Parties, Civil Society and Democratic Deepening: Comparing India, Brazil and South Africa

Published date01 June 2023
AuthorPatrick Heller
Date01 June 2023
Subject MatterOriginal Articles
Parties, Civil Society and Democratic
Deepening: Comparing India, Brazil
and South Africa
Patrick Heller1
Despite being among the most successful democracies in the Global South, India, Brazil and
South Africa have all recently experienced democratic crises. I argue that these democratic crises result
from the formation of social coalitions that have been willing to subvert democratic institutions and
practices in order to preserve or restore their social and economic privileges. In structural terms, these
reactions are tied to the unresolved problem of the incorporation of popular classes. This problem
has in turn been mediated by the balance between political and civil society. In India and South Africa
that balance has favoured the dominance of mass-based nationalist parties that have thwarted demo-
cratic deepening. In Brazil, a more balanced relationship between civil society and political society has
favoured the partial incorporation of the popular classes.
Parties, civil society, democracy, India, Brazil, South Africa
Indian democracy is in crisis (Varshney, 2022) but India is hardly alone. Not since the interwar period
have we witnessed as much democratic regression across the globe. A burgeoning literature on the crisis
of democracy has generally focused on OECD countries and has pointed to the economic effects of glo-
balization and in particular how the increasing economic precarity of lower classes has fuelled support
for right-wing populism. Yet as I have argued elsewhere (Heller, 2020), the sources of right-wing popu-
lism in post-colonial democracies are very different than in the North and the consequences are much
more serious. In post-colonial democracies, instances of reaction are not just challenges to the liberal
norms and institutions of democracy as in the OECD world, but also concerted efforts to control and
even repress civil society and to sustain the power and influence of dominant class-led coalitions.
Original Article
Studies in Indian Politics
11(1) 10–26, 2023
© 2023 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/23210230231166191
1 International Affairs and Sociology, Brown University, Providence, RI, USA
Corresponding author:
Patrick Heller, International Affairs and Sociology, Brown University, Providence, RI 02912, USA.
Heller 11
I develop this argument by comparing India to Brazil and South Africa, two other democracies that
have recently experienced significant crises of democracy and that share similar structural and historical
characteristics with India. Bolsonaro’s Presidency in Brazil (2018–2022) and the BJP in India (2014–)
are illiberal regimes with clear authoritarian impulses. In South Africa, the ruling African National
Congress (ANC), which has ruled continuously since the end of apartheid (1994), degenerated during
Zuma’s Presidency (2009–2018) into a rent-seeking cabal that has seriously damaged democratic
legitimacy and state capacity. For all the differences across these three cases of democratic regression,
four shared developments are of deep concern. First, what were broadly respected democratic principles
of separation of powers, including the independence of the judiciary, have come under sustained attack.
Second, the parties in power have been openly hostile to liberal or progressive elements of civil society
that have resisted regime domination. Third, there has been a significant rise in political violence,
including state-abated vigilantism. And fourth, all three regimes (Zuma, Bolsonaro and the BJP) have
built their support through the weaponization of social media and the propagation of disinformation,
severely contaminating the public sphere. These crises are all the more alarming because all three, by the
standards of post-colonial world, have been comparatively robust democracies built on the strength of
historically broad and sustained democracy movements.
In all three, I argue that these democratic crises result from the formation of social coalitions that have
been willing to subvert democratic institutions and practices in order to preserve or restore their social
and economic privileges. The formation of these reactionary coalitions can be traced to a deep socio-
structural factor as well as two inter-related but more contingent political dynamics. The deep socio-
structural factor is that all three democracies were born of passive revolutions that preserved elite power
and largely left intact the colonial developmental legacies of an unincorporated mass subproletariat.2
Stated as simply as possible, the inheritance of a colonial subproletariat has made the classic substantive
challenge of democracy—achieving a degree of material incorporation of labouring classes in a private
property economy—extremely difficult to resolve.3 The fact that Brazil actually did make some progress
on this front during the tenure of the Worker’s Party (PT—Partido dos Trabalhadores) (2002–2016)
underscores that this legacy is tenacious, but not insurmountable. This deep structural problem has in
turn been refracted through two key political dynamics that are critical to understanding the more
immediate drivers of democratic crises. The first is the nature of dominant political parties or regimes
and their relationship to nationalism. In most post-colonial democracies, electoral democracy was
ushered in by broad-based but elite-dominated political formations that successfully claimed the
nationalist mantle. These foundational nationalist parties or regimes—Vargas’s Estado Novo in Brazil,
the Congress in India and the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa—established liberal
democracy to varying degrees and even provided some representation to sections of the popular classes,
especially organized workers. But they also pre-empted the emergence of political formations that could
have more effectively incorporated the masses. The break with this pattern emerges in Brazil with the
electoral victory in 2002 of the Workers Party (PT—Partido dos Trabalhadores). Over the next decade
and a half, PT governments were able to incorporate the subproletariat through a combination of
institutional, welfare and labour reforms.
The difference between India and South Africa, on the one hand, and Brazil on the other, can be traced
to the historical relationship between the party system and civil society and points to something of a
2 I borrow this specic term from the Brazilian literature, especially Singer (2012).
3 A classic expression of this tension is Ambedkar’s famous plea to the constituent assembly that ‘we must remove this contradiction
[denying equality in our social and economic life] at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will
blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.’

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