M Ali Siddiqi points out a Influence of civil society and Pakistan
The Influence of civil society and Pakistan decisive stakeholders of governance in Pakistan do not pay heed to the imperatives and influences of civil society though they are now paying through their nose for this crucial neglect. The modern state is mandated to provide all necessities of life to its citizens and for that what it requires is help from the wider margins of a societal order. In the modern state power is also held by restive and increasingly powerful groups of people that deny its advantages to a wide number of their compatriots but it is the duty of the state to curb their negative tendencies and prioritise welfare of the people. In democratic practices a strong civil society can prevent the agglomeration of power that threatens autonomy and choice, provide effective checks against the abuse of state authority and protect an open and inclusive public sphere. These characteristics of a civil society are an anathema to the centralising concepts of the segments of establishment as well as family-dominated political elements. Civil society actually has to struggle against both these forts of resistance at the same time as could be witnessed in Pakistan currently.
The current method of thought is to think of civil society as a school for the political virtue a citizen of a modern state needs. Though this thought is not accepted universally but it is certainly conceded that a civil society can be political in its own right as well as the fact that its nature can vary from society to society. The question is whether a civil society can become a place where equality of opportunity matters and is taken for granted. In Pakistan we have not reached this stage and it is generally appreciated that the civil society remains apolitical in its associational existence. It may however be difficult to dissociate politics from civil society and keep it shackled in general terms.
As a matter of providing good life a state is left with hardly any option but to involve people in their own governance to make sure different perspectives get represented and this situation could only be obtained through democracy. Moreover, a state can provide people right to pursue their lives without interference from others and this process is described as liberalism. This need for neutrality among competing conceptions of the good generally has meant that modern justice must include the promise of autonomy by which citizens should be not only permitted to but capable of setting their life goals and participating in governance.
Arguing from democratic theory, a strong civil society can prevent the agglomeration of power that threatens autonomy and choice, provide effective checks against the abuse of state authority, and protect an open and inclusive public sphere. Civil society is seen as a crucial counterweight to states and corporate power and an essential pillar of promoting transparency, accountability and other aspects of democratic governance. Especially where formal citizenship rights are not well entrenched, it is civil society that provides the channels through which most people can make their voices heard in government decision making, protect and promote their civil and political rights and strengthen their skills as future political leaders.
One of the major problems is that debates about it continue to be dominated by a narrow and disputed interpretation of what civil society is and does and this narrowness threatens to erode its potential as a force for positive social change. Building on this potential requires a simultaneous broadening of the debate to include other, less dominant, perspectives and a much greater specification of how each of these perspectives contributes to a clearer understanding overall. And the best place to start that process is by breaking apart the assumptions that underpin the orthodox interpretation of civil society as the world of associational life. While doing so it must be kept in view that the constituting factors of civil society that may vary from one place to the other but such discrepancies could not be taken as negating the essential principles of civil society and should not become central to any debate but should be treated as peripheral to the overall issue.
Whether the gradually strengthening civil society recovers from these setbacks depends on how successfully its doubts and criticisms are addressed moving forward but the critiques themselves are helpful. They remind people that civil society is, and should continue to be, the subject of debate. Yet in this debate it is no longer possible to regard civil society as irrelevant to politics and economics, or to dismiss it as the preserve of a subset of privileged individuals or regions of the world. Ideas about citizen action, the good society, public participation, the power of protest and freedom of information and association have spread across the globe to become a powerful reference point in political debates and an inspiration for activists worldwide.
This is actually an ideal blueprint of the modern state and also a normative concept of it but history has also taught that this perception would not necessarily be present at all times. In actual fact state is described as the institution that consolidates power so it has monopoly over it in a given territory, particularly over coercive power. This is a contradiction in terms and though pluralism may indeed be an empirical fact of the modern state but a sufficiently powerful state does not have to be neutral between conceptions of the good. It always retains the option to repress unsavoury views and can conveniently dispatch its opposition to jails.
Then there is another dynamic as in the state rulers have almost invariably been concerned with legitimating their power, however much of it they might have had and however insincere their claims to legitimacy. Secondly, out-and-out repression tends to be costly as it harnesses the urge to search for legitimacy. Even the hardcore protagonists of power urge rulers to pay attention to the feelings of those they govern. The disagreements in a state are momentous enough to matter for people and the people must have enough power to give others notice. In this context the people want to enjoy power that covers multiple areas particularly the one arising out of structural economic changes. In this context, progress is usually slow, unspectacular and subject to reverses especially during authoritarian setbacks but there has been progress nonetheless and in this progress the health and strength of associational life is one important factor whether in the context of protecting human rights, advancing peace negotiations, enriching the cultural life of communities, or producing a measurable decline in crime and violence.
The broader success of social movements as a democratising force is heavily dependent on context. Individual citizen contributions may be duly recognised but it should be kept in view that such changes do not have the potential of transforming the state or democratising the political process in any of the countries in which it has been introduced. The unraveling of socio-political structure in Pakistan is strongly indicative of the pressing need to re-order priorities and bring to the top the spirit that values the influence of the civil society and see to it that all other state-building efforts remain subordinate to it.