Archive for July, 2014

Review: Civil Society and Democratization in India

Civil society and democratization in India: institutions, ideologies and interest, by Sarbeswar Sahoo, Abingdon, Routledge, 2013, x + 199 pp., ISBN 978-0-415-65929-1


There has been a surge of books and scholarship on civil society, social capital and democratization in the last two decades. In their famous study on Italy, Putnam, Leonardi and Nanetti (Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993) proposed that the amount of social trust, cooperation and networks of civic engagement or ‘social capital’ decided the quality of development and health of a given democracy. In later work Putnam further elaborated on the political and policy relevance of the idea of social capital.


In this book, Sahoo is sceptical of such forms of apolitical naiveté, arguing that Putnam fails to grasp the role of power and politics in conceptualizing ‘social capital’. Civil society itself is not necessarily a democratic force, as the pool of associationalism does not by itself give rise to any particular socio-political end. Rather social capital can be mobilized and politicized towards an end, which may be democratic or even anti-democratic. Therefore, politics is the clasp that is missing between the notion of social capital and socio-political transformation in Putnam’s framework. The author thus introduces a ‘primacy of politics’ argument in his social capital thesis. Though this is not a very novel argument in the social capital literature, its deployment in the context of Indian cases is more novel.

At an empirical level, the book seeks to understand the roles played by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in bringing about social change in the Indian state of Rajasthan. It is particularly concerned to address how issues of civil society become politicized and a part of public discourse. The author puts it elegantly thus: How does the ‘civil public’ get transformed into a ‘political public’? (3) In the process of answering this central question the author studies three NGOs in Rajasthan, namely the Seva Mandir (SM), the Ashtha Sansthan (AS) and the Rajasthan Vanavasi Kalyan Parishad (RKVP). Sahoo identifies three different kinds of political discourses and practices that are promoted by these three NGOs. SM maintains a cooperative stance with the state and practices a nonconfrontational mode of mobilization, AS has a rights-based ‘claim-making’ approach with direct mobilization, and the RKVP is a right wing Hindu outfit that mobilizes tribes on ethnic-identity oriented and religious lines.

After studying their politics he classifies civil society in India using three typologies – liberal pluralist (SM), neo-Marxist (AS) and communitarian (RKVP), and this is indeed an original argument. Methodologically, the author has used a comparative case study method from political science and applied it at a micro level very successfully. On a very minor critical note, the book unwittingly equates Civil Society Organization (CSOs), which are a small (albeit the most prominently visible and audible) part of civil society, with ‘Civil Society’ itself. We know that in political and economic philosophy the meaning of the term is much broader. The NGO-fication of civil society or the bureaucratization and Depoliticization of this erstwhile intensely political terrain is a relatively recent phenomenon. In that context, the name of the book might have been ‘CSOs and democratization in India’.

This is a doctoral dissertation converted into a book with remarkable astuteness and finesse. The book is a seminal contribution to the literature on civil society in India. It is written with clarity and a language free of jargon and thus is a pleasant read. Moreover, the book covers the broad historical period in which civil society in India has been transformed, from the colonial to the postcolonial phase. Civil society and democratization in India summarizes as well as generates important information and data for academics and policy-makers working on issues of civil society in India.


@Arnab Roy Chowdhury, National University of Singapore, Singapore

Arnab Roy Chowdhury (2014) Civil society and democratization in India: institutions, ideologies and interest, Contemporary South Asia, 22:2, 216-217, DOI: 10.1080/09584935.2014.902666