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Saturday, July 17, 2004

What is and what should be the nature of relationship between the civil society and state? This gnawing question has been troubling the students of political science for quite some time. It is only in the last decade, after the liberalization process was initiated, that the debate on the relationship between the state and civil society has come to occupy considerable space in the public discourse.

More recently, constitution of the National Advisory Council (NAC) by the union government of India with predominant presence of members from civil society has kicked off intense debate on the wisdom of the move. As a member of National Advisory Council, let me take this opportunity to address these reservations.

Given the fact that we live in a highly politically polarized environment, participation of independent civil society representatives in bodies like the NAC is bound to be contentious. Predictably therefore, the role of independent, non-partisan citizens in NAC invited considerable comment and speculation.

Lok Satta has been working for political and governance reforms with political parties across the spectrum. Of late, the political parties are showing a welcome awareness and urgency to address the growing crisis of governance. The many changes brought about unanimously during the life of the 13th Lok Sabha including political funding reform, tightening of anti-defection provisions, amending the residency requirement for Rajya Sabha elections and limiting the size of the council of ministers are a testimony to our nation’s political resilience and deepening of our democracy.

We need to remember that in a democracy government is a servant of the people, and it exists to fulfill the felt needs of the society. The government draws its legitimacy from the willing consent of the people. Similarly, political parties are integral to our democratic political process. We believe that all of us in civil society should constantly engage the government and political parties. This is particularly vital when our goal is not a change of players, but a real change in the rules of the game in order to build citizen-centered, accountable, just state and promote human dignity.

Politicians are not the only culprits for all the ills that are afflicting our democracy. In fact, all organs of state and all actors are involved in the decay of our state. However, while the politician is not guilty of all that is wrong, the responsibility to initiate changes and improve things still rests with the political process.

There is an even more important philosophical reason in support of working with the executive and political parties. In a democracy the citizen is sovereign and elected representatives and the bureaucracy are there only to serve their masters, the citizens. If the relationship between the citizen and the politician is that of a master and servant, how can the master refuse to work with the servant? Therefore, while there is unavoidable tension between the establishment and reform advocate, there should also be creative engagement to make progress possible.

If the government of the day seeks consultation and advice, it becomes the duty to interact with it. “Civil Society” does not necessarily mean that we should always be in an adversarial position with reference to the state and its apparatus.

The terms of NAC are broad and flexible and the National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP) adopted by the UPA government, among other things talks about improving the quality of education and healthcare, decentralization of power, rural and agricultural development and political and administrative reforms. We strongly believe that all these are integrally linked. Electoral reforms, empowered local governments, speedy and efficient justice and instruments of accountability are at the heart of such a reform process which restores dignity to the citizen, ensures justice and promotes opportunities for vertical mobility.

In a democracy, every election is a mandate for change and political parties and elected governments are the vehicles for change.  It is the duty of every concerned citizen to work with governments and all parties to make positive change possible and to deepen democracy.  In this quest, the government and parties need to be supported and strengthened, not reviled and shunned.

We are optimistic that the political system will respond to people’s urges, and transcend party differences and act unanimously to improve the quality of governance, and build a corruption-free India helping every child fulfill her potential and prevent all avoidable suffering.

I believe that the members of the NAC will act with profound respect for the elected Parliament and Council of Ministers, and will do everything to uphold the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Civil Society can utilize this opportunity to initiate reforms aimed at deepening democracy and promoting citizen-centered governance and ensure that NAC act as a catalyst in identifying and implementing many practical, sensible, acceptable, and effective solutions to resolve the crisis affecting our polity and society.

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