A creative tension
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In recent weeks, the simmering conflict between political and civil society has reached a fevered, and somewhat theatrical, pitch. Almost everyday, Arvind Kejriwal launches bombshells against politicians. The usually unflappable Salman Khurshid makes veiled threats against Kejriwal and Mamata Banerjee ominously promises a "counterattack" against the media. Clearly, India Against Corruption's decision to go from campaign to party has raised the stakes. But underlying this political theatre are real institutional conflicts, with both sides accusing each other of crossing the proverbial Lakshman rehka. IAC has been relentless in its portrayal of politicians as venal, immoral and self-interested, going so far as to challenge the very authority of parties to pass legislation. Though many raise doubts about IAC's tactics and broader vision, most commentators accept the diagnosis of pervasive institutional decay. The political establishment, in turn, lashes out: a cartoonist is imprisoned for mocking politicians; anti-nuclear protesters are branded stooges of the foreign hand by a minister; and NGOs and social activists complain of increasing hostility from the state. Rather than being a space of reasoned deliberation over pressing social issues, the public sphere, amplified by an increasingly sensationalistic media, has degenerated into an arena for shouting matches.
This spectacle has led many to despair that democratic politics is locked in a stalemate and is incapable of self-reform. But focusing on the conflict between an increasingly defensive political society (parties and state institutions) and an increasingly vocal and assertive civil society may be missing the larger point. First, it's important to recognise that political and civil society are almost by definition in tension, but that this can actually be healthy for democracy. Second, while civil society is neither inherently democratic nor universalising in the way its cheerleaders make it out to be, it can play a vital role in containing the excesses of political society as well as in strengthening key aspects of democratic governance.
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