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Society and state

A multiplicity of civic associations of involved citizens is critical to the functioning of a modern state, both to support and contain it so that it serves and does not alienate its citizens, writes Rudolf C Heredia. The state must be under the command of society, and not the other way around

Most recent discussions on our ‘infotainment’ TV channels and Page 3-dominated newspapers, as elsewhere, about whether or not the great pageant of parliamentary elections in India testifies to the success of our democracy, seem to miss the point. They sound more like a commentary on the Indian Premier League’s 20-20 cricket jamboree than a debate on pertinent election issues. All this hype fails to confront the quintessential paradox of Indian democracy, namely that in spite of regular free and fair elections, of which we can justly be very proud, there is a growing disenchantment with politics and politicians. This is strong evidence that something is severely wrong in our democracy.

The crisis is precipitated by confusing procedure with substance, as the compulsions of our electoral politics do. We flatter ourselves about being the world’s largest democracy. Perhaps we are better than many but hardly the best we can be, if ‘We the people of India’ would but measure ourselves against the republican ideals and principles of the Constitution we gave ourselves. Credible electoral procedure is in the order of necessary means, the necessary precondition to democratic governance, which is in the order of ends, the defining purpose of a democracy. Means must never displace or dictate ends; if they do they betray and subvert the very reason for their use.

So where have we gone wrong? Why do vital questions remain unaddressed, while vacuous slogans like ‘India Shining’, ‘India Arising’, and ‘Jai Ho India’ become the electoral tricks of performing politicians? How can the state be democratised and strengthened? How do our people, the last and the least first, affirm their rights without neglecting their civic duties, as the high and mighty so often do? How do we promote their integrated welfare and interests without negating the common good and the greater good? An effective response to such questions requires that we address substantive issues affecting our people, not just electoral procedures. This is the great failure of our democracy, which is not in any way to negate its real successes. But this failure confronts us with an urgent and pressing collective task: building civil society so that we can impact our present electoral politics and make it a means to fulfil the many broken promises and betrayed hopes that once were the very substance of the democratic aspirations of our freedom struggle.

However, the old adage that the only remedy for a failing democracy is more democracy is still pertinent. But this does not distinguish the type of increased democracy that would be remedial. Rajni Kothari and others have characterised ours as plebiscitory democracy! The voters have a chance every five years in an election to “throw the rascals out”! But one set of rascals gets replaced by another, sometimes in the same election, because the voters have so few choices. This is very far from Ernest Renan’s ideal of a nation as “a daily plebiscite”. Direct democracy would be possible on only a limited local scale, not on a national one. Representative democracy gets too easily enmeshed in party concerns, which eventually displace citizens’ interests. Thus, votebanks and closed-door negotiations are hardly able to cope with real economic concerns or chauvinistic ethnocentric groups. Such political problems are particularly acute in the new democracies of the third world. But even in the more mature ones of the first world, there is increasing citizen alienation.

Civil society

Civil society is still a somewhat controversial term, precisely because of the ambiguities associated with it. Though it is differently defined by various theorists, “the minimal definition would include the idea of a non-state autonomous sphere; empowerment of citizens; trust-building associational life; interaction with rather than subordination to the state,” (Rudolph and Rudolph 2000: 1762). Thus the idea of free association within a legal framework is essential to the concept of ‘civil society’.

In the context of the modern state, civil society refers to all social groups and institutions located between the family and the state. Alexis de Tocqueville, in his pathbreaking study of democracy in America in the 19th century, argues that a multiplicity of civic associations of involved citizens is critical to the functioning of a modern state, both to support and contain it so that it serves and does not alienate its citizens. Such strongly organised non-state interest groups are capable of checking eventual abuses of power by those who control the means of administration and coercion, as also to facilitate a balanced pluralism among civil society interests so that none can establish absolute dominance.

Thus, civil society is the bulwark against abuse by centralised authority, whether democratic or dictatorial, the most effective protection against what Tocqueville called “the tyranny of the majority”, which goes by the euphemism ‘majoritarianism’ in our country. But more positively, civil society is the best guarantor and promoter of liberty, equality, fraternity, as substantive democratic values, protecting citizens from the state, from themselves, and from each other.

However, if civil society is located in the social space between kinship systems and political ones, it cannot but influence and be influenced by both sides -- patriarchy and caste on the one hand, feudalism and authoritarianism on the other. We need to be more critical of, and sensitised to, such regressive forces, distorted by class and caste, religion and region, and other such vested interests. Much political reform has crashed on the rock of an intransigent and regressive civic order. Thus, it is hardly possible to have a polity premised on universal suffrage and fundamental rights when this is countered by particularistic solidarities and obscurantist faith, caste hierarchy and patriarchal authoritarianism. So too will a corrupt and criminalised political system undermine and erode civil society.

If civil society is to be a positive condition for democratisation of the state, then its shadow side cannot be ignored. A reorientation here may be a necessary requirement. But the positive and negative in terms of the social norms and cultural values must be sorted through. For, civil society can be a tightly-knit network, a seamless robe that will not easily yield to incisive dissection, and, especially in traditional societies, even when these are changing, civil society there tends to fall back into the old stable equilibrium rather than find a new dynamic one.

Social capital

The attempt to focus on the more positive dynamic aspects of civil society has given rise to the concept of ‘social capital’. This represents more the perspective of the economists, just as ‘civil society’ did that of the political scientists on much the same phenomena. For, ‘social capital’ focuses on the positive aspects of sociability, placing them in a broader non-monetary context. Pierre Bourdieu defines it as the “aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalised relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition,” (Bourdieu 1985: 248).

Robert Putnam has a positive understanding of social capital as ‘civicness’. He defines this as “features of social organisation, such as networks, norms, trust, that facilitate action and cooperation for mutual benefit,” (Putnam 1993: 35). Essentially, it is a matter of investing trust in one another resulting in mutually beneficial returns. It is such social capital “primarily defined as interpersonal trust that makes it easier for people to do things together, get rid of freeriders and, for instance, agree on sanctions against non-performing governments,” (Tornquist, 1998: 109).

Alexjandro Portes puts together the present consensus thus: “Social capital stands for the ability of actors to secure benefits by virtue of membership in social networks or other structures,” (Portes 1998: 6). However, the sources of such social capital are ambiguous and admit of negative consequences for the economy. Thus, internalised norms can be seriously inhibiting, group solidarity can make for particularistic demands, social integration can stifle individuality, and community sanctions can become regressively oppressive. Such negative characteristics amount to negative social capital and correspond to the negative aspects of civil society.

Democratising democracy

There is an obvious parallel, even an overlap, between civil society and social capital. Civil society is the social infrastructure on which the political edifice must be built. Social capital, in stressing the non-monetary aspect of economic behaviour, can be similarly considered as those social assets that are crucial for a functioning economy, and more so for any kind of economic growth. But we still must ask how civil society can be effective in “democratising democracy” as urged by Anthony Giddens (1994). Also, how social capital can be best invested for ‘socialising’ the market by more constructively embedding it in society.  

A vibrant civil society, as explained earlier, provides the necessary wherewithal for a state to cope democratically with this dilemma, and adequate social capital is the essential infrastructural investment for both the polity and the economy. If to re-embed the economy in society is a sine qua non of humanising and socialising the market, then political intervention in civil society may be needed to eliminate all its “institutionalised inequality” and other forms of structural injustices, lest these compound rather than resolve issues of economic poverty and political marginalisation.

A civic state

The subtle mix of coercion and consent that underpins the hegemony of dominant elites does not negate possibilities for a counter-hegemony built up by concerned intellectuals on the critical commonsense of the masses. For, in the various contradictions inevitable in any society, there are the interstices in which such a counter-hegemony can be grounded. In many situations this will call for a reform, if not a revolution, of civil society, especially when there are such entrenched and resistant social institutions like caste, patriarchy, intransigent bureaucracies, authoritarian kinship structures, and political parties.

The basis for revolutionary change would be the older Indic civilisational order in which the state did not order society, rather it is the order of society that the state maintained. D L Sheth observes: “The state was under the command of the society and not the other way around. Indeed, several political orders survived and competed with one another in these societies, in the past.  But they were all subject to a larger civilisational order in which governance was not defined as a monopoly of the state,” (Sheth 1989: 625).

It is possible then, in this reformed indigenous model, to consider “the state not as an instrument of an ethnically defined nation, but a political entity functioning under the control of a civil society. It will be a state for and on the behalf of civil society: in brief a civil state and not a nation state,” (ibid: 626).

But this can be premised not on a narrow aggressive nationalism, but only on a broad inclusive patriotism, such as Gandhi and Tagore espoused. For both “in this ideology of patriotism rather than of nationalism, there was a built-in critique of nationalism and refusal to recognise the nation-state as the organising principle of the Indian civilisation and as the last word in the country’s political life,” (Nandy 1994:2).

This is a viable vision for which we must muster the social capital to build a new civil order for an authentic democratic politics and, in the bargain, eschew a chauvinist nationalistic one.

Procedure and substance

Democratic substance as summed up in the revolutionary shibboleth -- liberty, equality, fraternity -- demands another level of engagement if it is to be authentic and sustainable. This requires not just a rigorous assertion of civil rights as a protection for democratic ones, but even more so a faithful exercise of civic duties as the very basis for the credibility and viability of these rights. This is precisely what civil society is all about. There is deep wisdom in Gandhiji’s insistence that if we took care of our duties, rights would take care of themselves.

Clearly this goes beyond mere structural changes in the polity; they cut deeper to demand radical ones in civil society as well. Certainly, no genuinely generative politics can be sustained without an actively engaged civil society, with all that this implies. It is “the heart of liberal democracy and its indispensable condition,” (Randall and Theobald 1998: 263); in other words, to make our politics more responsive to our citizens. If celebrity electoral candidates were committed to the long haul that any constructive politics demands, building civil society would be a far more effective point of entry than media-grabbing short-lived electoral campaigns.

This is the substantive democracy that electoral procedures are meant to eventually reach, just as it is such substantive democratic values that effectively refine our electoral politics. There is a virtuous circle here, which has unfortunately turned into a vicious one, and now this must be reversed. Time will tell if we are moving towards this goal. If we don’t, history will judge us severely for having perverted and betrayed the legacy of our founding fathers and the freedom they struggled for.

(Rudolf C Heredia is a Research Fellow at the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi, and Editor of the Institute’s journal Social Action )


Bourdieu, Pierre, 1985, ‘The Forms of Capital’, in ed J G Richardson, Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, Greenwood, NY. pp 241-258

Giddens, Anthony, 1994, Beyond Left and Right: The Future Radical Politics, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK

Nandy, Ashis, 1994, The Illegitimacy of Nationalism, Oxford University Press, Delhi

Portes, Alexjandro, 1998, ‘Social Capital: Its Origins and Applications in Modern Sociology’, Annual Review of Sociology, eds, John Hagan and Karen S Cook, Vol 24, Annual Reviews, Palo Alto, California. pp 1-24

Putnam, Robert, 1993, Making Democracy Work: Civic Tradition in Modern Italy, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey

Rudolph, Suzanne Hoeber, 2000, ‘Civil Society and the Realm of Freedom’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 34, No 20. pp 1762-1769

Randall, Vicky, and Theobald, Robin, 1998, Political Changes and Underdevelopment: A Critical Introduction to Third World Politics, Macmillan, London

Toqueville, Alexis de, 1956, Democracy in America, Alfred Knopf, New York, 2 vols

Tornquist, 1998, ‘Making Democratisation Work: From Civil Society and Social Capital to Political Inclusion and Politicisation -- Theoretical Reflections on Concrete Cases in Indonesia, Kerala and the Philippines’, in Rudebeck, Lars, and Olle, Tornquist, eds, with Virgilio Rojas, Democratisation in the Third World: Concrete Cases in Comparative and Theoretical Perspective, Macmillan, London. pp 107-143

Infochange News & Features, November 2009