one would do well to remember Max Weber’s famous definition of democratic politics as “a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective.”
Patrick Heller, a visiting senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, is professor of sociology at Brown University’s Watson Institute, US