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Seeking synergy, not ideology: Government should partner civil society, but the latter’s advocacy should be evidence-based

Author: M Venkaiah Naidu
Publication: The Times of India
Date: June 1, 2016
URL:   http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/toi-edit-page/seeking-synergy-not-ideology-government-should-partner-civil-society-but-the-latters-advocacy-should-be-evidence-based/

Civil society is a global phenomenon. It is widely known as an influential ‘third sector’, after the government and business/ industry. Civil society is a natural partner of the socioeconomic development of a nation. Any government would recognise its worth and would naturally prefer to work with this sector for the growth and success of the country.

In India, we have a vibrant civil society. However, the relationship between civil society and the state seems to be very often quite adversarial. Civic or public engagement with the state needs to be meaningful, so that the effectiveness of the government is enhanced in shaping its policies and programmes. The government has to tap into the knowledge, experience, ideas and insights shared by civil society and suitably dovetail them into policy-making processes. This, however, cannot be done in a partisan or ad hoc manner.

The NDA government is open to partnership and dialogue with civil society and business, and has taken definitive steps in this regard. The idea of the government is to make policy formulation and decision-making more transparent and accountable.

It has been noticed that many issues of concern to civil society are still to be addressed. Civil society or the voluntary sector plays a very crucial role in addressing rural poverty and empowering people. Its contribution to nation building is vital.

But the sector is facing many challenges and impediments as it is still regulated or controlled by a set of almost obsolete or redundant laws. The registration laws, Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), provisions in the income tax laws – all these need to be periodically reviewed and revised in order to enable the sector to function independently and impartially.

Even after 69 years of Independence, we are still talking about ‘azadi’ from poverty, unemployment, inequality, etc. Is this not the failure of our long-standing policies and attitudes? We have to fix the responsibilities of any such failures to the past misrule of the country. Civil society should learn to engage in evidence-based advocacy rather than an ideology-based approach, which would make its very motives seem suspect. A few of them are bigots and engage in partisan campaigns against the government.

I would not hesitate to challenge the attempts of a few small-minded and petty groups among civil society who claim that only their viewpoints are correct, just and democratic and representative of a larger public opinion. They do not seem to recognise the wisdom of the elected representatives in a democracy. This apparently is due to their partisan perception nurtured by select political ideologies.

Civil society has to be apolitical. Representatives of civil society tend to lose their legitimacy when their actions acquire unmistakable political hues yoked to certain ideologies. Political neutrality is indispensable for credible civic engagement. A needless and baseless paranoia has been created that the NDA government is against civil society.

A few frustrated ‘beneficiaries’ of the previous regimes are undemocratically and unfairly spreading a politics of hatred against this government and its leader. Unlike the previous government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the NDA government came to power with an overwhelming majority. We believe in upholding the principles of democracy and the rule of law, two of the key elements for good governance.

While we respect dissent and freedom of speech and expression, the government cannot be a mute onlooker when violations of the laws take place. Moreover, dissent and freedom of expression are not absolute and are subject to reasonable restrictions.

The FCRA or the sedition laws are not the sudden invention of this government. They have been on the statute for long and there was never any genuine attempt to debate on these issues. I personally feel that genuine concerns need to be addressed through open debate and cooperation.

The government is duty-bound to take action against violators of the law, or those who abuse the system and create agitation and restlessness in society. The government has a moral and constitutional duty to maintain peace and harmony and law and order under all situations in the country.

With regard to FCRA issues, let me state on record that all the review and process of suspending or cancelling the registrations of organisations which violated FCRA started during the previous regime, especially from the time the anti-Kudankulam nuclear power plant agitation began. Many organisations were put under the scanner during the previous UPA government.

The government needs constructive criticism to improve its policies and programmes. The country has countless challenges and concerns which include poverty, unemployment, education, malnutrition, drought, agriculture, climate change, water, sanitation, open defecation, TB and public health. Addressing these issues is the topmost priority of the government, a task which demands the combined efforts of the government, civil society as well as that of business and industry.

The 2014 general election gave us a democratic as well as a historic verdict, which paved the way for an important regime shift. The government is answerable and accountable to fulfil the mandate – a mandate for development. We do strongly believe in respecting and nurturing the plural ethos of the nation.
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