The Rise of Civil Society

India Table of Contents

Political participation in India has been transformed in many ways since the 1960s. New social groups have entered the political arena and begun to use their political resources to shape the political process. Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, previously excluded from politics because of their position at the bottom of India's social hierarchy, have begun to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by India's democracy. Women and environmentalists constitute new political categories that transcend traditional distinctions. The spread of social movements and voluntary organizations has shown that despite the difficulties of India's political parties and state institutions, India's democratic tendency continues to thrive.

An important aspect of the rise of civil society is the proliferation of voluntary or nongovernmental organizations. Estimates of their number ranged from 50,000 to 100,000 in 1993. To some extent, the rise of voluntary organizations has been sponsored by the Indian state. For instance, the central government's Seventh Five-Year Plan of fiscal years (FY--see Glossary) 1985-89 recognized the contributions of voluntary organizations in accelerating development and substantially increased their funding. A 1987 survey of 1,273 voluntary agencies reported that 47 percent received some form of funding from the central government. Voluntary organizations also have thrived on foreign donations, which in 1991-92 contributed more than US$400 million to some 15,000 organizations. Some nongovernmental organizations cooperate with the central government in a manner that augments its capacity to implement public policy, such as poverty alleviation, for example, in a decentralized manner. Other nongovernmental organizations also serve as watchdogs, attempting to pressure government agencies to uphold the spirit of the state's laws and implement policies in accord with their stated objectives. Nongovernmental organizations also endeavor to raise the political consciousness of various social groups, encouraging them to demand their rights and challenge social inequities. Finally, some social groups serve as innovators, experimenting with new approaches to solving social problems.

Beginning in the 1970s, activists began to form broad-based social movements, which proved powerful advocates for interests that they perceived as neglected by the state and political parties. Perhaps the most powerful has been the farmers' movement, which has organized hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in New Delhi and has pressured the government for higher prices on agricultural commodities and more investment in rural areas. Members of Scheduled Castes led by the Dalit Panthers have moved to rearticulate the identity of former Untouchables. Women from an array of diverse organizations now interact in conferences and exchange ideas in order to define and promote women's issues. Simultaneously, an environmental movement has developed that has attempted to compel the government to be more responsive to environmental concerns and has attempted to redefine the concept of "development" to include respect for indigenous cultures and environmental sustainability.

With its highly competitive elections, relatively independent judiciary, boisterous media, and thriving civil society, India continues to possess one of the most democratic political systems of all developing countries. Nevertheless, Indian democracy is under stress. Political power within the Indian state has become increasingly centralized at a time when India's civil society has become mobilized along lines that reflect the country's remarkable social diversity. The country's political parties, which might aggregate the country's diverse social interests in a way that would ensure the responsiveness of state authority, are in crisis. The Congress (I) has been in a state of decline, as reflected in the erosion of its traditional coalition of support and the implication of Congress (I) governments in a series of scandals. The party has failed to generate an enlightened leadership that might rejuvenate it and replace the increasingly discredited Nehruvian socialism with a novel programmatic appeal. The Congress (I)'s split in May 1995 added a new impediment to efforts to reinvigorate the party.

The BJP, although it has a stronger party organization, in 1995 had yet to find a way to transcend the limits of its militant Hindu nationalism and fashion a program that would appeal to diverse social groups and enable it to build a majority coalition in India. The Janata Dal continued to suffer from lack of leadership, inadequate resources, and incessant factionalism. As its bases of power shrink, it stood in danger of being reduced to a party with only a few regional strongholds. As regional groupings and members of the lower echelons of India's caste system become more assertive, regional and caste parties may play a more prominent role in India's political system. At this point, however, it is difficult to envision how they might stabilize India's political system.

The unresponsiveness of India's political parties and government has encouraged the Indian public to mobilize through nongovernmental organizations and social movements. The consequent development of India's civil society has made Indians less confident of the transformative power of the state and more confident of the power of the individual and local community. This development is shifting a larger share of the initiative for resolving India's social problems from the state to society. Fashioning party and state institutions that will accommodate the diverse interests that are now mobilized in Indian society is the major challenge confronting the Indian polity in the 1990s.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress