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UPA Regime and Civil Society

Ghanshyam Shah ( is an independent researcher based in Ahmedabad and former professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Agitation to Legislation: Negotiating Equity and Justice in India by Zoya Hasan,New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018; pp 178,675.


Collective actions in the form of campaigns, protests, agitations, social movements, etc, pressurising, negotiating as well as confronting the state in different ways are an integral part of a democratic political system. Their forms, issues, scale as well as the composition of participants, in terms of interests and political predisposition, differ. The response of the state to such actions varies, depending upon the ruling party, its strength and ideological orientation. The book under review is an important documentation about the interface between civil society and the government during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) (I and II) rule for 10 years.

The book focuses on three agitations asserting for certain legislations for protecting the interests of the have-nots, for administrative changes to ensure “good” governance and also for ensuring “adequate” representations to certain sections of the society in lawmaking institutions. The author rightly prefers to call these collective actions as campaigns or agitations rather than social movements in which “networking and engagements with the state and other stakeholders” remain central rather than sustained mass mobilisation (p 159).

While analysing the interaction between the state and civil society, the author attempts to explore “internal trajectories of various civil society campaigns,” the tensions and contradictions between various types of agitations and responses of the state. The central questions that the book addresses are:

In what circumstances is social and political mobilisation to claim rights and entitlements or the demand for accountability or greater representation in decision making responded and addressed by the state? What are the criteria and the modes of interaction with regard to claims, mechanisms, and responsiveness of institutions that make this happen? (pp 14–15)

The book argues that public campaigns and social mobilisations do take up forefront policy issues, but it is not a necessary or sufficient condition for the translation of these issues into legislation. The inclination of the ruling party and its leadership on the given issues, as well as its predisposition to reap “political benefits” at a particular point in time, shape the fallout of civil society’s actions. Therefore, it is “principally the political context, party processes, and leadership strategies that influenced the policy decisions of the government” (p 16).

The agitations under study are closely related to the neo-liberal political economy. Some of the proponents of the neo-liberal economy, including the World Bank, United Nations Development Programme and international funding organisations, have advocated “human development” and “good governance” to enlarge “choices” of the people, including “secure” livelihoods, in view of the incessant resistance from people of the neo-liberal economy since the early 1990s. Rights-based approach to development became a buzzword in non-governmental organisations’ development trajectory. Under the paradigm of “good governance,” welfare programmes have been reconceptualised from dole to “right,” that is, as an entitlement of a citizen, and obligatory responsibility of the state to provide these rights under the Constitution. However, under this trajectory “equality” and “social justice” do not even get mentioned as an objective of the governance. Though some activists do talk about these concepts, they hardly interrogate the increasing inequality in the neo-liberal political system. 

Rights-based Legislations

The first chapter of this book focuses on two legislations: Right to Work (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 [NREGA]) and Right to Food (National Food Security Act, 2013 [NFSA]). The author documents the process of enactment of these legislations, focusing on interactions between that segment of civil society which raises these demands and the ruling party. She argues that the political party and its leadership played a crucial role in passing these legislations in the midst of a strong and powerful lobby of neo-liberal economy within and outside the Congress party.

But for the ideological commitment and perseverance of the National Advisory Council (NAC) headed by the Congress chairperson Sonia Gandhi, these two and other similar legislations would not have passed. The NAC was not an organic structural unit of the party. Its members, non-party public figures including civil society activists and former bureaucrats, were co-opted by Sonia Gandhi. It was constituted to provide advice on “social policies to the government” and “to monitor their implementation” (p 12). Besides deliberating on social policies, the NAC was also involved in drafting relevant legislations.

The author highlights that the Right to Work faced relatively fewer hurdles than the NFSA. The former was a part of the then Congress manifesto. Moreover, the UPA coalition with left parties’ support (from outside) and the formation of the Common Minimum Programme had provided significant space to pro-poor civil society in influencing the government. In the initial years, the chairperson of the NAC asserted her influence on the government. Her clout “helped civil society groups to deal with obstacles to employment guarantee and sometimes even bypass the bureaucratic processes” (p 37). As a result, the NREGA was passed in 2005, after less than two years of the UPA formation. On the other hand, the NFSA took more than nine years to pass, and that too in a very diluted form, giving up “the pretence of providing a ‘right’ to food” (p 52).

The UPA II had no direct pressure from left parties. The NAC became weak, unable to resist pressure from a strong neoliberal faction within the Congress party and also the bureaucracy. The book, however, does not tell us much about the clout of the NAC on the rank and file, including the functionaries of the party at state levels, or the nature of tensions between the NAC and the government. Though it may be beyond the scope of this book, one wishes that future research may inquire into whether the notion of “rights” was debated within the party and civil society activists. Was there any effort to reorient the Congress party around the notion of “social democracy”? Or, did “rights” remain just a jargon among a small number of top self-styled radical Congress leaders?

The Lokpal Bill

The credibility of the political class has continuously been declining since the 1970s. It accelerated sharply with the exposure of scams under the UPA regime. This infuriated cross-sections of society in general and the middle class in particular. Anna Hazare, a Gandhian moralist, provided leadership to anti-corruption sentiment, which resulted in a mass upsurge in 2010. He and other civil society activists formed a forum called India against Corruption (IAC). They had very successfully brought Lokpal into the national discourse and emphasised the role of civil society movements in lawmaking.

The second chapter gives an account of different phases of the anti-corruption agitation, including the formation of the Aam Aadmi Party, an offshoot of the agitation and the ups and downs of the process of enactment of the Lokpal Bill in 2013. It documents chronological sequences of the major show of strength of the protestors, the fasts, rallies, dharnas, etc, confronting and negotiating with the state on their demand. Under pressure from the leaders of the agitation, the government was forced to form the Joint Drafting Committee (JDC) for drafting the bill, in which IAC’s selected civil society members were co-opted, where, however, “alternative voices of civil society had no place.”

Under the UPA rule, it was indeed “a unique experiment that allowed sections of civil society and the political class to come together for legislative purposes” (p 93). The author points out that like JDC, the NAC was also engaged in drafting the bills like right to information, NREGA, etc. Its members, though from civil society, were selected by the government to seek advice. It was functioning under the government framework. Whereas, the JDC “was conceded under political pressure and hence it was a fractious exercise from the outset” (p 91). 

Hasan rightly points out that the anti-corruption agitation had a very narrow view of corruption confined to political class and bureaucracy. It was not seen “as something originating from changes in the Indian political economy” (p 89). She also highlights that the agitation was predominantly of the middle class and was an “orchestrated media campaign.” In the course of time, it did not provide a space for critical dissent and alternative views on corruption, including on various aspects of the Lokpal Bill. It undermined the role of elected representatives, democratic procedures and institutions like Parliament. The author also emphasises that the agitation was subtly dominated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which promoted it as an “anti-Congress movement” rather than an anti-corruption movement in its tweets. This indicates that a small ideologically grounded and coordinated group can hijack emotionally ridden mass upsurge.

The Women’s Reservation Bill

The third chapter passionately discusses the journey of the bill for women’s 33% reservation in Parliament and state assemblies, between 1996 and 2013 in general, and under the UPA rule in particular. It was first introduced in 1996 by the United Front government of H D Deve Gowda. The National Democratic Alliance brought the same bill again in 2002 and then in 2003. And, in 2008, the UPA introduced the bill in the Rajya Sabha and managed to pass it under a vociferous protest in 2010. But, it failed to introduce it in the Lok Sabha. Demand for women’s reservation in Parliament and state assemblies had become an agenda of women’s movement since the mid-1990s, following the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments, providing one-third reservation to women in local government.

Different women groups built pressure on the government. They also mobilised women in the form of rallies, public meetings, petitions, demonstrations in the capital and different cities of the country.

Women’s mobilisation has focused on advocacy and lobbying with women parliamentarians and women’s wings of the parties in the hope that powerful women leaders will push for women’s reservation, but few have seriously done so. (p 149)

The author does not tell us, except that the “patriarchal” structure of the parties, how and in what way these sitting women representatives negotiated with their party bosses, and what kind of political constraints they faced in their efforts. Though major political parties on principle accepted the demand, under one or the other excuse, they did not see to it that the bill gets passed. Patriarchy across the parties, caste, and class is responsible for thwarting the bill. Hasan is right that it was the unwillingness of male politicians to share power with women. This, according to her, was despite

the pressure of social mobilisation, despite active support of women members of the parties, and despite the “fast track” to increased representation available to Indian women in local government. (p 127)

Undoubtedly, a larger proportion (33%) of women’s representation in the Lok Sabha can exert more strongly women’s voices in Parliament. The author is right in her observations supported with evidence that the reservations in local governments have shown that women power holders in panchayats do pay more attention than men to local issues like water, toilet, etc. Of course, this is not an insignificant achievement. But to infer from this that it has begun transforming “gender relations” challenging a “deeply entrenched patriarchal system,” is wishful thinking.

The author is of the opinion that one-third of women members in Parliament would lead to “gender-just policies and laws,” bring “a qualitative change in governance,” and also “challenge patriarchy, and unleash a broader process of social change.” But, the author knows better than me that these women representatives are not necessarily “feminists” like her, who would question patriarchy. In all possibilities, they are and will be divided on party-lines, endorsing the neo-liberal economy, and are not above their caste/class interests. One would expect that a scholar like Hasan would have also critically examined the nature and limitations of the present-day women’s movement.

Nature of Civil Society

All civil society activists and organisations cannot be clubbed into a blanket “civil society.” There are different groups that are involved and also lead grassroots movements against the government’s economic policy and projects. There are groups that are not outright supporters of the neo-liberal economic policy. But there are also several civil society segments championing neo-liberal policy, status quoists and revivalists who work hand-in-glove with the government, actively participating in “improving” governance. In fact, the author mentions that there were several civil society organisations which were critical of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption agitations and which kept a distance, though these were equally opposed to all forms of corruption. It will be rewarding for future research if we categorise different civil society segments on some theoretical framework.


Updated On : 13th Jan, 2020


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