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Putting civil society in its place

Over the last 25 years, civil society has come to be seen as the counterpoint to non-performing governments, indifferent political parties, and hierarchical bureaucracies. But crucial issues related to democracy and livelihoods are the responsibility of the state, not civil society, writes Neera Chandhoke

The pace at which the concept of ‘civil society’, which was rediscovered and reinvented in the 1980s, came to take over political imaginations is indeed astonishing. The reasons for this development are fairly clear, in retrospect: 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 Keynesian, welfare, developmental or socialist -- 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 and come to rest in a state of profound inertia.

It was around this moment that the civil society argument was propelled to the centre of political imaginations, strategies, and energies. Forged initially in the context of Stalinist states in Eastern Europe, the argument promised no great ruptural breaks in the lives of people. What it did suggest was that a limited and accountable state, 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 socialist societies, the concept of civil society attracted considerable attention, as well as a fair amount of enthusiasm, among democratic theorists and activists. In policy circles it came to be widely felt that civil society agents, particularly the non-governmental sector, could deliver social goods, empower citizens, safeguard human rights, and raise issues of public concern better than traditional agents of political society such as the political party, and the state. Consequently, the non-governmental sector was encouraged by multilateral agencies, governments, and donor organisations to play a large role in collective life. The state, in the process, was pluralised, sharing functions that had traditionally fallen within its jurisdiction with a host of agents. 

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. By the late-1970s, however, the party came to be characterised by atrophy and lost touch with its constituency. Members of the party were preoccupied more with accessing the supreme leader, and less with representing their constituents. Notably, the decline of the Congress took place at precisely the time when popular expectations had risen dramatically. In the two decades following Independence, the Congress was considered legitimate by a majority of the people because it had led the freedom struggle against British colonialism. By the late-1960s, an entirely new generation had grown to maturity in post-Independence India, a generation that had no memory of the freedom struggle, a generation that measured the legitimacy of a party according to its skills in meeting popular aspirations. Moreover, the rhetoric of Nehruvian socialism and the idea of planning for development had generated a sense of entitlement. Driven by populist imagery and radical demagoguery, the people had come to expect that the state 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 fragile and shaky political channels, and took to violence. Theorists attributed this phenomenon to the disintegration of major political institutions. The Congress could no longer contain the explosion of political discontent through democratic means. By the early-1970s, political discontent had 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 to 1977. The Emergency not only suspended representative democracy, it pulverised civil liberties and froze political activism.

The paradox however is that though the Emergency suspended constitutional democracy, an entire range of social struggles outside the political sphere of party politics erupted to raise questions about 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. On the other hand, a number of 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 huge development projects that displace thousands of poor tribals and hill-dwellers, and against child labour, have mobilised in civil society.

India is not alone in this. Analysts of western societies were to make roughly the same complaint: unresponsiveness of the state, indifference of the bureaucracy, and pulverisation of the party system. In the US, theorists had complained for long that elections and political parties seemed to have become pawns of the political elite. In the 1960s, the ‘new left’, the ‘sit-ins’, the ‘direct action’ movements had already brought into question the efficacy of representative democracy. 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 citizens’ groups had come together in a space they called ‘civil society’, to demand democracy. Civil society accordingly came to be seen as the counterpoint to non-performing governments, indifferent political parties, and hierarchical bureaucracies. The burden placed on civil society was indeed immense. Moreover, expectations were completely out of proportion to the capacities of the sphere.

The civil society argument has now been around for more than 25 years. But the problems of the world remain as intractable as ever, even as the numbers of agents who seek to negotiate the ills of the human condition have expanded exponentially. Moreover, there seems to be no reason why crucial issues relating to democracy and livelihoods should not be resolved by the state. These are simply its responsibility. 

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, and reinstate the state to its rightful position? 

Perhaps, because the one question that confronts us at this juncture is: How much can the non-governmental sector achieve? What are the limits of civil society interventions?

Among other limits to civil society activism, in particular the social sector, the following appear most significant. Firstly, 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 to fund social sector programmes. Secondly, civil society agents can hardly implement schemes of redistributive justice that involve transferring resources from better to worse off sections of society. This particular job, which arguably is the essence of social equity, falls within the provenance of the state. Thirdly, the non-governmental sector cannot establish and strengthen institutions that will implement social policy. These tasks simply lie outside the pale of civil society activism. Civil society organisations can lobby for and mobilise people to demand the realisation of fundamental rights from the government. But, ultimately, the realisation of these rights depends largely on structures of governance, which seem to escape the control of civil society agents.

What exactly then is the mandate of civil society? For one, in democratic states, civil society is expected to keep watch on violations of democratic norms by the state, through citizen activism, the making and circulation of informed public opinion, a free media, and a multiplicity of social associations. Only a vibrant and watchful civil society can prevent the political elite from lapsing on its commitments and responsibilities. In 1790, the eminent Irish orator, wit, legal luminary, and member of the British parliament, John Curran (1750-1817) suggested that “the condition on which god hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance”. This is the historical mandate of civil society. However, the task of civil society does not end here. Given the plural nature of the sphere, it is almost certain that some organisations within civil society will carry within them the seeds of authoritarianism and a ‘will to power’. Democratic organisations in civil society, therefore, have to be Janus-faced, with one face turned towards the state, and the other turned inwards towards its own members.

There is a second dimension to the civil society project. It is here that people, who may well subscribe to different persuasions, occupy different niches in the economy and in society and who may well be unknown to each other, can ‘come together’ in a series of distinctive and overlapping projects. This is not to say that people do not ‘come together’ in a competitive electoral and an equally competitive market system. The logic of civil society, or so it is expected, runs in a direction that is qualitatively different to that of the market and the state. Compared to the power-driven state and the profit-driven market, the ethos that imbues civil society is that of sociability and solidarity. These properties of social relations are a necessary outcome of participation in shared projects: safeguarding the fundamental rights of citizens, keeping a watch on the state, protecting people against the exploitative market system, or simply encouraging discussion and debate among participants.

Two implications follow this brief depiction of what civil society in democratic polities ought to look like. We cannot assume, for one, that all civil society organisations will always be democratic. Undemocratic organisations, therefore, will have to be engaged with, countered, and even neutralised by groups committed to democracy. Civil society as the site of multiple projects, some of which will necessarily conflict, is a contested space. The realisation of the mandate of civil society, accordingly, demands intentional and determined political action, a fair degree of toleration here, some amount of intolerance there, a readiness to engage with others, and an extraordinary amount of political courage and will to battle both undemocratic states and undemocratic groups within the sphere. So, although we cannot assume that civil society will always be democratic, we presume that organisations are ready to do battle with undemocratic agents.

Two, the second dimension of civil society -- the willingness of people to engage with others in and through multiple projects -- is an essential condition for the realisation of the mandate of the sphere: that of vigilance. Or that unless people come together across religious, caste, and other ethnic divides, civil society can hardly keep watch on all manners of transgressions by all sorts of agents. Conversely, if civil society is not constituted as a space of sociability and solidarity by associational life, then organisations can prove to be fairly indifferent to the plight of some of its own members.


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 that can substitute the state in areas of service delivery and other fields. 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. They are in the business of upholding and defending democratic norms.

More significantly, we should not lose sight of what the state’s obligations to its citizens are. The state enacts, implements, and adjudicates policies in our name, and governs in our name. We, therefore, have the right to ask why we should accept unjust and arbitrary policies. 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. This is not to say that civil society does not matter. Yet, whatever be the virtues of civil society, civil society provides only the political and the politicised context for the state. The responsibility for making and implementing policy remains with the state. This is what we expect of the democratic state.

(Neera Chandhoke is Professor of Political Science and Director of Developing Countries Research Centre, University of Delhi. She has published widely on civil society, minority rights, and secularism)

Infochange News & Features, November 2009