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The politics of social transformation in India

Gandhiji, Vinoba Bhave and J P Narayan knew the importance of balancing political transformation with social transformation. Rajesh Tandon outlines the efforts of PRIA to get the people to be more than voters, more than beneficiaries and become citizens who participate in governance

During the freedom movement, Gandhiji would suddenly ask the political workers of the Congress to stop the political disobedience movement and dedicate themselves to ‘constructive’ social work in the villages for a year or so. Much of this ‘constructive’ social work was addressing problems of illiteracy, ill-health, lack of sanitation, etc. In this approach, direct political action against colonial rule and supportive social action with the poor were seen as two sides of the same coin -- transformation. 

After Independence, however, many Gandhians joined the government, while just a few (Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan notable among them) remained dedicated to ‘constructive’ social work in the community. Over the past six decades, the politics of social transformation has gradually become disconnected from the politics of governing the Indian state. 

This has resulted in a separation of political society from civil society -- the former is focused on ‘capturing’ and ‘running’ the state, while the latter is concerned with bringing about changes in society itself. 

When PRIA (Society for Participatory Research in Asia) began its work 30 years ago, I was quite surprised to note this distinction among the voluntary organisations. When PRIA championed the cause of authentic participation of citizens in determining their own affairs, it was implying that citizens have a role in governance. The people of India are not just voters (periodically electing representatives and then going to sleep); nor are they mere beneficiaries (for whose welfare distant bureaucrats plan one-size-fits-all programmes); they are citizens who have an ongoing right and responsibility to engage with the processes and structures of decision-making that affect the common public good in their localities -- governance per se

PRIA decided to engage with institutions of local governance (panchayats and municipalities) soon after the Constitution mandated them in 1993. We felt that citizens who had been consistently marginalised and excluded could now exercise legitimate political authority in these democratic institutions. PRIA experimented with a three-pronged strategy to make political authority more democratically accountable. 

First, we mobilised community groups and local community leaders to participate in PEVAC (Pre-Election Voters’ Awareness Campaigns) in 16 states of the country during the previous two rounds of elections, in 2000-02 and 2004-06. These campaigns were aimed at i) making citizens aware of their rights to elect their leaders in panchayats and municipalities, ii) enabling ‘good’ candidates from marginalised sections -- women, minorities, scheduled castes, scheduled tribes -- to file their nominations, iii) strengthening civic processes to focus electoral politics on issues of development and not on caste, religion and corruption. 

A coalition of nearly 300 civil society organisations was formed in each state, which received formal recognition from the state election commissions, and the media and others mobilised to carry out the campaigns. During the last round of local government elections in 12 states, more than 300 million voters were reached through such campaigns. 

The second approach focused on building the capacities of elected representatives to enable them to perform their new public roles effectively and accountably. PRIA partnered with state and national government agencies, as well as civil society organisations, to design and conduct initial orientations -- PRJA (Pratinidhi Jagrukta Abhiyan) -- of all elected representatives in the 12 states. In addition, PRIA piloted ongoing support of information, skills and connections to elected representatives (especially women and those from marginalised sections) through village- and block-level panchayat (and urban) resource centres (numbering nearly 200 and spread over 12 states). Later, these capacity-building approaches and models were incorporated into national policies and programmes. 

Third, PRIA focused its attention on enabling citizens to continue to interact with, and demand accountability from, elected representatives through regular mobilisation of gram sabhas (and mohalla samitis in municipalities). Such campaigns provided knowledge about the rights and responsibilities of citizens and political office-holders in a manner that enabled ongoing monitoring and systematic disclosure of information on various development programmes. 

Although numerous practical and policy gains have been achieved through this methodology over the past 15 years -- under the rubric of Governance Where People Matter -- we have also faced several challenges along the way. 

First we had to overcome our own cynicism about politics and political leaders in India; many of us felt that engaging with electoral politics would ‘dirty’ our hands. Once we did this, we had to convince other civil society groups to join in the effort by overcoming their hang-ups. 

Second, joining in with others was strategically important because engaging with political processes of this nature requires operating at scale. Even the smallest political parties have a presence in hundreds of constituencies. So, building and sustaining state-level coalitions and platforms was essential for this strategy to work. 

Third, we had to jealously guard against succumbing to political inducements. In these coalitions and platforms, strict codes of conduct were established and monitored so that no civil society actor was seen to be favouring any particular political party or political interest. Often, civil society activists themselves became candidates. We had to then ask them to disassociate themselves from these coalitions and platforms. 

Fourth, direct interactions with senior state- and district-level political party leaders had to be initiated before the campaigns began. It is important to keep the formal political parties and their leaders adequately informed about our purposes and activities so as not to be seen to be competing against their electoral interests. Such interactions also enabled us to appreciate their priorities and interests, which, in many ways, were not against our own purposes in these campaigns. 

Fifth, credibility in the eyes of the formal electoral and official machinery was an important factor in effective implementation of this strategy. PRIA’s track record, and that of its many partners, has been characterised by a serious, professional, unbiased and long-term approach to social transformation, which places citizens at the centre. Where such credibility was absent, this methodology of work suffered. 

Finally, there was the challenge of resources. Not only did PRIA need resources for its own teams, many of the small community-based groups had no access to funds to enable them to disseminate information and travel around in the block or municipality. Even printing of posters and handbills, or production of music cassettes and jingles for radio and television required funds. Government funds have been scarce for such activities (though we managed to access some from the ministries of rural development and panchayati raj, and some state governments); foreign funds are seen to be ‘anti-national’, and there are many legal restrictions to FCRA. Public or corporate donations for such interventions at the local government level are rare. 

Civil society interventions aimed at democratising democracy in India are still poorly resourced. 

What have we learnt? Civil society and political society, both, are essential for inclusive social transformation in India. Whenever they appreciate each other’s distinctive roles, complementary and synergistic outcomes follow. Where that is not the case, adversarial interactions have to be contended with. But as civil society actors, representation is not the basis of our legitimacy. Our values, our work, our commitment to the democratic transformation of our societies constitute the basis of our voice. 

(Rajesh Tandon is President, Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), New Delhi)

Infochange News & Features, November 2009