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Monday, December 5, 2011

Partying with politics

Partying with politics
By Hiranmay Karlekar
The Pioneer
Saturday, July 2, 2011

'Civil society' representatives lack experience in dealing with
politicians, political parties and political systems and hence have
gone wrong in their basic approach.

The current confrontation between some political parties -- primarily
the Congress -- and a section of the 'civil society' (read those led
by Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev) -- has raised questions about the
roles of both. Both discharge important functions and, ideally,
should be complementary to each other. According to FG Bailey in
Stratagems and Spoils, a political system comprises a political
structure consisting of institutions of governance like the
legislature, executive and the judiciary, and the political
environment in which the political structure functions. The political
environment, again, comprises the values, morals, opinions,
practices, rituals embodying the cultural and social heritage of the
country. These in turn are perpetuated and articulated in a
multiplicity of fora by a number of entities including religious
bodies, social organisations like clubs, non-government
organisations, professional bodies, human rights organisations and
media, and define the moral and practical frontiers within which the
political structure must function. Many of these organisations as
well as tall eminences of the academia and professions like law,
medicine and so on, constitute the 'civil society'. The latter draws
its sanction from public opinion and the moral universe that defines

A political structure is, in the long run, shaped by the political
environment. It changes, violently and suddenly or peacefully and
gradually, in case of a sharp and irreconcilable dissonance between
the two. The 'civil society' and the political structure interact
creatively in a stable and vibrant democracy, in which political
parties are vitally important institutions of governance. They play a
critically important mediating role between the political structure,
through the institutional mechanisms of which they acquire and
exercise power, and the political environment, in which they operate
and from which they derive their power and mandate. A parliamentary
democracy is plunged into crisis if they degenerate to the level at
which they undermine the political structure or function in a manner
that is contrary to the spirit of the political environment. This
also happens when a political party, which does not believe in
democracy and wants to establish a dictatorship, manages to capture
power through election and pursues its destructive agenda. What the
Nazis did in Germany and the Fascists in Italy in the last century
remain classic examples of this.

Interaction between the 'civil society' and political parties is
often not smooth even in countries where both have been active for a
long time. The sometimes-violent protest against the Vietnam War in
the United States in the last century is a striking example of some
of the confrontations witnessed. Most often, however, the contention
is conducted through the judicial process. India's vibrant
parliamentary democracy is young and evolving; so is its 'civil
society'. While there has been a growing dialectic between the two,
neither has much understanding of the quotidian dynamics of the other
or expertise in negotiating with it. A favourite, and sometimes very
effective, weapon of the 'civil society' has been public interest
litigation which has halted in their tracks a number of land
acquisition bids, environmentally damaging industrial or
infrastructural projects, and led to the liberation of bonded and
child labourers.

While lawsuits can provide relief in specific cases with specific
goals, and can punish the guilty and provide relief to the victim in
individual instances of corruption, a campaign to eradicate the evil
from society and the political structure is an entirely different
matter. Requiring both legislative and administrative action, it
calls for strategic and tactical interaction both with the political
parties and the political environment. Unfortunately, the highly-
respected and eminent representatives of the 'civil society', who
have been conducting the dialogue with the Union Government on the
Lok Pal Bill, lack experience in dealing with politicians, political
parties and political systems and, hence, have gone wrong in their
basic approach from the very start. The result is failure to make
headway in the talks despite the fact that the country is seething in
anger against corruption at all levels, from that of the patwaris and
village officials to the highest corridors of power.

They should have recognised at the very beginning that a
confrontationist stance against the political structure as such was
bound to be counter-productive, and, faced with wholesale
condemnation, political parties and leaders could close ranks against
them, and that their venture would reach a dead end when this
happened. One can argue that they had no desire to be
confrontationist at the start and their posture became such, if at
all, because of intransigence and worse on the part of the Union
Government. Their failure to anticipate such an eventuality, if this,
indeed, has been the case, clearly reflects their lack of political
experience, particularly of the tactics of stalling and diversionary
moves that politicians and political parties employ.

The 'civil society' leaders perhaps hoped that the Union Government
would bend to their will because of the strong and widespread public
support they enjoyed. Unfortunately, public support, however massive,
does not automatically ensure victory against a recalcitrant
Government. The modern state wields enormous powers. To prevail in
the teeth of these, public support has to channelled into a powerful
organisation, with tentacles reaching out all over the country and
oriented toward prolonged struggle. It not only requires leaders who
are strategically and tactically sound and well versed in the methods
of mass mobilisation, but a cadre of activists who can gather and
hold support at the ground level and are strong and resilient enough
to stand up to prolonged repression.

The current movement against corruption does not have such an
organisation. Nor will it be easy for its leaders to build one. They
must, therefore, find a way of operating within the political
structure. It would be totally untrue to say that all political
parties and leaders are corrupt. There are many politicians who are
honest and well-intentioned. The 'civil society' leaders must reach
out to them and, through them, to their parties. Their chances of
being heard are strong because their campaign has highlighted
corruption as a central issue in the country's political discourse.
Simultaneously, they must try to build a countrywide mass
organisation through mobilisation over specific grievances that touch
the common people. In this, they need to follow the methods of one of
the greatest mass leaders the world has seen -- Mohandas Karamchand

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