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Who is a civil society member?

by André Béteille, 29 April 2011

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The Telegraph


An Opposition has great weight in a democratic institution

André Béteille

Who is a civil society member? This question, which has intrigued me for more than 20 years, came up again with the organization of the demonstrations in support of the lok pal bill in Delhi and other metropolitan cities. When I asked a friend who had been with the demonstrators at Jantar Mantar about the social composition of the gathering, he said that they were common people from every walk of life.

That is not how it appeared to me from what I saw on television. The people who were shown on camera again and again were common people in only a very special sense of the term. The vast majority of them appeared to be members of the educated middle class: well-dressed, well-spoken and on the whole well-behaved. Their body language was that of the Indian middle class. I have nothing against the middle class to which I myself belong, but I find it absurd to describe such persons, who comprise a small proportion of the total population, as the ‘common people of India’. I did not see on the TV cameras many people who looked and acted like stone breakers, construction workers and other wage labourers who live in the slums of Delhi and can be easily seen on the thoroughfares of the metropolis. The question that I naturally ask as a sociologist is: are those people not also civil society members?

This leads to a more disturbing question: am I myself a civil society member? I do not join demonstrations and rallies, and have never been seen on TV participating in any such event. So, have I missed the bus through sheer lethargy and inaction? Can one become a civil society member merely by meeting the obligations of citizenship, such as paying taxes, voting, and observing traffic rules, or does one have to do something extra? It makes me a little uneasy to think that I have to depend on the electronic media to find the answer to a crucial question about my own identity.

I am a university professor, and it should not be too difficult for someone to tell that I am one. Likewise, one can tell who is a doctor, a lawyer, a journalist, a clerk or a bus driver. It should not be too difficult even to tell who is a politician. A member of parliament or of a legislative assembly is a politician; a functionary of the Congress or the Communist Party of India is a politician; and a trade union leader is also likely to be one. Is there any kind of objective criterion, other than recognition by the media, which enables us to decide who is and who is not a member of civil society? Or is membership of civil society coterminous with membership of society as a whole so that anyone who declares himself a civil society member should be acknowledged as one?

It is unfortunate that successive governments have shown themselves to be both inept and disingenuous in their conduct over creating the office of the Lok Pal. It is equally unfortunate that rallies and demonstrations had to be organized in order to get the government to do what it should have done in any case and done some time ago. The government now says that it is a good thing that the people have come together, and raised their voice against corruption in public life. If that is so, what was the government doing all these years? And why did the Opposition not do anything but allow the initiative to pass from Parliament to the streets?

Government and Opposition may thunder against each other in public, but they are also complicit in many acts of omission and commission that undermine the legitimacy of Parliament. It is a truism that the successful operation of democracy is the responsibility of the Opposition as much as of the government. When government and Opposition fail repeatedly to do what they ought to do in the ordinary course, people lose their trust in the institutions of democracy such as the legislature, the executive, and the political parties. Then they come together and try to solve through their own efforts the many problems that remain unresolved.

It is on the whole a good thing that our political system allows room for the expression of public protests of the kind I am discussing. By all accounts, the protests held in Delhi, Calcutta, Bangalore and elsewhere were orderly and peaceful. But there really is no guarantee that all agitations, demonstrations and rallies will be peaceful simply because their organizers speak in the name of civil society. The term ‘civil society’ is so vague and ambiguous as to allow virtually any group with any kind of political agenda to appropriate it and to tell the public that it is speaking on its behalf.

The gatherings at Jantar Mantar created something of the atmosphere of a carnival, or so it appeared on TV. Some young persons who had taken part in the gathering said that it reminded them of Tahrir Square in Cairo, and that made my heart sink a little. There is a vast difference between the political orders in Egypt and in India. In India we have had for 60 years an institutional mechanism for the articulation of dissent and opposition that very few countries outside West Europe and North America have had.

I cannot emphasize too strongly the importance of having the Opposition as an institution of parliamentary democracy. Opposition to the authorities exists in all political regimes, but in many, if not most of them, it is either suppressed or driven underground, from where it emerges from time to time in bursts of protest and violence. That is what happened in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere earlier this year. But it should not be like that in India where opposition is not only acknowledged as necessary and desirable, but also given an institutional form in Parliament and outside.

We may not like the present members of either the government or the Opposition in Parliament. But we know who they are and how they happen to be where they are. They are there as the elected representatives of the people who have voted for them to be in Parliament. They will be in Parliament for a term of five years, and then go back to their constituencies to face the music. But who are the people who gather together in public places, speak in the name of civil society, and then disperse? How will we hold them to account if we find out six months or a year later that some of them, or many of them, have acted in bad faith?

Our situation is quite different from the situation in Tunisia or Egypt or Libya. There the army is waiting in the background to pick up the pieces after the crowds have dispersed. If in India the army stays where it should, it is in no small measure due to the place that the institutions of democracy, both government and Opposition, have created for themselves in the public consciousness. We all agree that those institutions are very weak; our endeavour should be to reinforce and not undermine them.

The author is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, and National Research Professor