The Dangerous, Undemocratic Pretensions of "Civil Society"


The 1990s saw marketing whiz kids at the largest English daily in the world steal a term then in vogue among sexually discriminated minorities: PLUs ? or People Like Us. Media content would henceforth be for People Like Us. This served advertisers’ needs and also helped shut out unwanted content. As the daily advised its reporters: dying farmers don’t buy newspapers. South Mumbaikars do. So the suicide deaths of a couple of fashion models in that city grabbed more space in days than those of over 40,000 farmers in Maharashtra did in a decade.

February 2011 saw one of the largest rallies staged in Delhi in years. Hundreds of thousands of workers from nine central trade unions ? including the Congress party’s INTUC ? hit the streets to protest against rising food prices and unemployment. This was many times bigger than the very modest numbers at Anna Hazare’s fast, and larger than Ramdev’s rollicking ‘yoga camp.’ These were workers and unions not linked to the state. They were not market-driven. They were not corporate-funded. They were expressing clearly the interests and values of their members. In fact, they were fitting some classic definitions of ‘civil society.’ The rally was covered by the BBC, Reuters and AFP but was mostly invisible in mainstream Indian media except when attacked for creating traffic jams.

Perhaps the whizz kids were on to something larger than even they knew. At least one dictionary has since added this entry under People Like Us: “A subtle reference to people of the same socio-economic class.” Only, there was nothing subtle here. The Indian elite play the PLU game like few others do. Entry into the club is by birth or invitation only. Getting certification from the classes that matter takes some work. Your own background can be surmounted however, even turned to advantage, if there are enough strong PLUs around you. Anna Hazare had this. Baba Ramdev did not have it. Both claimed to speak for ‘civil society.’ Media applying that word with reverence to those around Anna Hazare, denied it with scorn to those they saw as Ramdev’s rabble.

Sections of the media embarrassed by Ramdev point, in contrast, to the ‘many fine people’ around Hazare. Most of them part of the Delhi elite with indeed impeccable records of service. Yet, how did their approach differ in principle from Ramdev’s?

Both were self-selected groups claiming primacy over the elected government. Both asserted they knew what was best for the nation. (Rather than an electorate they scorned as sold on a bottle of liquor or a hundred-rupee note). Both had no qualms about breaking down the walls between the institutions of state. Never mind the Constitution, they sought a body whose members they would largely appoint. A super organ above the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. Take the government notification on the drafting body for the Lokpal bill. It uses the words: “The five nominees of Anna Hazare [including himself] are as under?” When have such vital national appointments been made by and in the name of one individual, however noble?

Both felt they had the best solutions for fighting corruption, which is fair enough. Both, however, demanded that their fatwas be written into law. That their will prevail in the writing of the bill. That the Constitution assigns this right to the legislature mattered little. Both saw themselves as more representative of the nation than its people. In months, they would succeed where “in 62 years” the nation had failed.

Electoral democracy drew special contempt. In this, they were at one with the top tier of PLUs. “Who takes all that stuff seriously?” asked one celeb on a television panel discussion. It seems people do. Voting in Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu crossed 75 per cent in May 2011. In West Bengal and Puducherry, it edged towards 85 per cent. Tamil Nadu in May 2011 saw its highest turnout in 44 years. And voters there showed how vital the issue of corruption was to them. Money power has surely corrupted the electoral process severely. But does the electorate deserve the scorn poured on it by ‘civil society?’ If the latter has struck a chord at all, it is because of the deep concerns of the former.

So who do these versions of Indian ‘civil society’ represent? Do we take the World Bank’s definition? Civil society would then be: “a wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations that have a presence in public life”,  which express “the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations.” The European Commission states flatly that there is “no commonly accepted or legal definition” of the term. It also “does not make a distinction between civil society organizations or other forms of interest groups.”

The U.S.-based Civil Society International raises the question of whether the media should be included in ‘civil society.’ More so when they are privately-owned and hyper-commercial in character. It points out that some notions could render both the League of Women Voters and the Ku Klux Klan part of civil society. In India, the RSS is a large voluntary organization claiming to be cultural and non-political in character. Ergo, civil society?

Theory aside, civil society in India seems defined by exclusion. It is crowded with human rights lawyers and activists, NGO leaders, academics and intellectuals, high-profile journalists, celebrities and think tank-hirelings. Mass media debates never see landless labourers, displaced people, nurses, trade union workers, bus conductors being asked to speak for ‘civil society.’

Though, indeed they should.

Marketing minds would define civil society more clearly as a prime PLU platform. They’d be right, too. Who else do we see out there? The PLU syndrome goes way beyond the Lokpal bill. When Kaushik Basu, chief economic adviser to the Finance Ministry, called for a certain class of bribes to be legalized, ‘civil society’ simply shut its eyes and brain. The National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information ? a flag bearer of civil society ? maintained a studied, shameful silence. Professor Basu was not pushing this idea in his private blog. He put it up on a Government of India website. Yet, thundering anchors who ‘skewer’ politicians in television interviews uttered not a squeak. Had this insane idea come from a Ramdev, or even a Lalu Prasad, and not from a certified PLU member, imagine the fun the media would have had trashing it. As for the NCPRI, it might have begun a special desk to campaign on the issue. True, an individual associated with it did write a mild critique of the economics of Prof. Basu’s folly ? evading its moral degeneracy. But the NCPRI let itself down (and all those who support the RTI movement) with its craven silence.

The same media now trashing Ramdev came out snarling in his defense when he clashed with Brinda Karat in 2006. That was over the exploitation of 113 workers thrown out of the pharmacy controlled by Ramdev’s Trust and facing false cases. The media brushed that aside and slammed Ms Karat. In the PLU food chain, workers are a low form of pond life. (Oh yes, the PLU syndrome has a strong caste component, too. But that’s another story.)

Ramdev had carved out a base in sections of the elite. He also counts some media owners amongst his followers. Though not, perhaps the more anglicized anchors of television. He even has a following in Bollywood. He had attained the celebrity status so vital to gain any media attention at all. And had done so by using television itself for his ‘brand’ of yoga. But he overplayed his hand when the desired ‘A-level’ certification from the south Delhi elite was still pending. Otherwise, his claim to represent ‘civil society’ is no weaker than that of the group around Hazare. The ‘my-civil-society-is-more-civil-than-yours’ squabble has begun. Both groups have failed to pin down a corrupt, bungling government that made such a pig’s breakfast of the Ramlila event.

There is nothing wrong in having advisory groups. Not a thing wrong in governments consulting them and also listening to people, particularly those affected by its decisions. There is a problem when groups not constituted legally cross the line of demands, advice and rights-based, democratic agitation. When they seek to run the government and legislation ? no matter how well-intentioned they are. Pushing a coherent vision is a good thing to do. So is demanding that the government do its job. Beyond that lies trouble.

Meanwhile, a section of Platinum tier PLUs have become champions of the parliamentary democracy they actively helped undermine during the past two decades. They cheered loudly for giant economic and financial decisions taken outside the budget, bypassing Parliament. So long as the destruction of institutions favoured corporate power, they welcomed it, collaborating with corrupt governments such as this one wholeheartedly. The Ramdev route would have done much the same in time ? the Baba himself is a spiritual corporation. But he just wasn’t one of us. These new champions of parliamentary democracy have no qualms when the groups dictating terms to the government.

P. Sainath is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. He can be reached at: psainath@vsnl.com.


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P Sainath is the founder and editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India. He has been a rural reporter for decades and is the author of ‘Everybody Loves a Good Drought.’ You can contact the author here: @PSainath_org

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