India's Vocal Civil Society

 
 

First there was ‘liberalization,’ then it was ‘globalization.’ Now it’s the word ‘outsourcing’ that’s all the rage in India. But this time, it’s not just about economics.

Traditionally in democracies, it’s the opposition parties that lead the attacks against the government. But in India these days, opposition appears to have been outsourced to civil society and non-political individuals.

In the Arab world and the Middle East it’s understandable that in the absence of credible opposition parties or groups, activists are at the forefront of challenging established autocratic regimes. In India, of course, we have numerous opposition parties. But growing public frustration over corruption has prompted frustrated a civil society to take things into its own hands.

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In April this year, activist Anna Hazare, through his fast unto death over the issue of corruption, shook the government and forced it to include representatives of civil society on a committee formed to draft a comprehensive public law on the issue. No government in independent India has allowed NGOs and ‘self-help groups’ this kind of leverage – politicians are supposed to discuss, propose and draft bills for parliament. Non-governments groups are only supposed to be consulted as and when required.

But in the case of the anti-graft policy, it’s the non-political groups who have been in direct talks with the government, while the opposition parties have, unfortunately, not yet been approached for consultation.

More recently, in the first week of June, popular yoga instructor Baba Ramdev also threatened to launch a fast unto death over the issue of black money stashed abroad. Fearing a popular backlash, the initial government reaction was complete capitulation and appeasement. However, after the United Progressive Government (UPA) was reprimanded by elements of the Congress, the main party in the coalition, it responded with a midnight operation during which Baba was arrested, while thousands of people who had gathered were dispersed.

In the 1970s, when socialist leaders launched protests against corruption and inefficiency, they received the backing not only of small parties, but also various non-political groupings. And when former Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh launched a campaign against the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government in 1980s over a defence purchase scandal, he had overwhelming support from all sections of society. This is how it is meant to be – politicians taking the lead.

Corruption is, of course, a major issue again in India, and the current ruling alliance has seen some of the biggest scams in the country’s history come to light on its watch. This offers the main opposition Bhartiya Janata Party an extraordinary opportunity to reclaim power. The problem is that the public doesn’t really trust the BJP to lead a concerted campaign against the government.

The main reason is that the party has failed to act against its own leaders in a number of states mired in corruption scandals. Meanwhile, the party also lacks a dynamic leadership, a coherent ideology, and it remains deeply divided.

This opposition vacuum is behind the unprecedented response to Anna Hazare’s protest. The unrest it prompted completely overshadowed complaints by the official political opposition, and the BJP, Communists, socialists and others were left offering support from the outside, rather than leading the movement.

Emboldened by the success of April’s events, Baba Ramdev declared a programme of agitation against the government. For a week, the entire nation was hooked on the drama of his protest and subsequent arrest.

Ironically, one of the reasons the government gave for its crackdown on the yoga teacher’s campaign is that it was politically motivated and backed by rightist groups such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the BJP. Subsequent events to a great extent support this view. Meanwhile, the Left parties who were once at the forefront of mass movements are silent.

The problem with all this is that when the parliamentary opposition loses its moral authority, it can lead to chaos, something India has skirted dangerously close to since April. These civil movements challenge the authority of parliament and the wisdom of well-established institutions. The demands for an all-powerful ombudsman to monitor corruption simply reflect the lack of faith in India’s elected representatives.

Outsourcing may have helped bring India dramatic economic advances. It’s unlikely to do the same for the country’s politics. 

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