Does civil society activism fit in with electoral politics?

Many activists took part in the recent elections. Has their participation in electoral politics exposed civil society activism to state repression?

Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

Does civil society activism fit in with electoral politics?

"It is part of a larger struggle"

MEDHA PATKAR is founder member of the Narmada Bachao Andolan

This was the first time that a large number of activists jumped into the electoral fray. During their campaign, the activists raised issues pertaining to violations of rules and regulations. This is one reason the NarendraModi-led government is cornering them after the elections. This was inevitable and activists should not worry. The secular credentials of activists is another reason they have been targeted by the new government.

Elections are a key area where an activist can take a stand. Winning or losing should not be the criterion to access the impact of their participation in the recent elections. In fact, in the long run, such participation can lead to serious questions over the use of money power in elections and could prove to be a catalyst for electoral reform.

The government has backed its clampdown on NGOs with the allegation that they receive foreign funding. But all NGOs are not foreign-funded. The government has chosen to ignore the foreign funding received by NGOs affiliated to the RashtriyaSwayamsevakSangh (RSS).

Another allegation against activists and NGOs is that we are anti-development. Actually, we are against mindless development but we advocate reasonable options.

It is also pertinent to point out that it is not just activists who are being targeted. There are reports that the new government plans to overhaul the entire institutional setup of governance in the country.

The Planning Commission, which has non-political experts and provides suggestions to the government, might be scrapped soon.

So what should be the response of activists? Electoral politics is important but that should not be the only focus. We may not be in Parliament but should continue to play the role of a vigilant civil society opposition. We should be vigilant against anti-people policy or dilution of pro-people law like the Food Security and Land Acquisition Acts.

"Unhealthy affiliations"

RAJESH TANDON is president of the Society for Participatory Research in Asia

It was JaiprakashNarain’s (JP’s) Total Revolution Movement in the early 1970s that gave birth to the Emergency of 1975-77. When the experiment of the Janata Party government in Delhi after the Emergency began to unravel by 1978, many activists of the JP movement began to look for another route to realise their commitment to social transformation—the route of voluntary action by forming associations. The contemporary nomenclature of civil society (or its somewhat troubling alternative “non-state actors”) began to be used only in the 1990s.

When the Congress came back to power, the then prime minister (Late Indira Gandhi) established the Kudal Commission to investigate the collusion between Gandhian voluntary agencies and the Janata Party leaders during and after the Emergency. The harassment caused by the Kudal Commission over the next six years almost “destroyed” the excellent work of such organisations and activists.

Since then, several leaders of voluntary organisations at several points of time have attempted to participate in formal electoral politics. Examples of AWARE (Action for Welfare and Awakening in Rural Environment) in Andhra Pradesh and some individuals in early 1990s showed that the citizens of India generally do not support the electoral ambitions of leaders of civil society, especially when they contest Assembly or parliamentary elections as independents. In the 21st century some leaders of voluntary organisations joined mainstream political parties, contested elections and some times won, like MadhusudanMistry who won the parliamentary elections from Gujarat as a Congress party candidate.

The formation of the AamAadmi Party (AAP) in 2012 on a wave of anti-corruption movements of the previous decade became a significant shift in this scenario. The leadership and core group of AAP had worked in civil society organisations. The electoral “success” of the party in the Delhi Assembly elections in December 2013 triggered the process of expansion of AAP’selectoral ambitions in the parliamentary elections of 2014. In order to contest 432 parliamentary seats, AAP found many civil society activists, leaders of voluntary organisations and people’s movements as candidates.

The resounding defeat of AAP candidates has created a complex situation. In the eyes of those involved in electoral politics as full-time politicians and organised political parties, AAP as a political formation is seen as a “party of NGOs”. Such a perception has been reinforced by the fact that many activists and NGOs supportive of AAP candidates during the parliamentary elections also campaigned to defeat NarendraModi in Varanasi in particular and the BJP in general. For the victors of the parliamentary electoral contest, civil society activists, NGOs and their funders (especially foreign funders) have thus become part of the political opposition, to be dealt with politically as parties.

In my view, this has blurred the distinction between civil and political actions. It has consequently begun to catalyse, in the public perception, a new classification of pro-Congress and pro-BJP NGOs. Such affiliations with different political parties have started to divide the civil society organisations. For those who do not affiliate with one party or the other, the space for independent transformative civil actions is likely to get restricted in the coming period.

I feel these trends are not healthy for a strong, independent and vibrant civil society in India.

"The system feels the tremors"

DAYAMANI BARLA is an activist for indigenous people. She contested the 2014 national polls on an Aam Aadmi Party ticket from Khunti in Jharkhand

 We continue our activism with the same vigour we displayed before deciding to contest the elections. Our decision was in no way disassociated with the issues we advocate. Earlier we had been fighting the state machinery outside Parliament. We decided to take our fight to the Parliament. At present, most lawmakers are law breakers. The system lacks accountability. We are fighting to make the system accountable to the common people. Entering the electoral fray was a means to achieve this. After we participated in the elections, these lawmakers are frightened than ever before.

We may not have won, but we got a positive response from the people. The threatened political establishment has responded by victimising us. We are now hounded by the state. The recent IB report on NGOs is an example.

One should not think that only those activists who contested elections are confronted with challenges. The establishment is against all who speak for jal-jungle-zameen (water-forest-land). It is against environment, farmers and tribals. It is against anyone who opposes corporate interest.

For the first time, the elections reverberated with issues pertaining to the common man. These issues can no longer be ignored.

Sharad Chandra
"Social is political"

SHARAD CHANDRA BEHAR is former chief secretary, Madhya Pradesh

We often segregate civil society activists into those working in cultural, environmental and educational spheres. It is true that there is a logic to such labelling. But it also camouflages the highly political nature of social activism. It misleads people into thinking that social activists are non-political. Social activism is either directed against or has something to do with the state; the line between political and social activism is artificial.

But hardcore politicians have never been under any illusion. They have to constantly deal with social activists who claim their legitimacy from knowing the pulse of the people. Politicians have always resented this and challenged social activists by throwing down the gauntlet of election to them. Let me cite two examples.

While still working in the government, when I espoused the cause of the Narmada BachaoAndolan, the minister from the area asserted that people wanted expeditious construction of the dams and challenged MedhaPatkar and her associates to contest an election and prove that the majority of the people were against the dam. A few years ago, Chhattisgarh’s Legislative Assembly had a day-long debate on NGOs, people’s movements, social activists and civil society organisations. The criticism of NGOs was unanimous. Representatives of all parties questioned their legitimacy as voice of the people and many dared them to contest elections.

In the past, many leaders of social movements have expressed the desire to contest elections to achieve the larger goal of people’s empowerment. But consensus always eluded them and the need to stay away from elections continued to be the strategy of civil society movements.

Viewed from this perspective, social activists contesting the recent general elections is a significant development. It is being said that this may expose civil society activists to the wrath of the government. There are reasons to treat this observation with caution. First, ideological leanings and political persuasions of civil society activists, even when they are not openly and clearly articulated, are known to political players, irrespective of whether they contest elections. Astute politicians accept the so-called non-partisanship of social activists as long as it suits them. This game of hide and seek is likely to continue. Secondly, politicians have been challenging civil society to prove their mass base and legitimacy through elections. They now seem to be gleeful to have “called their bluff”. The dismal electoral performance of the activists can provide the politicians adequate justification for ignoring their demands and agitations in the future. In fact, the defeat of the activists can be seen as a weakening of the bargaining position of social movements.

A weak adversary that can be conveniently ignored need not be crushed. It also provides adequate justification for promoting and partnering with like-minded organisations.

This is not to rule out state repression of social movements. But such heavy handedness will not be because leaders of social movements entered electoral politics. The state will come down on the movements on the ruse that they are against the massive mandate for developmental agenda—conveniently ignoring the fact that this government has a mandate of only 31 per cent of the people.

The lesson for civil society then is to press for electoral reforms that can usher in true representative democracy and alternative politics.


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