Radical civil society meets saintly politics
Anna Hazare and his adherents bring to mind civil society’s renaissance moment in post-Communist Eastern Europe.
In the context of totalitarian Communist politics — which was largely off-limits to the general public — civil society leaders like Kolakowaski had championed participation and freedom, starting with “depoliticisation of Socialism”.
Are we now witnessing Indian civil society’s inflection point?
Civil society, seventeenth century onwards, isn’t new — from Cicero’s simplistic notions to Burke’s “little platoons” of free people. But it has nearly always been in the realm of ‘alternate power’. In a sense, it has been about ‘we-the-people’ versus ‘you-the-state’.
But unlike Communist Europe, India has arguably been the grittiest of democracies. Therefore, this upheaval demands serious attention. Will it strengthen or weaken India’s overriding political identity of being a democracy? Is this a minor tide or do we have a mighty river changing its course?
You usually don’t need to be egregious to do something good — but appearing so may just make things easy. For that reason perhaps, civil society is raging to rid India of corruption, one of the country’s most pervasive malaises.
Civil society’s fanaticism in seeking a powerful anti-corruption law is not a new-fangled zeal. It is the result of several successful baby-steps taken earlier.
Anna Hazare’s Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jan Andolan or People’s Movement Against Corruption in Maharashtra and Aruna Roy’s Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan in Rajasthan are two prominent examples.
Economists Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen have cited both as “pioneering movements”. (See Dreze and Sen: India, Development and Participation, Oxford University Press 2002).
For some time now, “small platoons” of civil society have been sprouting like grass all over the country.
A national policy to empower people through self-help groups only hastened their growth. All this was coming to a head.
Anna Hazare’s plan looks consistent with Locke’s construct of civil society that rails against governments that it sees failing. Then, civil society seeks to seize “fiduciary power to make laws, execute them and award punishment”. (See RC Vermani’s Political Thought and Theory.)
Baba Ramdev’s failed insurrection brings to mind Morris-Jones’s famous coinage “idiom of saintly politics”, (Politics and Society in India, Allen and Unwin, 1963). Ramdev’s participation was however less about saintly politics and more about yoga power.
The big picture is this. After Mandal and mandir and Hindutva – all civil society constructs in their own right — we have Anna Hazare and the likes. They represent a new scale in which a new class of people are pushing for a new era of participative politics, having been bolstered by their earlier subaltern successes.
But civil society that doesn’t exercise self-restraint or recognise turfs may disturb India’s prized political equilibrium. On the other hand, a political class that ignores them can do so at their own peril.
As some theorists such as Will Kymilica have pointed out, civil society tends to lead to disruptions and fractured civil society tends to lead to “partisan approaches”. It could itself end up being antithetical to liberal values.
Civil society’s demerits are well known: they transgress subservience necessary for modern political decorum. It rails against Locke’s very social contract theory — the foundation of modern states — whereby people voluntarily transfer to a government their right of executing laws and judging their own case on their behalf.
Civil society has to be heard, heeded and respected, but they cannot be allowed to violate the social contract theory. Or else, we may have a Lokpal but little else.