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Of Legitimacy and Flash Mobs

Sumir Lal's picture

For those of us committed to democracy and interested in matters of governance and citizen accountability, the theatrics in India involving the anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare pose a neat little dilemma. For, we love freely-elected governments and positively swoon over articulate civil society advocates, and here we have a situation where the two are in a head-on collision. So who’s the good guy? Whose side should we be on?

Hazare is pushing an anti-corruption bill that would give immense (possibly corruption-inducing and governance-disrupting) powers to an unelected ombudsman. The government is countering with a version that would keep key functionaries out of the ombudsman’s purview, arguably defeating the very purpose. Take your pick.

While that battle can only be won and lost on India’s streets and airwaves and is not ours to opine on, there is a point of principle to debate. This goes beyond the institutional argument that is dominating the discourse in India right now – of whether public opinion as represented by Hazare should prevail over the authority of India’s parliament. The point is more universal: when does civil society’s legitimacy supersede that of elected government?

It is easier to answer that from a democratic government’s point of view: it has the legality and weight of its country’s constitution and history, and, crucially, the virtue of being composed of elected members representing all sections of the country who are accountable to their voters. This formal legitimacy, though, is always undermined in the public eye by the attenuated credibility of the professional politician.

What of civil society?  The legitimacy of civil society has to be judged, in my view, along three parameters – authenticity, representativeness, and sustainability.

For me, authentic civil society is that which emerges indigenously, remains organically embedded in the society, and is not dependent for funding on government, corporate sector or foreign donor.

Representativeness must be measured against scale of ambition. It is fairly straightforward to establish representation on behalf of a sectional interest in the advocacy of a specific matter; it is of a different order altogether to claim representativeness superseding that of an elected national parliament. But there are moments in the histories of nations when that has happened.

Finally, is the cause a sustained one? Are the supporters going to remain mobilized and committed, or will they melt away once the excitement is over? That is a test of time.

If civil society is able to establish its credentials on all three counts, and then collides with government on an issue that galvanizes the public, that is a moment when its legitimacy can, in the public eye, override that of the formal constitutional order. That’s when we know who the good guy is. (On the India case, I will just say that so far Hazare has established himself for certain only on the first count.)

That throws open another question: if a civil society movement is legitimately to overthrow or force a compromise out of an elected government, then who in turn is to hold it subsequently accountable? Thanks to the development of ICTs and social media, we can hazard an answer – pay it back in its own coin. That is perhaps our new path of political evolution. Today’s formal constitutional checks and balances – an outcome of European historical development – look like they are giving way to a global culture of sporadic but intense flash mob vigilance. This can have its moments of glory but may not necessarily always be a good thing.

Photo Credit: Flickr user vm2827

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Submitted by Dr.Rampelli Satyanarayana on
In India it is a power society, the power nature is to perpetuvate, an absoute power is always absolutely perpetuvating. The tradition of goverence is always appears to be good, it is other wise expressed as " everybody in this country are good but the problem that the chicken was stolen. Who has stolen the chiken is the first problem, then who to rehabilitate him is the second problem. Anna made gandhian life into a reality in the globalising era. we are all with him Dr.Ramplelli satyanarayana

Submitted by Rezwan Alam on
Dear Sumir, Many thanks for raising a number of important issues in this write-up. It looks like Indian people have extended their one arm to civil society and the other arm to the government. This split-mentality of the people is a South Asia hallmark from which my country, Bangladesh, is also not immuned.The relationship between the csos and the government follows a typical cyclic framework which I labelled in my research as: collaboration-opposition-collaboration. The current phase falls in the opposition cycle and may produce a result in the form of mid-term election. If that happenns or not, the cycle of collaboration will return and will stay for lonnger period.So, we have little to cheer about Hazare movement. In the long run, it will strenthen the system of malgovernance.

Submitted by Anupama Dokeniya on
Hi Sumir, Thanks for articulating this - so right on the mark on the dilemma of this situation. Quite clearly, as you say, very debatable whether popular, impassioned mass protests are the right, or 'legitimate' mechanism for legal and institutional change in a (relatively) effective democracy. So, while the legitimacy of this mechanism for institutional change is suspect, I would argue that the legitimacy of the movement itself - or the groups leading it - is not. Civil society groups could hardly ever conceivably claim the same degree of representativeness that naturally characterizes democratically-elected governments, and 'authenticity' and 'sustainability' are obviously, always in tension. Anna and others have undoubtedly given a powerful voice to the deep-seated and popular anger about the inequities and frustrations that the new India is creating. One hopes this powerful forum can become a platform for more broad-based antidotes to corruption, and not only focused on a single-point Lokpal Bill.

Submitted by Vanessa Andris on
Thank you for your very educational blog about the Hazare movement. You point out some concerns that I have not seen raised anywhere else- and so I confess, I have been among the "enamored." I am also now listening to journalist on TV relentlessly asking what the rebels will do as soon as this liberation is complete in Libya. Can they govern? What factions will have control etc? Obviously these are critical questions. But what pains me is that asking this so persistently now overshadows the fact that this overthough is in itself a monumental achievement, an implicit change in civil society, and a building of capacity - lead by youth; the least trained, least experienced, most frustrated segment of society. I see (I think) the same heroism in India. At least a huge statement that corruption is no longer acceptable. A very positive, significant change. So the question I ask myself and fellow bloggers is, how do we support the huge progress of people finally speaking up and fortify that, while also highlighting a proportion that encourages rather than discourages healthy development? It takes me back to when my kids were younger- how do we support the courage and initiative of kids learning to ride a bike...when we can see that they may in fact be headed into a dangerous traffic pattern? Know what I mean?

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