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Why Reclaiming Civil Space is Critical for Democratic Renewal

“Certain black-marketers, opposition parties and NGOs are conspiring to defame me and destabilise my government”—Prime Minister Narendra Modi on February 21, 2016
“We have launched a new initiative in solar renewable energy with support from governments of America, France and Bill Gate’s NGO” —Prime Minister Narendra Modi on February 22, 2016

In the last week of February, Indian Prime Minister Modi made two statements at two different functions which are somewhat contradictory. In the first public meeting, he criticised foreign funded NGOs who were opposing him. In the second, he acknowledged the contribution of a foreign NGO--Gates Foundation. This is indeed the complex and contradictory reality of civil society in India today. In certain ways, civic spaces have been increasing, what with the use of internet and social media. In certain other ways, civic spaces have been decreasing because alternatives to a singular monolithic economic order have been shrinking.

In a seminar on ‘Democratic Renewal and Civil Society’ in mid February, conversations revealed stories of similar contradictions. Speaking about the civic space in UK, Christina Schwabenland from the University of Bedfordshire described the sense of despair in society as government seemed to be helpless in the face of large corporate interests. The social contract between citizens and the state is fragmented now. There is a growing trend of nationalist English identity as a basis for public engagement.

Suhas Chakma, Director of Asian Centre of Human Rights, referred to the increasing power of private businesses on the policies of the Indian state during the recent era of rapid economic growth. He narrated how declining international assistance has weakened that segment of civil society which is engaged in social mobilisation, human rights and democracy work in India. However, social activism by media and business supported political parties has increasingly occupied ‘shrill’ public space.

It appears that direct grassroots level work of civil society in sub-national spaces continues to enjoy support from state institutions. Local partnerships strengthen delivery of basic services, as well as accountability of public agencies. It is, therefore, important to celebrate and narrate such positive stories, to nurture continued hope in society.

Further conversations can focus on two sets of challenges in democratic renewal.

The first relates to declining tolerance for diversity and plurality of views and perspectives in everyday life. Democratic renewal in everyday life entails respect for differences, within a broad frame of shared humanity.

Second, persistent decline of public institutions—capacities, leadership and resources—has resulted in citizens’ apathy towards them. Foundations of democratic institutions—legislature, judiciary, police, administration—have weakened, resulting in their inability to navigate conflicting societal interests and tendencies. Democratic renewal of such public institutions requires civil society attention and support as well.

Therefore, reclaiming civic space is critical for democratic renewal. But it begs the question: reclaiming for what? Civil society actions primarily and exclusively focused on demanding accountability and questioning the legitimacy of government’s policies have generally attracted harassment and intimidation by the state, irrespective of political regimes and countries in the region. Yet, state institutions welcome certain practical partnerships with civil society in addressing pressing socio-economic problems of people. In such partnerships, the source of funding (foreign or domestic) becomes immaterial.

Mahatma Gandhi once described his strategy for improvements in the lives of people as having a judicious mix of struggle and re-construction. Prime Minister Modi’s political mentor, Atal Behari Vajpayee, also acknowledged the same 14 years ago: “I wish to underscore today that our country would have progressed faster and achieved more balanced development if we had enabled both the Panchayat sector and the Voluntary sector to play their due roles in national development... all those in political sphere must realise that democracy at the grassroots level cannot be strengthened without a tradition of public service and the spirit of voluntarism… It is indeed a tribute to the voluntary sector (in India) that it has survived and thrived in spite of inadequate governmental encouragement and political support...” (Former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, April 20, 2002)

Perhaps it is time civil society in the region paid greater attention to Gandhi-ji and Atal-ji’s strategy.

In any case, relations between civil society and the state will remain contested, as was narrated nearly 30 years ago (“Government-NGO Relations: A Source of Life or A Kiss of Death”, PRIA).

Purposeful reclaiming of civic space, therefore, requires creative and contemporary approaches.

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