Empire of civil society

Empire of civil society

When the National Advisory Council (NAC) was formed the first time in 2004, it was expected, among other things, to “provide inputs for the formulation of policy by the government and to provide support to the government in its legislative business". This it has done and some key pieces of legislation bear its imprint. With every such step, its ambitions have been emboldened further to the point that today it is close to subverting parliamentary order.

In its meeting last week, one of its members, Aruna Roy, suggested that “as part of strengthening participatory democracy, it is important to go beyond existing parliamentary consultative process and directly involve the people in the formulation of important decisions, policies and laws drafted in the name of the sovereign".

The idea of going beyond existing parliamentary consultative processes is a dangerous one. In any democracy, the power to make laws has to rest completely in the hands of Parliament. Any whittling of this power diminishes democracy. To be sure, governments do move legislation and have their stamp on it, but their ability to do so depend on their commanding a majority in Parliament. That is not all. This proposal also desires a clearly defined process that mandates public participation and consultation at every stage all the way to tabling of a Bill in Parliament. This will also render government’s role in shepherding legislation irrelevant.

What this will effectively do is to ensure vetting and control of Bills by an extra-constitutional body in the name of “the people". In the end, the NAC is a collection of a handful of people who, save a few among them, have not been elected by any popular means. For it to decide such momentous measures—on a formalized basis—is to acquire far-reaching powers that don’t belong to it.

In recent months, “civil society" organizations have tried to cross a line that is sacrosanct in democracies. By their very definition, “civil society" occupies a space that is not political—in the sense of involvement in the affairs of the state. What the NAC—many of whose members have independent “civil society" organizations behind them—and others are doing is to breach this divide. It is interesting to note the class backgrounds of all such persons: invariably, they are middle class—a class noted for its disdain for mass politics. In contrast, a majority of our parliamentarians come from a much wider base.

The empire of “civil society" is a middle-class idea that is now within a stone’s throw of damaging the constitutional scheme.

Should the NAC have a formal role in pre-legislative screening of Bills? Tell us at views@livemint.com