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Putting Civil Society in Its Place

The civil society argument about representing people and their needs has now been around for about 25 years. The problems of the world remain as intractable, even as the numbers of agents who seek to negotiate the ills of the human condition have expanded exponentially. In popular imagination, it is still the State that seems to occupy a central position. And it is clear that there are certain problems that only the State can resolve, and should be resolving. Is it time that we begin to reconsider the role of civil society? Is it time to once again put civil society in its place?

COMMENTARY

Putting Civil Society in Its Place

Neera Chandhoke

The civil society argument about representing people and their needs has now been around for about 25 years. The problems of the world remain as intractable, even as the numbers of agents who seek to negotiate the ills of the human condition have expanded exponentially. In popular imagination, it is still the State that seems to occupy a central position. And it is clear that there are certain problems that only the State can resolve, and should be resolving. Is it time that we begin to reconsider the role of civil society? Is it time to once again put civil society in its place?

Neera Chandhoke (neera.chandhoke@gmail. com) is with the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi.

T
he arguments in this essay seek to address a question, which might well be of some significance for any discussion of state and civil society in India. The question is: what are the limits of civil society interventions? Have we, perchance, invested too heavily in the concept of civil society, or reposed far too much confidence in the ability of civil society agents to effect transformations in the lives of ordinary citizens? Are scholars and analysts of the political condition at fault inasmuch as they have, sometimes, tried to posit civil society as an alternative to the state?

I raise these questions because following the rediscovery and the reinvention of civil society in the 1970s but more particularly the 1980s, the sphere came to be seen as practically a substitute for the “power hungry” state and the “profit driven” market. The reasons for this development are well known by now; tremendous disenchantment with the “overreach” of the state in the advanced capitalist, the erstwhile socialist, and the developing world. The revolution “from above” in the shape of the interventionist state: whether K eynesian, welfare, developmental or s ocialist had lapsed into status quoism and the unabashed pursuit of power, at the expense of the interests of citizens. The revolution “from below”, or the freedom struggle in the colonised world had trailed off into inertia.

Nowhere was the sense of betrayal expressed more strongly than in the postcolonial novel, in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, for instance. The literary critic Jean Franco suggests that Marquez who had already begun to pillorise and parody the nation in his other writings, specifically makes the “private” the centre of his writing in this novel. Even as the “apocalyptic landscape of decay and cadavers bear the scars of modernisation”, the “protagonists enacting their anachronistic love story can no longer represent anything beyond their own moral passions”. This novel, argues Franco, “marked the dissolution of a once totalising myth which is now replaced by private fantasies lived out amidst private disasters” (Franco 1989: 207 and 208). The irony is that the novel, which during the struggle for decolonisation had constituted the nation in and for political imaginations, was now to set itself the task of marginalising the nation.

It was around this moment that the civil society argument was propelled onto the centre stage of political imaginations, strategies, and energies. Forged initially in the context of Stalinist states in eastern and central Europe, the argument promised no great ruptural breaks in the lives of people. What it did suggest was that a limited and accountable state, a rule of law, constitutionalism, political and civil liberties, a free media, un-coerced associational life, and a vigilant civil society formed essential prerequisites of democracy and citizenship rights. Given the success of the “Velvet Revolutions” against authoritarian state power in erstwhile s ocialist societies, the concept as well as the practices of civil society were to attract considerable attention, as well as a fair amount of enthusiasm among democratic theorists and activists.

Democratic theorists came to believe with Gouldner that “no emancipation is possible in the modern world without a strong civil society that can strengthen the public sphere and can provide a haven from a centre of resistance to the Behemoth state” (Gouldner 1980: 371). And in policy circles it came to be widely felt that civil society agents, particularly the nongovernmental sector, could deliver social goods, empower citizens, safeguard human rights, and raise issues of public concern more effectively than traditional agents of political society such as the p olitical party and the state. Consequently, civil society agents, particularly the nongovernmental sector, were encouraged by multilateral agencies, governments, and donor organisations to play a large role in collective life. The state in the process was

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pluralised, sharing functions, which had traditionally fallen within its jurisdiction, with a host of agents.

The civil society argument has now been around for about 25 years. The problems of the world remain as intractable, even as the numbers of agents who seek to negotiate the ills of the human condition have expanded exponentially. In popular imagination, the state still seems to occupy a central position. And it is clear that there are certain problems that only the state can resolve, and should be resolving. Is it time that we begin to reconsider the role of civil society? Is it time to once again put civil society in its place?

India: The Crisis of Representation

In India the turn away from the state and to civil society could perhaps be foretold as early as the late 1960s, when political institutions began to decline rapidly. In particular, citizens began to lose confidence in the Congress Party, which in its earlier avatar had mobilised millions of people in and through the freedom struggle, and which in the post-independence period dominated Indian politics. The widely respected scholar Rajni Kothari (1970) had at one point of time described Indian democracy as the “One Party Dominant System”. Indian democracy, Kothari suggested, did not need an opposition party, because groups and individuals nego tiated and bargained with the leadership, and with each other, within the party organisation.1 By the late 1970s scholars began to speak of the end of the Congress system. The party was beset with what two scholars termed organisational atrophy (Sisson and Roy 1990: 21), power came to be excessively centralised in the person of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and the Congress lost its capacity to either represent or negotiate popular demands. In the process the party lost touch with its constituency. In sum, individual members of the party came to be preoccupied with accessing the supreme leader more, and representing their constituents less.

Notably the decline of the Congress took place at precisely the time when p opular expectations had risen dramatically. The rhetoric of Nehruvian socialism and the idea of planning for development had generated a sense of entitlement. Driven

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by populist imagery and radical demagoguery, the people came to expect that the state and the party in power would deliver primary education and subsidise higher education, guarantee health, remove poverty, generate jobs and incomes, institutionalise inter-group equalities, remove inequalities within the group, and protect the needy, the vulnerable, and the poor. But the Congress, which at that time controlled both power and resources, had not only failed to emancipate the country from poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment, it had under the leadership of Indira Gandhi become authoritarian. And this led to restlessness in major parts of the country.

Simmering discontent came to pervade large parts of the country, as groups mobilised to target an unresponsive state, and an equally unresponsive party system. Expectedly the politics of protest spilled over shaky political channels and took to violence. By the early 1970s, political discontent escaped all bounds and students in Gujarat and Bihar, took to the streets. Even as disgruntlement coalesced rapidly under the leadership of J P Narayan to mount a challenge to the political system, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed an internal emergency from 1975-77. The Emergency not only suspended representative democracy, it pulverised civil liberties and froze political activism. The paradox, however, is that though the Emer gency suspended constitutional democracy, an entire range of social struggles outside the political sphere of party politics e rupted to question the state of democracy in the country. This development further reinforced the belief that the party system was neither here nor there when it came to representing political demands.

India was not alone in this. Analysts of western societies were to make roughly the same complaint: that of the unresponsiveness of the state, the indifference of the bureaucracy, and the pulverisation of the party system. In the United States (US), theorists had complained for long that elections and political parties seemed to have become the pawns of the political elite. In the 1960s the “new left”, the “sit ins”, the “direct action” movements had already raised into question the efficacy of the system of representation. Discontent

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with the party system continued to mount with Walter Dean Burnham arguing that in the US, political parties had, since 1900, declined as system of action. They won elections, and managed tensions between factions within the party, but they had not acted as forces for collective purposes and action. Indeed, elections for Burnham (1970) had become “candidate image affairs for which only the wealthy or those close to the wealthy need apply”. In eastern and central Europe, from the 1970s onwards, citizens who had turned their face away from the state, parties, and trade unions, came to reinvent civil society as the locus of sociability, civility, and trust. In countries ruled by military regimes, such as Brazil, by the mid-1980s, citizen groups had come together in a space they called civil society to mount a sustained assault on unrepresentative and unresponsive governments, and to demand democracy. And the concept of civil society was catapulted onto the political scene as an alternative to nonperforming governments and indifferent political parties.

In India, even as the decline of all institutions and particularly of the institutions of representative democracy gave rise to several mass-based political movements and grass roots activism; scholars were to reject political society as the arena for competition for state power, and acknowledge the significance of civil society. Since the turn of the decade of the 1980s social movements such as the anti-caste movement, the struggle for gender justice, for civil liberties, for the environment, for food security, for the right to work, for the right to education, for the right to information, and movements against mega development projects that have displaced thousands of poor tribals and hill dwellers, and against child labour, have mobilised in civil society. By the year 2000, an estimated 20 to 30,000 grass roots movements, social movements, non-party political formations, social action groups, movement groups and in general nonparty groups, were raising issues of political significance (see Sheth 2004: 45). This turn to civil society and away from the state was reflected in government policy. From the Seventh Five-Year Plan (1985-90) onwards it is possible to discern a perceptible shift from government

COMMENTARY

to civil society organisations in the area of service delivery.

The shift from political to civil society organisations can be seen as welcome for at least two reasons. For one, decentred and multiple civil society organisations promise an exit from centrally controlled, bureaucratic, hierarchical, and oligarchic party structures that are mainly preoccupied with winning the next election. Second, it is possible that a multiplicity of agents in civil society are able to respond immediately to problems and issues that require swift resolution, because they are in touch with their constituencies. Consequently non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been promoted by international development institutions, the World Bank, and donor agencies because they are seen to possess certain desirable properties, such as flexibility, innovativeness, and proximity on the one hand, and as possessing the capacity to deepen democracy on the other because they raise i ssues of livelihood and rights.

Limits of Civil Society

However, even as we acknowledge the important role played by civil society agents such as NGOs in foregrounding social and economic rights; and thereby deepening democracy, the one question that confronts us at this juncture is the following: how much can the NGO sector achieve? What are the limits of civil society interventions? Among the other limits on civil society activism particularly in the social sector, the following are the most apparent. First, civil society agents are just not in a position to summon up the kind of resources that are required to emancipate Indian citizens from poverty and deprivation. It is only the state that can do so through widening the tax net, and through monitoring the collection of revenues, so that social sector programmes can be funded. Second, NGOs can hardly implement schemes of redistributive justice that involve transferring of resources from the better to the worse off sections of society. Third, the non-governmental sector cannot establish and strengthen institutions that will implement social policy. These tasks simply lie outside the pale of civil s ociety activism. NGOs can lobby for and mobilise people for social and economic rights. But ultimately the realisation of these rights depends largely upon the structures of governance, which lie out the ambit of civil society agents.

Across dominant streams of thought and policy prescriptions, the general consensus seems to be that the government is the problem. Instead of trying to make the state deliver what it has promised through constitutions, laws, and rhetorical flourishes, policymakers and advocates of civil society organisations would rather establish parallel systems, which can substitute for the state in areas of service delivery. And yet one significant factor inhibits the realisation of this plan, civil society agents are neither in the business of making policy, nor in the business of implementing these policies. Civil society agents are in the business of creating, fostering, nurturing, and reproducing informed public opinion that can be brought to bear upon the making and implementation of policy. Correspondingly civil society has to keep watch on the implementation of policy. In 1790, the eminent Irish orator, wit, legal luminary, and member of the British parliament, John Curran (17501817) had suggested insightfully that “the condition on which god hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance”. It is this very task that politics entrusts to civil society.

More significantly we should not lose sight of what the state’s obligations to the citizens are. The political philosopher Thomas Nagel has suggested that the social rules which determine the basic structure of a state are coercively imposed. N otably these rules are imposed in the name of the members.

Without being given a choice, we are assigned a role in the collective life of a particular society. The society makes us responsible for its acts, which are taken in our name and on which, in a democracy we may even have some influence; and it hold us responsible for obeying its norms; thereby supporting the institutions through which advantages and disadvantages are created and distributed. Insofar as those institutions admit arbitrary inequalities, we are, even though the responsibility has been simply handed to us, responsible for them, and we therefore have standing to ask why we should accept them (Nagel 2005).

Nagel points out that the citizens have the right to challenge the arbitrary inequalities produced and reproduced by the economic, the social, and the political order, because in a democratic state this order is constructed in the name of the citizens. Not only does the state have the power to institutionalise and mandate a just order to remedy the ills of the human condition, it has the obligation to do so. It cannot call upon the NGO sector to bail it out of its current difficulties, which have been created by its own incompetence, corruption, and insensitivity to the needs and the aspirations of the citizens. Nor should the NGO sector believe that it can provide an alternative to the state.

More significantly this sector cannot provide such an alternative not only because it lacks the power, the responsibility, and the accountability of the state, but b ecause till today the citizens of India continue to hold the state responsible for many things despite the pluralisation of the state to accommodate the NGO sector, and despite globalisation, which in the eyes of many scholars has waved a magic wand and shrunk the state. Scholars, activists, and donor agencies, and policymakers might just wish to create and fund organisations outside the state to perform the functions of the latter. But as various r esearch surveys show, in India at least the citizens show a strong preference for the state in matters ranging from social justice for the doubly disadvantaged to delivery of social goods.

Survey in India

An all-India survey conducted in 2007 reinforces this conviction.2 In the context of the delivery of social and economic goods, the respondents were given a choice between three options: direct government provision, cash transfers, and creation of opportunity for all. A vast majority seem to prefer that the government plays a direct role in providing these goods to the citizens. Of particular interest is the finding that citizens want the state to undertake responsibility for employment. With the advent of globalisation the nature of employment has undergone a radical change. A shift from employment from the public to the private sector as an e mployer, and the opening up of new sources of employment constitutes one the main features of globalising India. Yet on five of the seven criteria related to good

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employment: job security, healthcare, retirement benefits, respectability, and overall job satisfaction, the majority preferred government jobs. The preferred option is for government jobs for low wages to all, rather than high wages to a few. The main motive for preferring government jobs is security of job tenure. Almost 50% of the respondents desire that the government should invest in wage employment, as against 34% who preferred imparting of training and entrepreneurial skills for self-employment.

Across all classifications, the majority of the respondents are of the opinion that the government should provide jobs for the underprivileged – women, disabled and the weaker sections of society. Though there is no significant difference in government support for the underprivileged across respondents, the vast majority prefers reservations in government jobs and in educational institutions, 17% favour cash transfers, and 21% opportunities for all. Reservations for scheduled castes (STs) and scheduled tribes (STs) have the backing of all sections of the respondents, because this plays a positive role in motivating people to raise their standard of life.

Ninety per cent of our respondents felt that the government should provide low cost education compared to private and missionary schools. This response is across categories: large towns, small towns, and villages. The main incentives are the midday meals to schoolchildren provided by government schools, because these schools are recognised, because they are easily accessible, and because they provide education in the mother tongue. However, when it came to which institutions are best for their child’s future, a majority of the high income group that is 77%, 60% of the medium income group and 50% of the low income group, across locations, think that private or missionary schools compare much better to government schools. If money was not a consideration, respondents prefer sending their children to private schools as these provide higher quality of education, better sports facilities, and more qualified teachers. At the same time it was felt that it is the responsibility of the government to provide quality education, subsidise education,

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regulate fees, or give cash transfers to private households. These households can then choose which school to spend the cash voucher on. However, the government is held responsible for the provision of, or regulation of primary education.

The government has an extensive system of public health system in rural and in urban areas, and aims to provide adequate healthcare for all. Various health schemes and programmes targeted at specific beneficiaries such as pulse polio, and medication for tuberculosis have been launched from time to time. Yet many respondents prefer to go to private medical practitioners. The reasons for this preference range from the substandard quality of health provided at public health centres, the p aper work required to get free treatment, inconvenient timings, and un-accessible location of these centres. A higher proportion among the low income groups, largely the SCs, and rural populations go to government health facilities for longterm illness, because they are not able to afford private health clinics. In the rural areas private health facilities are not available, and for low income groups these facilities are not affordable. The data indicates a discernable shift from public to private health facilities for medium and high income groups.

Yet leaving healthcare to the private providers is not what most respondents’ desire. When asked to choose between different possible roles that the government can play, direct provision or partial provision by the government accounts for almost a third of the respondents. One in every 10 respondents wants the government to regulate and subsidise health services, and feels that it is the responsibility of the government to do so. The respondents who belonged to poorer households strongly desire that the government should play a direct role in the provision of health, while the richer respondents opine that the government could partially charge for this service.

Our data shows that most of the respondents from lower income groups and the SCs and STs desire that the government provides housing and shelter to all in accordance with the national agenda of “Housing for All” and the Indira Awas Y ojana. The findings of the survey further

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establish that respondents do not feel that utilities should be privatised, or that specific sub tasks, such as fixing water meters should be outsourced to private agencies in order to ensure greater efficiency. Across sections of the respondents, there seems to be a general preference for direct government provision of these f acilities, with even the higher income groups less in favour of privatisation of water supply and electricity.

Clearly, political expectations that it is the responsibility of the government to provide for basic needs, is much stronger than the expectation that the government should institutionalise a system that would allow people to meet their needs, such as providing a legal framework for market transactions. The irony is manifest. Despite the poor performance of the Indian state in the social sector, despite the fact that scholars and activists have been disillusioned by the non-performance of the state, across the board, citizens continue to have high expectations of the state.

Conclusions

This is not to say that civil society does not matter. Citizen activism, public vigilance, informed public opinion, a free media, and a multiplicity of social associations, are a vital precondition for democracy. It is only a vibrant civil society that can prevent the political elite from lapsing on its commitments and responsibilities. Quentin Skinner (1992: 22) writes,

We have no realistic prospect of taking direct control of the political process in any large-scale contemporary state. [But]…there are many areas of public life, short of directly controlling the actions of the executive, where greater public participation might serve to improve the accountability of our soidisant representatives, if only by pressurising them into taking greater account of the actual beliefs and aspirations of a majority of the citizens.

Yet what ever be the virtues of civil society, and these are many, we should keep in mind that civil society provides but the political and the politicised context for political society. The line between civil and political society is fuzzy, and more conceptual than real, but whereas agents in political society are organised to take over political power, agents in civil society are organised to provide informed and

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critical political perspectives on the manner in which this power is exercised.

Civil society is a companion concept/set of practices of political society. Therefore, the links between civil society actors and representatives need to be strengthened, and the domains of civil and political society have to be seen not as alternatives to each other but as prerequisites for each other. For this civil society should understand its own place in collective life, that of a vigilant caretaker, that of a monitor, and that of an initiator of policy. The responsibility for making and implementing policy remains with the state. This is what the people of India seem to desire, and in democracies, the wishes of the people should count.

Notes

1 In 1967 Myron Weiner exploring the reasons for the success of the Congress, suggested that the reason why the party could maintain its hegemony was that it could find a place for all. It could, for instance, incorporate those who were dedicated to social service and who were moved by an egalitarian spirit. “The spirit of self-sacrifice and self-abnegation” he wrote, “which had a long honourable tradition in Hinduism and which was reformulated by Gandhi has a place in the local Congress Party”. But it could also provide a place for those who wanted status and power, for people who had specific grievances and demands, for those people who were looking for conviviality, and for those who were committed to national integration, economic development, secularism, and representative government.

2 The survey was conducted by Indicus for a Ford funded project titled “Globalisation and the State in India” that Pratap B Mehta and I directed between 2004 and 2007. The objective of the project is to evaluate state capacity during the period of globalisation. The findings have been written up. The all-India survey administered a questionnaire to 7,500 citizens across 14 districts in 13 states, both rural and urban, with at least 55 responses per district. Though the focus of the survey was on the underprivileged, all segments of the population were surveyed in order to glean a comparative perspective. Male respondent formed 70% of those surveyed, the other backward classes constituted 28.42%, and scheduled castes 27.38% of those who were surveyed. The country was divided into four zones, and four districts were randomly chosen from the southern and the northern regions, and three each from east and west. Each district was broken up into three parts: large urban centre, small-urban centre, and rural. In a particular district one large town, one small town, and about 12 to 14 villages were chosen across four blocks. Within each cluster, in rural and urban areas, every 10th household was chosen for the survey. To investigate whether perceptions differ because of residence in a metropolis, or a small town or village, different types of places of residence were also taken into account in the sampling, and the selection process. The sampling included all types of regions: large urban, semi-rural/semi-urban and rural. This

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ensured the spread of respondents within the rural and the urban areas. I wish to express my gratitude to Ford Foundation and to Bishnu Mohapatra for support for the project.

References

Burnham, Walter Dean (1970): Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics (New York: Norton), pp 176-79.

Franco, Jean (1989): “The Nation as Imagined Community” in H Aram Veeser (ed.), The New Historicism (New York: Routledge), pp 204-12,

Gouldner, Alvin (1980): “Civil Society in Capitalism and Socialism” in The Two Marxisms: Contradictions and Anomalies in the Development of Theory (London: Macmillan).

Kothari, Rajni (1970): Politics in India (New Delhi: Orient Longman).

Nagel, Thomas (2005): “The Problem of Global Justice”, Philosophy and Pubic Affairs, Vol 33, pp 113-47.

Sheth, D L (2004): “Globalisation and New Politics of Micro-Movements”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 39, No 1, pp 45-58.

Sisson, Richard and Ramashray Roy (1990): “Introduction: The Congress and the Indian Party System” in Richard Sisson and Ramashray Roy (ed.), Changing Basis of Congress Support (Delhi: Sage), Vol 1, pp 1-33.

Skinner, Quentin (1992): “On Justice, the Common Good and the Priority of Liberty” in Chantal Mouffe (ed.), Dimensions of Radical Democracy: Pluralism, Citizenship, Community (London: Verso), pp 211-24.

Weiner, Myron (1967): Party Building in a New Nation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), pp 472-74.

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