Does Civil Society Matter? Governance in Contemporary India
Aisha Sultanat ·       

Though the interrelationship of civil society and the state is part of political science discourse since the emergence of the modern state, the association of civil society with governance is not old. In fact, the very idea of governance signifies that the state alone cannot be the sole manager of public affairs, but other actors of civil society should be included in the process. This relationship of civil society with the process of governance is associated with the new wave of democracy in the post-Cold War era. The book Does Civil Society Matter?� Governance in Contemporary India, edited by Rajesh Tandon and Ranjita Mohanty, is an attempt to explore the linkages between ?civil society? and ?good governance? in the Indian context, with the help of some case studies.

The authors have broadly set out two objectives for this book. Firstly, it is an attempt to broaden the conceptualization of governance. Secondly, it examines the role of civil society in reforming the state by problematising the relationship between civil society and good governance. In the course of their attempt, the authors have cautioned themselves and the contributors not to romanticize this relationship as the correlation has its own problems. The Introduction comprehensively reviews the wide range of arguments associated with the concept, nature and role of civil society in the neo-liberal world. The authors remark that ?subscription of a large number of actors ? academia, policy makers, international aid agencies, social activists, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) ? has made the concept of civil society complex, ambiguous and, to a large extent, fluid?, is significant in this regard.

The book is divided into two sections. The first part grapples with the conceptual nuances that underlie civil society?s existence as a third sphere, with the state and the market being the other two. This section is critical as it attempts to explain the interface between civil society and governance. Neera Chandhok?s chapter consists of a complex theoretical argument, which critically appraises the notion of civil society as a ?Third Sphere?. She argues that the concept of civil society itself is a complex amalgam of many other concepts and cognizance of this should be taken into account while understanding its role in governance. The chapters by Rajesh Tandon and Jayprakash Narayan provide an Indian perspective to the debate on the relationship between civil society and governance. Tandon delineates five analytical strands to explain the interface between civil society and governance in India. He identifies the different levels of interface between the two as self-governance, defining public good, influencing public negotiations, ensuring state accountability and assuring market accountability. While analyzing the crisis of governance in India, Narayan advocates holistic reforms in the highly centralized, corrupt and authoritative governance structure through the active intervention of civil society. T K Oommen advocates balancing the state, market and civil society as the prerequisite for good governance. He has suggested ?minimizing disparity, eradication and avoiding collective alienation? as the three tests of good governance. In his insightful chapter, Harsh Mander analyses the menace of corruption as an obstacle to good governance. He concludes that civil society consists of an active, vigilant and assertive citizenry and believes in the ?right to information? as the reliable and sustainable way out to counter corruption.�����

The second section comprises case studies substantiating the positive impact of civil society on governance. The chapters on Saving the Chilika movement, Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha and land distribution for Kol tribals are specific case studies, while those on the Dalit movements and Subaltern views are more general in nature. The case studies provide some modalities to carve out a role for civil society in the governance processes. The point to be stressed is that these modalities are diverse and not applicable everywhere in the same manner. For instance, in some cases like the Kol tribals of UP persuading influential persons from the larger civil society to express their solidarity with the cause of the tribals this was a useful part in the movement, while solidarity and association of various social movements with a larger front was decisive in the cause of the Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha. The chapter by Sudha Pai and Ram Narayan on the role of Dalit protest and its impact on democratic governance and civil society is fascinating because of its exemplification of the inductive approach. As caste is the single most important factor influencing civil society and the democratic processes in India in contrast to western societies, the democratization of the deeply divided and hierarchical domain is the most critical task for effective governance. Vishnu Mahapatra further stresses this view from a subaltern point of view. To contextualize notions such as ?citizenship and civility and their constitutive links with the process of governance?, he focuses on the life of pavement dwellers in Mumbai vis-�-vis the state. He argues that the state is not the only institution to be transformed; what is necessary is the alteration of the character of civil society in a more democratic and egalitarian direction..��������

It is beyond doubt that the concept of governance has widened the scope of civil society in public affairs, and this book adds new dimension by contextualizing it in the context of the Indian state. But the arguments of the contributors, especially those writing the case studies, seems to contradict the understanding of the editors because most of them have romanticized the role of civil society and got entrapped in the caution given by the editors in the beginning.. This romanticisation not only simplifies the complex relationship between civil society, state and the governance process, but takes us into an unrealistic realm where the state machinery has no role. The strength of the book lies in the holistic approach it imparts to the processes of governance to free it from the monopolistic confines of the state. It is the first ever attempt to free the discourse from western premises and establish it in an Indian context. The case studies add an Indian flavour to the argument; hence, it is a contribution to exploring ways to improve democratic governance in India.