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