Protests & policy

Print edition : March 01, 2019
The second volume of Zoya Hasan’s trilogy on policymaking offers valuable insights that enhance our understanding of political developments during the UPA regime.

THE book under review is the second volume of a trilogy that Zoya Hasan has embarked on, devoted mainly to the politics of policymaking, with a special focus on the interaction between state and civil society during the tenure of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government between 2004 and 2014. The first book of this series was titled Congress after Indira: Policy, Power and Political Change (1984-2009).

The 10-year tenure of the UPA provides enough research material to make sense of India’s policymaking world as well as its democracy. Having published several volumes on various themes of Indian politics, the author was well-prepared to address the theme of this book with considerable intellectual depth and rigour. She also served as a member of the National Commission for Minorities during the UPA period. Her association and experience as a policymaker has given her a unique advantage.

Although the book is mainly focussed on India, its narrative constantly reminds the reader of the changing global context in which policy deliberations take place. The end of the Cold War and the decline of Left politics were key factors that made privatisation a legitimate goal for Indian society and not just the Indian state, according to the author.

One of the crucial conclusions she derives from this research deals with the need for a rights-based approach to development. She argues that a “rights based approach to development is a major gain in the transcendence of capitalism. Although the implementation of a rights based approach is extremely flawed, it is still better to have a rights based approach to development than simply to set goals which are not enforceable or justiciable” (page 167). She compares and contrasts three particular campaigns: the right to employment and right to food campaigns, the anti-corruption (Lokpal) movement, and the women’s reservation Bill.

Zoya Hasan shares interesting insights based on her analysis of success and failures, and some of these are very conceptual in nature. For instance, she draws a sharp distinction between “social movement” and “campaign”. The initiatives she has examined in the book, she argues, cannot be described as social movements and instead need to be termed campaigns because networking and engagements with the state and other stakeholders are central to them.

It is also important to take note of the idea of justice and equity that she pursues very carefully throughout her narrative. This is not a typical public policy work devoid of ethical and moral concerns; although such ideas are not vastly elaborated on, there is enough political theory, which the author uses to make a connection between policymaking and the functioning of democratic institutions and their goals.

This trilogy will fill a crucial void in research on Indian politics of recent years. Both the books are based on extensive interviews with many key players, which no doubt played a major role in providing the insights in these writings.

The author is also candid about what she is not interested in exploring as part of her research agenda and what she is. These clearly outlined announcements on her objective present a direction to what a reader should or should not expect from this publication. This research, she clarifies, is not about the political mobilisation or social movements per se but about the relationship between campaigns/mobilisation and policymaking and the politics involved.

Also, she notes, this is not an evaluative study. Nor is this research interested in offering a history of social movements or mobilisations or public protests in India. In that sense the book is sharply focussed and built on a clear research agenda.

The author recognises the prevalence of a strong link from the mid 2000s to 2012 between social and political mobilisation on the one hand and policymaking and development on the other. She also explains why there is a need to scrutinise the relationship between the growth of mobilisation and the rising demand for equal opportunities, social justice, and so on.

Compared with the Narendra Modi regime, under the UPA I and II governments the relationship between civil society groups and policymaking was robust , especially with the formation of the National Advisory Council in which many distinguished members of civil society groups, accomplished academics and other professionals took part. The author is correct in stating that if we set aside the ideological partners of the Modi regime, conventional civil society groups hardly had any role to play in the post-UPA period. The Modi regime was hostile to many of them, and erected as many hurdles as possible to impede their work. The author forecasts a rather bleak future for civil society interventions if right-wing forces continue to dominate Indian polity and policymaking.

Additionally, the author observes correctly that the Modi regime faced far fewer protests or agitations compared with what was witnessed during the second UPA term. Does this imply that the Modi regime has been more responsive or has it pre-empted the protests? Or is it a result of a honeymoon period that any regime often enjoys? Given that the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance came to power after 10 years of UPA rule, some of the groups were perhaps considerate, including even Anna Hazare, who is constantly threatening to resume his agitation for a new Lokpal that passes his test.

Anna movement

There is growing evidence that the Anna movement was backed by some right-wing think tanks, which raises questions regarding the sincerity or apolitical character that the movement sought to present to the public in its early days. The book presents an elaborate analysis of these developments. The analysis of the Anna movement and the politics linked to India Against Corruption, which forms the second chapter, is the most fascinating part of this research.

However, it cannot be claimed that all such movements began during the UPA regime. India has a long history of movements, although in terms of frequency or scale a perceptible change has occurred. In part, the proliferation of media and competitive coverage encouraged these movements, particularly the Anna movement.

Some reflections, or even a limited narration, on this would have added further value to this research, but one cannot hold it against the author since she has stated that her decision to set aside the history of movements was deliberate.

Zoya Hasan seemingly connects the current trend to a global context that has impacted politics and the economy. She looks at it from the point of view of the ideological struggle unfolding in the world, particularly from the vantage point of the Left versus Right debate. Readers are reminded rather politely that politics needs to be seen through an ideological lens and is invariably driven with ideological considerations, and that institutions and individuals are merely pawns in the bigger game of ideology.

We learn the following things that are part of the trend: in the domain of economy, state retreat was seen as the only way to address development, which also altered the relationship between state, economy and society; in the social domain, class-centred analysis became obsolete and identities such as caste, tribe, etc., became prominent; in the arena of party politics, one-party dominance was challenged with the rise of multiparty politics led by regional parties, though most of these parties are dynastic in nature. Furthermore, economic growth led to the rise of a middle class that has developed an abiding trust in privatisation.

As part of her attempt to demonstrate the global trend, the author reminds us of the financial crisis in 2008 that also triggered public protests worldwide against inequality and injustice, particularly in Europe. According to her, these protests were the result of a growing dissatisfaction with economic policies and public institutions that generated pervasive discontent, thus shaking the very foundations of society and politics. The author suggests that various civil society groups comprising non-governmental organisations, voluntary groups and judicial activists, leaders of social movements and human rights activists moved in to mediate and often represent these disgruntled social and economic groups.

Lastly, the author argues that Congress leader Sonia Gandhi was not able to put as much pressure as necessary to enact some laws, particularly the women’s reservation Bill. She recognises that the presence of the Left parties in the UPA’s first term helped put the necessary pressure for policies such as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to be formulated and that their absence in the second term made a big difference to similar policy formulations and weakened the role of civil society.

The book is a valuable intervention by a senior political scientist. Scholars interested in the role of civil society, state and policymaking will profit enormously from it as it will enhance their understanding of political developments of the UPA regime.

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Central University, New Delhi.

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