Home / Opinion / Holding the state to account

In a democracy, a critical element in the engagement between citizens and state is “accountability". There are several definitions—one among them from the World Bank reads: “Accountability exists when there is a relationship where an individual or body, and the performance of tasks or functions by that individual or body, are subject to another’s oversight, direction or request that they provide information or justification for their actions".

Citizens and civil society organizations seek accountability from the state. Where this builds on broad-based civil society engagement, we hear of “social accountability" whose advocates believe that a regular cycle of elections alone are not enough to hold the state to account. For instance, a decline in the quality of public services or cases of denial of (social) justice call for mobilization outside of the electoral cycle. But how does the state respond?

When the state is under sustained pressure to reform, it could take one of these positions: (1) respond to civil society using physical force and/or its legal prowess; (2) stoically “do nothing"; (3) formulate a response that emphasizes form over function; and (4) undertake genuine reform. These options represent a sliding scale of state response, and on any given issue, the state might change its position over time, depending on how the context evolves.

The reality is that more often than not, status quo rules: the space for citizens seeking accountability relies primarily on the willingness of the state. It is not in the nature of states to do this of their own volition, and often, a sustained campaign by a strong coalition of interests is required to influence them.

Further, we are living in an age of rising intolerance of the state towards civil society. While wider penetration of technology has opened up new avenues for broader political participation, the holders of state power have effectively struck back. In democracies like India, this tussle often looks entirely lopsided, as the state machinery has untrammelled resources—legal and financial—at its disposal. Turkey has seen a systematic purge in recent years, and the recent failed coup has strengthened the state’s hand in crushing all opposition.

Given this, how does one move beyond a “do nothing" response? The research programme, Making All Voices Count, talks of “concertation" moments, which occur when “reform-minded officials and politicians" within the state and civil society come together to deliberate on issues and initiate reforms in response. Reform, especially on political issues such as electoral reform, anti-corruption, or reforms to the justice system, requires these coalitions. However, even when “concertation" moments are arrived at, outcomes are not guaranteed.

This is because sometimes, “concertation" moments look like deal-making, where both sides agree on the goal and recognize the urgency of action, but not necessarily on either the process of arriving at the reform, or the broader implications for state-citizen relationship in governance. For instance, with both the Jan Lokpal movement and the demand for reforms to anti-rape laws, the state-civil society engagement appeared to reach an inflexion point which led to legislative action. However, the intended longer-term outcomes have not been realized, suggesting that the state was able to get away with action that emphasised “form" over “function".

Even so, building reform coalitions remain our best bet. But first, it is important to recognize that a strategy of constant confrontation is unlikely to be fruitful. Confrontation may pay off as a short-term strategy, but is unlikely to yield gains that can be sustained. Secondly, coalitions need to be a combination of key individuals and institutions. For instance, the role of both mainstream and social media—as well as engaging the judiciary—has in recent years become critical to civil society activism.

In India for instance, the state’s inertia has been time and again challenged by directives from the judiciary when civil society pressure proves to be insufficient.

Also, reform coalitions are often dependent on a few influential individuals. Individuals within the state are critical to promoting horizontal accountability systems between different arms of the state, as well as campaigning for effective vertical accountability along the chain of command within arms of the state. Individuals are also crucial in establishing bargaining positions on behalf of civil society.

Every society offers a unique context in which strategies must be designed for citizens to hold the state to account. But social accountability is not just about positioning citizens against their state. In a democracy, it has to be about establishing mutually respected norms and mutually agreed mechanisms of engagement, striking a balance between the primacy of the state in ushering reform, and the legitimate role of civil society in safeguarding the interests of citizens.

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