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Mainstream, Vol. XLIX, No 29, July 9, 2011

Challenges to Civil Society in India

Sunday 10 July 2011


by Vivek Kumar Srivastava

In developing societies political parties exercise an influential role. They aim to achieve power and after having achieved it they wish to maintain it by several mechanisms; besides less awareness of the people about the true nature of the democratic system in such societies, there exist limited options to bring the government within a people-centric corruption-free framework.

In these societies the civil society too exists but in underdeveloped form. The situation may be different in developed countries where the liberal-democratic system has persisted for a long time and has allowed the civil society to grow in a significant manner while forcing the political parties to play a genuine role. Their perception of power achievement is not so narrow and not so self-serving as obtaining in the developing societies’ democratic milieu.

This is true in India too where the first important civil society movement has been initiated by Team Anna Hazare. India is a developing country with a strong presence of political parties; the people are less aware about their rights, and sadly a weak civil society has existed here since independence.

In this background this movement was noteworthy in the sense that it aimed to discuss a political issue, which has a relevant social value, with apolitical methods. Earlier such civil society movements mainly focused on environ-mental or social issues with more or less success. Therefore Anna Hazare’s effort in the history of the civil society movement in post-independent India strikes a departure from the traditional path and moves into a new phase. His movement symbolises a landmark in the civil society history of this country as it attracted the people’s attention in a sufficient manner and ended with success.

THOUGH its next phase was demonstrated by Baba Ramdev who too went after the issue of corruption, he did not have any particular roadmap and any concrete model as exhibited by Anna Hazare. Anna Hazare developed a platform on the issue of the Lokpal Bill on which the whole movement could be constructed but at this point Baba Ramdev failed, his actions and speeches appeared as only rhetorical and could not attract the support of the common people on the street; these citizens were won over by Anna Hazare in an effective manner.

As a result Baba Ramdev helped the cause of the political parties, knowingly or unknowingly, and a civil society movement in the country started to wither even before it could attain maturity. It is true that the civil society movement has cocooned itself to play a larger role in a developing society like India where, due to improper functioning of the executive, judicial activism has come to the fore and is playing a decisive role in the country; perhaps strengthening of the civil society movement would have provided a new impetus to activities like judicial activism and would have forced the executive to act in a more decisive way.

The point where Baba Ramdev committed a mistake was that his movement was hijacked by the political parties; this is one of the most serious dangers to people’s movements in developing countries where democracy exists with many shortcomings. As things moved during Baba Ramdev’s fast, due to mistakes or or other reasons this movement fell into the hands of the BJP.

The BJP saw a major opportunity to serve its longstarding interests of attaining power by exploiting the ground prepared by the workers of the civil society. The BJP took away the issue from the realm of civil society and politicised it.

This hijacking of the issue has weakened the cause of the fight against corruption due to many reasons. Corruption, which was becoming the issue of the people, lost its strength due to the involvement of the political party. A fact substantiating this statement is that the BJP has already lost its credibility in a larger section of the country’s literate society on the issue of corruption due to the supposed complicity with that evil of one of its State governments. Its legitimacy as a crusader against corruption carries not much impact because of its support to B.S. Yeddyurappa’s government in Karnataka about which the common people has a feeling that it is a government which does not carry a pristine record against corruption; though the BJP justifies its continuance in power there on technical grounds, it appears to have failed to influence the literate sections of society.

Due to the involvement of the BJP and the failure of Baba Ramdev to provide any concrete roadmap and strong alternative, with the bifurcated efforts by Ramdev and Anna Hazare things have slipped out of the hands of the civil society organisations. The Congrees as a party too has succeeded in shifting the focus from corruption to other fields as the immoral role of the BJP in the fight against corruption, Baba Ramdev and his associates’ financial standings, and the concept of a parallel government. These as such have not helped the cause of the movement, and due to these developments and politicisation of the whole game, the corruption issue has shifted from the public domain to the unknown zone with the Congress at least for some time succeeding in suppressing the inflation issue.

The role of the BJP too is full of criticism. It should have refrained from entering the territory of the civil society. It could reap political dividends in due course if there was any windfall but as of now it is losing due to the Karnataka issue.

The last few months have therefore brought a new dimension to the Indian polity where civil society organisations are attempting to create a wider democratic space for the common people. The Congress too has seen the power of the people as exhibited by the Anna Hazare team, but unlike the BJP its objective is to suppress the movement; otherwise its long-term goal of using power for its own sake may be jeopardised. It has another plan of running the country in a democratic-feudal manner in which it has succeeded so far, though a major threat to this in recent times has come from such movements.

These dangers are explicit. The civil society movement and the issue of corruption have been weakened with the recent turn of events. Baba Ramdev’s acts based on inexperience should not be repeated by the Anna Hazare team. They need to remember they have to re-establish the civil society movement and work for a society where people in a real fashion enjoy the democratic space. The burden of responsibility therefore lies more on Anna Hazare, and his next acts including the expected fast should be organised such as to make the movement immune from those people and political parties which may obstruct the emergence of a true civil society in the country.

Dr Vivek Kumar Srivastava is the Vice-Chairman, CSSP, Kanpur.

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