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The role of Indian civil society: ensuring State accountability.

Does civil society matter? Governance in contemporary India

Autor : Radesh Tandon and Ranjita Mohanty

Por Martin Vielajus

diciembre 2004


The roots of an Indian autonomous civil society is not to be found in the contemporary rise of a modern state but foremost in the ancient and medieval history of the country. Cast “panchayats”, village “panchayats”, or traders guilds all illustrates forms of local institutions that had long been untouched by the vicissitudes of the political spheres and remained autonomous from state control. Indian society had been characterised in pre-colonial times by a form of “insularity” that thus ensured an certain independence from state power but also resulted in a stagnation and an impossible unity of the population. However, the modern definition of an Indian civil society has to confront the radical transformation of the State and its consequences on the role of the non-state actors.

The transition to independence was accompanied with the rise of a welfare state, extending state powers into areas that had been previously left to civil society. This “intrusion” of the State and its monopoly on new spheres as education, health or security resulted in a form of state monopoly in almost all public goods, giving to the state the role of first employer of organized workers in the country. The generalisation of taxes, the ownership of public utilities transformed the state into an arbiter between individuals. But this rise of a welfare state pointed out in the same time its dysfunctions and its failures.

Corruption and nepotism put into question the legitimacy of the state power and give a pejorative connotations to the word “politics”. Distribution of licenses, subsidies for the poor, control of the crime order are said to be “the plaything of state functionaries” that have lifetime security. The huge amount of discretionary fund received by the Members of Parliament and Members of Legislatives Assembly to implement economic development programs in their constituencies illustrates this generalisation of the corruption.

The situation of political parties is also perverted by a form of selection of its members by the leaders that constitute an obstacle for the participations of the citizens to the political process. The electoral process itself is put into question by the irregularities of the polls but also by the biased aspect of local elections that are mostly determined by cast belongings and the money involved in the campaign.

This centralized political system make political process inaccessible to a large part of the population, and alienate the potential existence of a form of civil society.

What role can civil society play in this specific political framework?

Considering that situation of monopoly, Radesh Tandon considers the role of civil society as challenging the State in three different ways.

  • Faced to the centralised power of the State, civil society first has a role of enabling the hitherto voiceless and unorganised communities interests to be represented. In other term, the sphere of civil society has a goal of empowerment for local communities. In that specific function, civil society can be considered as a “space” that is free and accessible to everybody.

  • Civil society can also be considered as a “movement” that has to influence public negotiation on public issues like health, education or security. Contesting the frameworks of development programs, criticising the long-term effect of a large displacement of people are examples of this vision of civil society as a contestation movement.

  • Civil society finally has a role of “ensuring the accountability” of the State in different spheres. Ensuring the right to access to information is a first step into the State accountability, in a country where the Official Secret Act predominates. In a more general way, civil society has the monitoring function of holding “the law and order machinery accountable”. This function implies the control of political parties and electoral process, the control of local bodies etc.

In a context where political participation process is increasingly plebiscitary and illustrates the discredit of the political sphere, the purpose of civil society, conceived by Radesh Tandon, is to build the framework of a real form of governance, in which both State and citizens are accountable to each other.


This specific definition of civil society points out the problematic relationship between State and society in India. More than a mere intermediary between the individuals and the State, civil society appears as a form of protection, a guarantee of political participation, a “counter-weight” to the overall power of the State. Such a definition presents civil society mostly through its “palliative” function, faced to the dysfunctions of the State, and thus calls for a deep governance reform in India


Does civil society matter? Governance in contemporary India

Radesh Tandon and Ranjita Mohanty

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