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Mainstream, VOL LV No 41 New Delhi September 30, 2017

Democracy in Digital Age: Revisiting the Gandhian Idea of Civic Engagement

Friday 29 September 2017

by Pradeep Nair

Information is a core community need in any democracy whether it is digital or conventional. People having access to information always have an edge over others who were denied the access due to their socio-political backwardness. The digital media not only accelerates the access to information but also develops a new attitude among the people to receive, own, engage, respond and connect the information for the negotiations with the socio-cultural surrounding which is the core of any democracy.

The commentary appreciates the Gandhian idea of civic engagement which urges the need for the free flow of information that helps people to participate in the life of the community. It further contextualises the potential of digital communication in connecting the people regardless of wealth or age, urban or rural and enhances the capacity of individuals to engage with information related to civic engagement and governance. This will ensure a greater role for civic bodies which Mahatma Gandhi urged as the core of democracy.

The Gandhian Idea of Civic Engagement

Gandhi visualised civic engagement as a process to be initiated within a community with larger public interest and welfare (Rajsingh 2014). It is a collective and individual effort required to identify and address issues of public concern in any political system. The success of any such civic engagement concern depends on the process of people’s participation and the inclusive access to welfare schemes provided to the masses, which he defined as ‘Swaraj’. This swaraj can lead to inclusiveness and sustainability of people’s effort to proactively develop an environ-ment for a democratic political discourse.

The Gandhian idea of ‘Civic Engagement’ is all about the development of public models of change including social, political, economic and cultural. This change is based on the concern to strengthen social and civic infrastructure, community leadership network and political discourse. (Chakrabarthy 2017) This change can not only bridge the social gap but can also make the community ready to envision which may further lead to future development. This requires both government and public interventions in the form of collaborative and co-operative socio-political relationships at the individual, family, and institutional levels.

Information as a Core Component

In the Gandhian approach to civic engagement, information is the core component and is vital for any democracy to develop and sustain. Information in this digital age is not only changing the lives of common people but is also affecting the quality of community life. Any community can be considered ‘informed community’ only when the information from the government and public bodies meets the people’s personal and civic information needs. (Islam 2017) If people receive information at right time, then it will help them to use that information for their own welfare, for the welfare of their community, family and by and large for the welfare of the society. This helps them to develop a system of self-government, which is critical for any democracy to encourage the values of openness, inclusion, participation, empowerment, and the common pursuit of truth and public interest.

If the digital communication channels, both public and private, are used strategically, the availability and accessibility of relevant and credible information to both the rural and urban communities can be maximised and this will automatically strengthen the capacity of individuals to engage with that information. This can promote people’s engagement in the public life of the community thus making democracy more transparent and connected.

Putting Approaches in Practice

The digital age has the potential to develop multiple media delivery platforms for the dissemination of information to larger masses in a cost-effective way. Access to information can provide more opportunities to grow and this can bridge the existing inequalities and marginalised status for the people who lack resources, skills or understanding to carry out socio-political negotiations in their day-to-day life. Clear strategies and smart choices of civic engagement incorporating the Gandhian philosophy of social inclusion can make the whole governance more open and accountable. (Parekh 1995) Providing information to each citizen can help her/him to discover, gather, compare, contextualise and share that information with others in numerous ways which may be quite useful to develop the ability of people to engage in the process of governance in the capacity of both producers and consumers of information. This generates opportunities and motivation for involvement. In any community, if the people have the capacity, both at the individual and collective levels, to shoulder their civic responsibilities by participating in local elections and civic affairs, the community has a scope to become healthy and democratic. In a county like India, most of the families in both urban and rural settings struggle to make ends meet. Here, civic engagement may have the opportunity to fulfil basic information needs about jobs, housing, taxes, safety, education, transportation, entertainment, health care, child care, public utilities, religious resources and local news.

The Gandhian idea of civic engagement stresses on providing the people convenient access to civic and life-enhancing information, without regard to economic or social status. (Thakkar and Mehta 2011) It further emphasises on developing local information systems at village panchayat level so that people should be encouraged to participate in the community’s day-to-day life. Gandhi believed that to achieve the promise of democracy, it is necessary that the creation, organisation, analysis and trans-mission of information should be taken care of at the village level. (Parel 2006) The panchayat informatics clubs (PICs) were initiated on the basis of this philosophy alone. But unfortunately, it was not very successful, as the civic institu-tions at the village or block level were not able to promote knowledge about civic resources and also failed to exchange the ideas of people’s engagement in public life to a large extent.

For a country like India, which is still struggling with a fluctuating GDP, creating informed communities is a herculean task. It may be possible only when major public and non-profit institutions start giving priorities to the values of openness, inclusion and engagement. It is a time for both the government and the policy-makers to design and execute strategies to define the individual roles as citizens in the digital age. Technology may help to make every individual to be a productive part of the community, but a reciprocal commitment to participate in civic and public affairs is required both at the government and citizens’ levels.

The revisit of the Gandhian idea of civic engagement in this digital age suggests that the technological capacities and civic practices need to be customised in such a way that it should engender a deep discussion among the govern-ment and public about the changes affecting the objectivity, privacy and accountability of public engagement in civic affairs. It requires an understanding of how and in what ways individuals and communities create information ecologies and how it should be further developed to be more relevant, participatory and inclusive. Campaigns like Make in India, Digital India have the potential to create information health for both the urban and rural Indian communities but these have to overcome the barriers of low income, language issues, paucity of skills and training and lack of personal motivation to access relevant information. This requires not only political will but also a cumulative effort to encourage people from all sections of the society to participate in community life. For any democracy the first and foremost requirement is that the policies, processes and institutions of civic engagement should be developed at the community level in such a way that people’s constructive engagement and involvement with each other and with the community on a large scale should be ensured. This cannot be possible by providing information only; this requires a timely and effective engagement with that information and that is where the Gandhian idea of democracy lies.


Chakrabarty, Bidyut (2017): Localising Governance in India, Routledge Studies in South Asian Politics, New York: Taylor and Francis.

Islam, Frank (2017): ‘The Critical Need for Civic Engagement in the 21st Century’, a speech given at the Aligarh Muslim University on February 13, 2017. Available at frankislam.com/speech/critical-need-civic-engagement-21st-century/

Parekh, Bhiku (1995): Gandhi’s Political Philosophy: A Critical Examination, New Delhi: Ajanta Publications.

Parel, Anthony (2006): Gandhi’s Philosophy and the Quest for Harmony, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rajsingh, Peter V. (2014): ‘The importance of Gandhi in Governance’, published on April 2, 2014 in Mail Online India. Available at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/indiahome/indianews/article-2595397/The-importance-Gandhi-governance.html#ixzz4pLZOjDL0

Thakkar, Usha and Jayshree Mehta (2011): Understanding Gandhi: Gandhians in Conversation with Fred J. Blum, New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Pradeep Nair, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor and Dean, School of Journalism, Mass Communication and New Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala. His research interests include media and civic engagement, political communication and practicing participatory communication approaches for development. He can be contacted at e-mail: nairdevcom[at]yahoo.co.in

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