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Civil Society and Political Society – A Contested Relationship?

Ellora Puri
The suitability of parliamentary democracy to the Indian polity has been a long debated subject by political thinkers and activists. After the recent parliamentary elections, especially after the nomination of defeated candidates as ministers and/or Rajya Sabha members, questions have again been raised about India's experience with democracy. Both political commentators and political activists consider political parties as the core of, what one scholar terms, the crisis of Indian representative democracy. The reassertion by the civil society is seen by a number of these commentators as the panacea for this crisis. The claim usually is that if civil society were stronger then these anomalies of the Indian democracy would not exist. Some go to the extent of positing the civil society as an alternative to political parties.

This debate touches on a question that is a topic of much discussion in both democratic theory and contemporary politics – the relationship between the civil society and what Partha Chatterjee terms as the political society. The former usually implies a space defined by associational and voluntaristic institutions, and is often seen in opposition to the state. The latter, on the other hand, includes political parties, interest groups, and political movements – basically those institutions that provide, or at least profess to provide, the medium to channelize political demands to the state. Predominance of political society is challenged by the advocates of civil society argument on account of the perceived lack of accountability of these parties and their un-representativeness, especially when people who are rejected by the electorate are accommodated in the state structures which are supposed to be representative.

This article broadly agrees with the critics of parliamentary democracy about the need to question the glaring defects in the present functioning of the party system, legitimacy of practices like providing ministerial berths and/or backdoor Rajya Sabha seats to the defeated candidates in the parliamentary elections, and the questions, routinization of such practices pose for issues of representation in Indian democracy. But it argues for conclusions different from the ones that these scholars draw. I posit that in spite of its messy, cluttered and disorganized working, representative democracy with its concomitant political parties is the most viable available alternative, and these examples are illustrative of faulty functioning (instead of symptoms) of this type of democracy and its institutions. Also, I argue, that to draw the conclusion that the civil society should be privileged over the political society because of these deviations, in reality, might subvert those very goals of the democratic polity that these scholars rightly thinks are desirable, viz., the will of the people, accountability and representativeness.

At the heart of argument for a crisis in representative democracy thesis is the Rousseauian ideal of an active engaged citizenry in a democracy without politics. In the Indian context this ideal has been articulated by influential figures like Gandhi (his concept of gram swaraj), M.N. Roy (his idea of people committees) and Jayaprakash Narayan (his propagation of peoples' democracy as an alternative to parliamentary democracy). This ideal comes along with a baggage – it conceives of a polity without conflict, factions and parties. It argues for the sovereignty of the people by virtue of which the people become a collective force and express their general will without the mediating instrument of a representative democracy. As profoundly democratic this ideal sounds, in practice it is deeply undemocratic.

The minimum conditions for the success of a polity that the Rousseauian ideal of democracy envisages would be: one, a small sized political community and two, a community which is homogenous in the way it articulates its interests and needs. These conditions, to say the least, are impossible in the present world, given the increasingly complex nature of modern societies and, to say the most, are dangerous for democracy if they are taken as goals to be aspired for. What they do not recognize is that communities, especially small in size, are characterized by face-to-face interactions, which are imbued with all kinds of meanings – meanings that get articulated differently by individuals who constitute these communities by virtue of how they are placed in the community. After all, like any other human collective a political community is a space of internal variation, contestation and power differentials. And this means that a collective general will is unattainable unless conformity is achieved by regimentation and oppressive measures, either by the majority mores or by the state; majoritarianism or totalitarianism.

This ideal, therefore, in reality ignores the "will of the people" because it requires imposition of the will of either a majority over a minority or of a few who dominate the state over the larger whole. Also it does not represent the voice of dissent, an essential of democracy, and as a general will is not accountable to anyone except an amorphous entity called the people. It, as a result, also compromises the other two aspects of the democratic ideal, besides the "will of the people," that the detractors of delegated democracy find attractive – representativeness and accountability.

It is in recognition of these pitfalls of the Rousseauian ideal that representative democracy seems to be a better and viable alternative. Here the relevant question perhaps is: why representative democracy should necessarily be a party democracy. Especially since the argument of the crisis of this form of democracy is based on the way political parties compromise the democratic ideal. Historical experiences with party-less democracy (or one-party democracy, which essentially is party-less as it does not allow for the element of choice essential for the real functioning of representative party democracy) like the former USSR, People's Republic of China, Basic Democracy in Pakistan or Guided Democracy in Indonesia show that such a system can easily lead to extension of a regimented coercive state power to the lowest levels of state structure and the most private spheres of citizens' life. Also in such a system representation of interests of the electorate would be ad-hoc and personality-driven. Further, one can easily see how accountability would be compromised – for example, if a legislator misuses his/her office, whom does the electorate hold responsible and approach for redressal in the absence of a party.

But why can't the civil society with its purported better-connectedness to the needs of the people be an alternative to the political society? After all, civil society associations provide similar benefits as political parties, for instance, an organized way of making demands from the state. And seemingly do not come with the baggage of partisanship attached to them. Since they are ostensibly closer to the people, such organizations understand peoples' interests better. Also in most cases, they are much better qualified and trained than politicians to articulate the interests, solve and respond to the various problems of the people. However, I would argue that responsiveness/effectiveness cannot be equated with representativeness, and proximity with accountability. Further, as most of the times such associations have goals and agendas of there own, they cannot claim to represent the will of the people.

Moreover it should be remembered that voluntaristic civil society networks are not by definition just Non Government Organizations, which are working for development goals of the society. These networks also include coercive, hierarchical and exclusive collective formations whose goals might be any of these – sectarian, ethnocentric and/or communal. Without the presence of an overall democratic framework such organizations can easily become instruments of coercion and oppression in the name of effectiveness, efficiency and a claim of having a better grasp of the problems of that inchoate entity – the people.

In this context, critics of Indian representative democracy rightly points out that the way political parties function in India – hierarchically and bureaucratically –reflects a deeper malaise in the democratic set-up in the country. However, what this calls for is a reform in the system so that these anomalies are dealt with and tempered. What it does not call for is an overall change in the relationship between the civil society and political society. The party system needs to be made more transparent, less hierarchical and therefore, more accountable. Knee-jerk reactions to criticisms that are directed towards parties (like anti-defection laws, which give sweeping powers to the party whip on every issue in the legislature) need to be substituted by well thought out provisions that provide corrective measures by not undermining democratic ethos of the system (in this example, the right of dissent). The balance to be struck is between party legislators' duty to their electorate, party ideology as well as their own conscience. And in the end, it is important to reiterate that the presence of a healthy, open, and effective civil society is premised on the existence of effective democratic political institutions, of which political parties are one of the main components.