NEW DLEHI, August 28, 2003. At a press conference, Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) leader Medha Patekar said that the NBA would support candidates of 'like-minded organisations' in assembly elections to be held in Madhya Pradesh (MP). By 'organisations' she meant the Samajwadi Jan Parishad and the Kranti Dal, both political parties with socialist leanings based in Madhya Pradesh. The purpose, she said, was to counter Chief Minister Digvijay Singh's "anti-Narmada people" agenda. Within a fortnight -- on September 14 at Damoh in MP-- the Ekta Parishad, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) with wide presence and reach in the state's tribal areas, declared that it would provide 'unconditional' support to Singh.
The move invites a question: what about the strategic distance that civil society groups have consistently maintained from State-based politics? Traditionally, organisations such as the NBA and the Ekta Parishad function as pressure groups. Their target is the structure of governance, irrespective of which political party is in power. In this way, organisations are able to constructively critique the 'system'. So arise two important further questions: what does this blurring of purposive boundaries between the public sphere and the State mean? Will taking sides during the forthcoming elections erode that core value of civil society, namely its ability to act as credible critic?
Elections provide the perfect opportunity to galvanise public attention to issues. When NGOs support a political party, their agenda gets noticed; this way, it receives political/public legitimacy. Often, such a move forces political parties to move on local issues (be it forest or land rights, or decentralisation). But the fears are: what if the mainstream political process absorbs, or swallows up, the emancipatory intentions of civil society groups? What if political parties' willingness to share a platform for 'real change' turns out to be nothing but a way to co-opt the most vociferous and energetic among civil society groups?
Dante Alighieri in The Inferno said, "The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who tried to stay neutral in times of crisis." So, no need to be neutral. But if it goes wrong, will civil society groups not lose credibility? Will their desire to achieve positive change not be forever neutered?