April 7, 2020

It is time to revisit how civil society engages with politics

Where do civil society, government, and business draw their power from, and do we need to redefine our understanding of 'politics' and 'democracy'?

5 min read

We often equate the words ‘civil society’ with NGOs (an abbreviation for ‘non-governmental organisations’). But businesses, for example, are non-governmental organisations as well; we don’t, however, consider them as a part of civil society, and rightly so.

Therefore, rather than delineating civil society from business and government through nomenclature, we must use the purpose of their activities to distinguish them from one another, and more importantly, the source of their power.

Deriving power: Government, business, and civil society

I see three forms of power: position, people, and money. The government gets power from its position. It either grabs this position in non-democratic nations, or is given this position through elections. The world of business gets its power from money. The third kind of power is people’s power, which we might equate with civil society.

In some way, the government also derives power from the people. People elect governments, and it is continuous participation in the shaping of decisions that creates a good democracy—a government of the people, for the people, and by the people. However, once governments come into power, they often disconnect from the very people who elected them. As a result, people are unable to participate in determining what is done with that power. This is a major reason for the declining trust in politicians and democracy, and the faith people are now reposing in authoritarian leaders, in many countries around the world.

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Business also acquires power from the people, in some sense, by taking their money (once again excluding people from decision making thereafter). They may then choose to do ‘good things’—such as CSR—with the money; but without consulting the people. The situation is similar to the ongoing debate in the philanthropic world: why should philanthropists decide what people want?

Real people’s power comes from the respect they are given and their dignity. It comes with a sense of agency and from participation in decisions—when people remain engaged, and actually exercise their power, rather than giving it away to governments through elections or to businesses through market forces. This is where civil society enters, and it isn’t restricted to just nonprofits, which is all that we traditionally think of.

anti-CAA protest photo-political

Democracy isn’t only about elections, and politics isn’t only about political parties. | Photo courtesy: Pexels

The relation between civil society and politics

For many, politics is automatically equated with electoral politics. But that isn’t the only form of politics. Democracy isn’t only about elections, and politics isn’t only about political parties.

Civil society and politics both comprise a range of things, including people’s power. Which brings me to the larger point: if we are unhappy with India’s situation today, about things that are going awry, what should civil society’s response be?

To understand that, we need to understand the dynamics between civil society, government, and business. The work that civil society does is typically seen through the ‘development’ lens or the ‘advocacy’ lens, even though it’s not a binary as most people assume.

The most basic form of dignity is being able to look after your own needs, and being independent from anyone who gives you things you need but takes away your agency.

The biggest dilemma we face is that when we stand up for advocacy, we might be prevented from doing development work. But shouldn’t development organisations also work on advocacy? The challenge is that even the larger organisations, with plenty of money and visibility, need to be on the right side of the powers that be—government and business—in order to do their work. The government allows you the freedom to operate, and business gives you the money to do so.

I keep thinking of a conference in 1948, in Gandhiji’s Sevagram Ashram. Having secured the country its freedom, he called for a meeting, where he asked the Congress Party—which had formed independent India’s first government—to take a step back and review the role it needed to play going forward. Every person, every leader, every institution, in order to be effective, he said, must suit themselves to the context and the requirements of the hour. The Indian National Congress was an organisation that had fought for freedom through political and advocacy-based work. Now that the freedom struggle was over and the country was independent, he wanted the party to think about what kind of organisation it would be, going forward.

One thing was made clear at the conference: power needed to move back to the people—economically empowering villages, with women and Dalits standing up for themselves with dignity. And the most basic form of dignity is being able to look after your own needs, and being independent from anyone who gives you things you need but takes away your agency.

If we want people to have political power, they should be able to stand up for themselves, and the role of a political party that empowers people must be to enable people on the ground to get their economic freedoms, and build their agency, and not drain it away through elections.

It’s a similar situation with nonprofits and business—when nonprofits don’t need money from big businesses, they can stick to what they believe in. Otherwise, they may have to sometimes concede to what businesses want and think, even if they disagree.

We need to create a movement

Today, political legitimacy is seen to lie solely in elections. Unless the people have elected you, you cannot represent them. But the likes of Anna Hazare and Aruna Roy were not elected. That’s where real legitimacy lies, and that is what civil society in politics must be about. We need to create new political formations, rather than joining existing ones.

Instead of constantly debating the present realities, it’s time to create something new. But this is hard to do. Most people who are angry want the old to be given up, but don’t want (and don’t know how maybe) to create something new. Without the new, however, we run the risk of settling into established patterns. We therefore have to change the paradigm.

We need to create people’s organisations, where power is dispersed, and every participant has a sense of ownership.

Slowly, people are beginning to see this. There is a disillusionment with political parties and establishments all over the world—we don’t trust them. Instead, we are seeing more and more people turn to each other; we are beginning to see the rise of movements.

We need to create people’s organisations, where power is dispersed, and every participant has a sense of ownership. The essence of every organisation, every society, should be that people have a voice, because when there are hierarchies, you stop listening to the people below. And the larger you become as an organisation, and the more centralised decision-making is in large societies, the less the people at the bottom or on the periphery are free.

Know more

  • Learn more about civil society and policy-making through the case studies illustrated in this paper from the Centre for Democracy and Social Action and Oxfam India.
  • Read this article ‘Democracy and its discontents’ that unpacks the various layers of democracy.
  • Read the book ‘On The Political’ by political theorist Chantal Mouffe

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Arun Maira-Image
Arun Maira

Arun Maira worked with the Tata Group for 25 years, was the CEO of Innovation Associates in the USA, and was the chairperson of the Boston Consulting Group in India. He served as a member of the erstwhile Planning Commission of India from 2009 to 2014. Presently, he is the chairperson of HelpAge International. He has written several books, including Remaking India: One Country, One Destiny, and Shaping the Future: Aspirational Leadership in India and Beyond. His most recent book is Listening for Well-Being: Conversations with People Not Like Us.