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Profile

Mainstream political actors have never been comfortable with civil society

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With Anna Hazare determined to resume his fast for a Lokpal bill after the breakdown of negotiations between his team and the UPA government, the stage is set for a showdown. Can civil society emerge unscathed from the confrontation? More importantly, will Sonia's National Advisory Council survive the political onslaught on civil society activism? NAC member and noted activist Harsh Mander talks to TOI-Crest.


The agitation for an effective Lokpal bill has ended in bitter confrontation between the government and civil society. It's ironic because no other government has given so much space to civil society as the UPA. With the government in a belligerent mood, where does civil society activism go from here?
I feel that the events of the past four months have been interpreted in a way that has called into question a number of processes that are healthy and fundamental to the functioning of democracy. Non-violent demonstrations of dissent, which have traditionally used instruments like dharnas and fasts, are essential for democracy to flourish. Electoral politics is unable to bring to the fore on a consistent basis a large number of concerns that affect the disadvantaged. Our history of the past 60 years shows that many of the policy, legal and institutional changes that benefit people - like the Right to Information Act, the Integrated Rural Development Programme (for micro-finance ), the National Rural Health Mission - are the result of struggles and programmes by civil society. Of course, mainstream political actors have never been comfortable with civil society. But they have responded to us and it has led to many positive developments. Movements that seem to create chaos or lead to confrontation need not be something to worry about.

The recent controversy seems to have given civil society a bad name. Do you feel that you stand at the crossroads today?

In the last four months, we've heard a whole set of people saying that civil society assertion is undemocratic, that it is leading to problems. Everything we are doing now is coloured by questions about our legitimacy. Do people outside the system have the right to make demands and raise questions about public policy? I say, they do. It is up to the state to find ways of responding. As long as we are not picking up arms, the state must respond. We are very much at the crossroads today, but for different reasons. The recent controversy is a wake-up call for internal self-cleansing. It is time we did some self-reflection and self-criticism. If we are demanding transparency and honesty from the government, then we must look at our own functioning and our funding. This is a moment in history for us to reclaim and reinforce our legitimacy.

You said the state must respond to civil society. The government did respond to Anna Hazare and look where it's ended.

The government did not handle Team Anna appropriately. It should have welcomed their views, but it should have sought other views too. It should have called in political parties and people from across civil society. It made a mistake by allowing both sides, the government and Team Anna, to claim representation of the entire spectrum. The government doesn't represent the entire political class just as Team Anna doesn't represent the whole of civil society.

The bigger worry for you must be the fate of the National Advisory Council. It seems to have become a victim of the confrontation with questions being raised about its legitimacy.

Yes, we've been challenged in a very, very intense way. But most of the objections against us are coming from people who are unhappy with what we are proposing, like large spending on the right to food or a law to protect the minorities from mass violence. These people have ideological differences with our proposals. So they are questioning our right to make claims and demands on the government. The NAC is not a civil society institution. It is an official advisory group set up by the government to advise the prime minister. It has MPs, government officials, academics, an industrialist and a few people who can be called jholawalas or civil society activists. We have a legitimate and clear mandate to advise the government on all aspects of social policy and legislation with special focus on disadvantaged groups. The PM has an economic advisory council. No-one questions his right to appoint who he wants.

Perhaps the difference is that NAC members were chosen by Sonia Gandhi, not the PM....

Well, we are formally appointed by the PM. Mrs Gandhi may have proposed the names but she must have discussed them with him. The NAC has a high profile because Mrs Gandhi chairs it. What is illegitimate about that? If the government wants to give a profile to the Council by getting Mrs Gandhi to chair it, it's because it wants to flag the issues we deal with. But let me reiterate, the NAC is not a civil society group. It is an official advisory body.

There's been one casualty in the NAC already. Jean Dreze has resigned. Is it a protest move?

Jean's official position is that he has not resigned in protest. He has resigned because at the very beginning he had said he will not be able to devote more than one year. But true, at some level, there is frustration when the government does not agree with our proposals. At the same time, it is reassuring that the government at least asked us to give our advice. The government is free to accept or reject what we say. On many occasions, it has disagreed with us. This only reinforces what I said earlier about the NAC being an advisory body.

What will be the fate of three of your big ticket items - the food security bill, the communal violence bill and the land acquisition bill?

The jury is out on those bills. They are being negotiated within the government. We are not part of those negotiations. There has to be a middle path. If the NAC had not been around, there would have been no middle path.

Can the NAC emerge unscathed from all this controversy?

The NAC has been tarnished very effectively, but in my opinion inappropriately. It is my conviction that it has a role to play and it must play it. But the only way it can survive is to do its job well and more effectively.
arati. jerath@timesgroup. com

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