Archive for April, 2016

REVIEW: Civil Society and Democratization in India

Civil society and democratization in India: institutions, ideologies and interests, by Sarbeswar Sahoo, Abingdon, Routledge, 2013, xvii + 199 pp., £85 (hardback), ISBN 978041565291

India is rightly celebrated for the depth and diversity of its civil society. While debate persists over the precise nature of civil society’s links to democratisation, few dispute that civil society in India, as elsewhere, exercises a useful, if imperfect, check on the abuse of state power. Sarbeswar Sahoo focuses not on civil society’s watchdog or policy-advocacy functions, but, instead, on the capacity of associational life to deepen democracy by creating avenues for meaningful participation and collective action by poor and marginalised people. This is an area of even greater controversy, with its own scholarly subgenre, to which Sahoo’s book makes an important contribution.


Sahoo’s underlying concern is whether, how, and under what conditions civil society can pursue a politically transformative agenda. Sahoo’s empirical material consists of organisational case studies of three ‘well-established NGOs’ from Rajasthan, all working in the state’s ‘tribal belt’. They are Seva Mandir, which focuses on implementing rural development projects and programmes; Astha Sanstha, ‘which represents a unique mix of Left and Gandhian ideology and is involved in a variety of indigenous people’s movement[s]’ (p. 10); and the Rajasthan Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad (RVKP), which is affiliated with (and propagates the Hindu nationalist ideology of) the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, while engaging in direct service provision in adivasi communities.

These are well-chosen case studies, conforming as they do to three recognisable ‘types’ of civil society. There is a sense, however, that perhaps these categories were too firmly entrenched in the author’s mind before he began his field research, thus allowing a certain degree of ‘confirmation bias’ to creep into his analysis. This is evident in the support that Sahoo expresses for the two key elements of the Left critique of India’s ‘NGO sector’. First, he accepts with few qualms the widely held position that NGOs are ‘agents of the broader project of neoliberalism’ (p. 9). Evidence for this generalisation is sorely lacking. Certainly, NGOs perform some functions formerly monopolised by government, and thus contribute indirectly to a kind of shrinking of the state. But this is hardly an indication of neoliberal intent, let alone adherence to the market fundamentalism that afflicts some extreme neoliberals. Besides, there are plenty of NGOs working to build resistance to the adverse consequences of a less-regulated economy, including rapid environmental degradation. Indeed, a (leaked) 2014 report prepared for the Prime Minister’s Office by the Government of India’s (domestic) Intelligence Bureau identified many professionally managed NGOs – that is, not just ‘movement’ groups – as enemies of India’s development, because they dared protest against questionable industrial and infrastructure projects in many parts of the country.

Sahoo seems equally taken with the second part of the Left critique – that service-delivery NGOs pre-empt the radicalisation of subaltern groups. According to one of the sources Sahoo quotes, NGOs working in Rajasthan’s tribal areas had ‘pacified the fire with people and depoliticized development at the local level’ (p. 9). Such an accusation grants NGOs far too much credit for being able to accomplish something as complex as ‘depoliticising’ anything. The stereotype of the overly professionalised, out-of-touch NGO is badly out of date. These days, even staid project-implementing NGOs can end up doing genuinely political work. Mainstream NGOs, including Seva Mandir, that worked as implementing partners on the United Progressive Alliance’s flagship social protection initiative – the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) 2005 – were, whether they liked it or not, participating in something fairly revolutionary: assisting labourers to demand their wages, and encouraging villagers to demand answers from local officials about development expenditures. This did not require NGOs to pursue a radical agenda of their own devising; their course of action was spelled out in the procedural requirements found in NREGA. Some did this with more vigour than others. The effects were also highly variable. But apolitical the process was not.

By the same token, even excellent NGOs such as Astha, which sees itself at the movement end of the organisational continuum, are sometimes less radical than they might seem, which may well represent a pragmatic adjustment to prevailing political conditions. Astha too must produce reports for its funders and for government regulators; it too works with public-sector entities, and in any case benefits from the pool of experienced development professionals working in and around its home district of Udaipur, where over the past four decades, a cluster of small and large NGOs has grown up around Seva Mandir, one of the first organisations founded in the area.

While the line separating mainstream and movement-oriented civil society formations may be more blurred than Sahoo is willing to concede, he is justified in drawing a sharp distinction between the patently communal RVKP and the other two associations. This is true with respect to all three analytical categories Sahoo invokes in the book’s subtitle: institutions, interests, and ideologies. Through its links to the Bharatiya Janata Party, the RVKP is institutionally different from the resolutely non-partisan Astha and Seva Mandir. It also represents, and is controlled by, a very different set of interests, including those for whom social change is something to be resisted rather than fostered. Even if one were to grant that the RVKP shares a culture of managerial competence with Seva Mandir, and a strong sense of mission with the activist-inclined Astha, these parallels are dwarfed by the stark gap in terms of political ideas that separates ideological chasm separating this Hindu chauvinist organisation from the other two groups.

Readers will benefit greatly from the author’s sensitive interpretation of the case material, even if some of the book’s conceptual and theoretical foundations receive more reverence than perhaps they deserve. Sahoo’s book will be a stimulating read for anyone attempting to understand the political significance of civil society groups, in India and beyond.


Rob Jenkins

Hunter College & The Graduate Center, The City University of New York

# 2015, Rob Jenkins


Rob Jenkins (2015) “Civil society and democratization in India: institutions, ideologies and interests,” Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 53:2, 226-228