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Democracy & Civil Society:DANGER OF MAJORITY TYRANNY?, by Dr. S. Saraswathi, 31 Aug, 2011 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 31 August 2011


Democracy & Civil Society


By Dr.   S.Saraswathi

(Former Director ICSSR)


Today, representative democracy in India and many new democracies elsewhere has reached a stage in which those outside the Government decision-making process find themselves in a helpless state.  Though conscious of their rights and earnest in exercising them, they find themselves non-participant observers of policies that concern them even intimately. 


Consequently, a sense of alienation pervades and those who are conscious of the situation are becoming restless about their helplessness before the Parliamentary majority and administrative stranglehold. 


Unable to leave their fate entirely in the hands of the ruling elite, they are struggling to raise their voice and make their presence visible. The outcome is seen in the emergence of citizens’ groups at various levels --- local, State, regional and national.


In the USA, voluntary associations known as the Civil Society Organisations (CSO), had grown to be so prominent a character of American life by early 19th century that Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of “Democracy in America” found this an amazing feature. 


He discovered that these intermediate institutions between the State and the people provided political stability. They brought together people with diverse background but with certain common interests to help themselves without depending on the Government for everything.


In India, where volunteerism is traditionally known in religious and philanthropic activities far before the emergence of the nation, a number of  CSOs --- better known as non-Governmental organisations (NGOs) --- have come up to make a vibrant third sector after the State, and the private sector albeit, the market. 


Significantly, the media is looked upon as part of the CSO. That this is a democratic movement is proved by the very fact that no CSO is allowed in totalitarian regimes. Recall, that people’s associations formed the nucleus of the country’s Freedom Movement and became effective organs to express the people’s will.


However, there seems to be a good deal of misunderstanding in recent days regarding CSOs and what it represents.  With reference to the movement against corruption led by Gandhian Anna Hazare, some even ridiculed the term “civil society” and claimed that everyone including those in the Government are part of the civil society and not uncivil.  Pertinently, civil society is a technical term in sociology and politics and has some specific attributes.    


Interestingly, the International Monetary Fund applies the term “civil society organisation” to the wide range of citizens’ associations in virtually all member countries “to provide benefits, services, and political influence to specific groups within society.”  The assumption here is that there exists   democratic, cooperative, and complementary relationship between the State and the CSO and not competition and conflict. 


Besides, civil society refers to the vast arena of voluntary collective action around shared interests, purposes, and values.  Its institutional forms are generally distinct from those of the family, market and the Government.  They generally comprise registered charitable organisations, community groups, professional organisations, trade unions, faith-based organisations, advocacy groups, and social movements and so on. 


This is not all. Enlightened and active civil society is an asset to any democratic State.  The civil society is in close touch with people at the grassroots and has an intimate knowledge of social reality.  It promotes freedom of thought and expression vital to a vibrant democracy.


However, in reality, there seems to be an embarrassing and constrained inter-action between representative Government with legal authority and the voluntary non-representative civil society organisations with people’s power.


It is argued in India that, the CSO is trying to act as superior to the elected Parliament and usurp the legislative power of the Parliament and hence undemocratic and even dangerous.


Clearly, this argument is unfounded as Parliament’s supreme law-making function is not questioned and no organisation can appropriate that power.  Indeed, governance is bigger than any Government and encompasses a much wider field. 


Arguably, while the Government functions within the Constitution, the Parliament, Executive, and the judiciary with  accessories like the bureaucracy, police, and the army, governance involves the more abstract field of inter-action between the Government and the governed, that is, between the State and Society. 


The CSOs facilitate this inter-action and act as brokers without commission between the State and the people and hence are an indispensable element in governance.  They can be of invaluable guide and aid in policy-making as they are directly in touch with the people at the grassroots and at all levels.


Sadly, Indian democracy faces a danger of  degenerating into what one may be tempted to describe as a tyranny of the majority where Parliamentary majority (many times made up with minority votes) turns blind and deaf to dissenting voices, however valid and significant and however loud they may be.


Simply because these voices are unable to convert themselves as Parliamentary majority in the prevailing present system. Also, partners in coalition Governments appear to have just a one-point programme of ensuring the continuance of the Government and safeguarding their place.


In this context, civil society organisations have an important role to stand up against authoritarian State as well as against avaricious private sector, and against parochial, communal, fanatic, and anti-national forces.  They have a responsibility in policy advocacy for the welfare of the whole society.


This involves participation in law-making.  Thus, the CSOs’ participation can provide valuable and relevant inputs and help bridge the gap between the Government and the people.  Needless to say, the Government should take advantage of this indigenous source rather than discouraging and positively scuttling its efforts. ----- INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)


















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