Out of the Comfort Zone

The time has come for India to inspire the world or be inspired by it, and to move out of its comfort zone of only engaging with the already converted

V Shruti Devi Delhi 

Much has been written academically over time, and discussed in the popular media of late, on the definition and nature of civil society. The phrase has been created, and thereafter been variously put to use. Situations might already have arisen, and are bound to arise, calling for legal definitions or understanding of the term ‘civil society’. These definitions have not been, and are not likely to be, universally applicable, but carry with them the weight of the circumstances and fora that generate them.

The broadest possible distinction seems to be that civil society is seen as ‘every entity that is not government though it might be regulated by the government’ (including individuals and groups from the private sector, non-profit sector, informal sector and so on.). From the point of view of the perceived role that such a civil society is expected to play (that of primarily ensuring additional checks and balances for all the wings of the State that might exist in a particular situation), I have the following reservations.

In the private sector, there is a disproportionate representation of ‘the People’. In the non-profit sector, the scope of outreach by organisations and groups is limited. The possible exception to this limitation is if the understanding of what constitutes the non-profit sector were to also include political parties. The stated identity of political parties, in terms of outreach, is by nature all-encompassing (even if within a specific geographical area).

In India, there are dozens of legally registered parties, many of which probably exist only on paper. However, there are a number of criteria set by the Election Commission, according to which these registered parties are entitled to be treated as recognised regional /national parties.

Political parties, in addition to their government-related roles of sending their elected representatives to legislative assemblies of states and to Parliament, are sometimes called upon to play roles outside of their direct ‘governmental’ capacities. This usually happens when an office-bearer of the government calls for an all-party meeting on an issue of current importance. This is an example of how parties play a direct role as civil society.

The Election Commission, which is a constitutional independent body, prescribes, regulates and monitors the functioning of political parties. (Other constituents of civil society are similarly regulated through existing legal mechanisms.) In India, political parties are free to frame their own party constitutions — provided that nothing in these constitutions goes against the unity and sovereignty of India or against the Indian Constitution. Parties are expected to adhere to their constitutions.

With changing times and globalisation, it is important for all political parties to fully realise the growing potential of the role of parties in global governance. There is an urgent requirement for global consultations for the planning of the world’s resources. It would not be inaccurate to say that the existing void is the cause of much of the imbalance and disparity among human beings worldwide.

It would not be productive to be deterred by arguments stating that there are corrupt individuals in political parties, or that parties do not have a unified stand on issues. This argument applies equally to the other actors that constitute civil society. A multi-pronged approach towards solving problems is always recommended. This calls for a zooming in on various aspects of a problem, an uninterrupted analysis of these aspects along with possible solutions, followed by a zooming out, as it were, and a cross-cutting view of the larger picture. The focus is to generate a discussion on how a systemic requirement of formally channelling the voices of political parties as civil society, could be addressed. 

At the international level, there are a number of treaties and conventions that envisage, within their framework, consultative processes such as periodic meetings and conferences. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) are instances of processes connected to rights of people and natural resources where civil society has, over the years, displayed widespread interest and participation. Governments have been active. Political parties have, so far, left eminently available spaces such as these deplorably unexplored.

International co-ordination amongst parties of different countries has, over the past decade, been restricted to the networking of like-minded parties: apparently meticulous and organised co-ordination by parties with stated Leftist ideologies; sporadic roles of leadership on specific issues such as universal nuclear disarmament by parties like the Congress; concerted efforts to fuel capitalist economies at various costs by parties that hold such priorities. In the absence of a neutral and formally recognised space for the global exchange of ideas across the ideological spectrum, the mechanics of such discourse is left to chance and arbitrariness.

The negatives of coalition politics need to be dealt with in the overall cleaning up of the system. The effort by clean politicians to combat corruption has been a long and arduous one

Much of the conflict related to resource-sharing on the planet, and the resulting violence and suffering that comes about due to a lack of deliberations, could be addressed at this level. It is perhaps time for political parties in India to take the lead and work towards creating the platforms that would fill this gap.

This void exists in India at the national, state and district levels. There are, today, spaces for civil society (NGO) participation in a number of committees and authorities that perform delegated functions of micro-policy formulation. This has been largely viewed by the development sector as a laudable achievement, and has evolved over years of struggle and successful lobbying. However, there are no corresponding spaces for political parties from the opposition on such bodies. There is usually ‘political appointment’ to such committees, and is intended to be for a person from the ruling party in order for the democratically elected government’s view to be reflected at these micro-policy levels. There should be, if not representation, at least an ensured protocol for consulting a spectrum of parties at the level of these
various committees.

The growing trend of coalition governments has the potential to be a highly evolved and efficient rendition of democracy. No doubt, coalition partners indulging in bargaining for ‘political favours’ in exchange for support is an undesirable element of coalition politics.

However, the answer does not lie in bemoaning the growing trend of coalition politics. The negatives of coalition politics that we observe today need to be dealt with in the process of the overall cleaning up of the system. The effort by clean politicians to combat corruption has been a long and arduous one. It is heartening to see that over the past year or more, citizens have woken up to this need. This has brought optimism and hope to the cause of clean politics.

In the meantime, it is important to seize the opportunity that coalition politics enables us, as a nation, to be a highly advanced democracy where the freedom of speech, technology, a vibrant civil society and creative genius enable policymakers to respond to multitudinous voices from everywhere. At the planetary scale, I would urge the Congress to forge a step ahead of its Jaipur Declaration: “The Indian National Congress bears the proud distinction of being one of the largest political parties of the world. We have an obligation to actively pursue party-to-party relations and engagement with other political parties across the globe that share a similar world-view, and we shall do so.”

The time has come for India to inspire the world or be inspired by it. It’s time to move out of its comfort zone of only engaging with the already converted.  

The writer is a lawyer and activist based in New Delhi.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2013