Divergent trajectories of democratic deepening: comparing Brazil, India, and South Africa


This article argues that democratic deepening is shaped by shifting civil society-state relations that can only be understood by disaggregating democratic deepening into its component parts of participation, representation, and stateness. This frame is used to explore the divergent democratic trajectories of Brazil, India, and South Africa. Through the examples of local government transformation and social movement mobilization, I argue that a “project” civil society in Brazil has deepened democracy and transformed the state. In contrast, in South Africa and India civil society is increasingly being subordinated to political society. In South Africa, an active civil society has largely been sidelined as a politically consequential actor (containerization) and in India much of civil society has been fragmented and instrumentalized (involution).

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  1. 1.

    This is an argument that has a long lineage in sociology going back to Cardoso and Faletto's (1979) arguments about dependent development, but has recently been more fully developed (e.g., Evans and Heller 2015).

  2. 2.

    The removal of PT (Workers’ Party) and Bolsonaro’s victory is a clear reversal addressed in the conclusion, but should not obscure the very real realignments of social and political power that occurred in the period under review.

  3. 3.

    Out of Kadivar’s data set of eighty countries that became democratic after 1960, there is not a single case of democratic breakdown (out of a total of forty-eight) in a country that had a period of mobilization for democracy of more than five years. Kadivar puts Brazil at six years of popular mobilization, and this group includes Argentina (7), Bolivia (6), Chile (6), Poland (6), and South Africa (13). There are only three countries with two or more years of popular mobilization that suffered breakdowns: Bangladesh (3), Haiti (4), and Russia (5).

  4. 4.

    For an extended and highly innovative argument about the many ways in which civil society can “infiltrate” the state, see Klein and Lee (2019).

  5. 5.

    Distinguishing political from civil society, Cohen and Arato write that “The political role of civil society in turn is not directly related to the control of conquest of power but to the generation of influence through the life of democratic associations and unconstrained discussion in the cultural public sphere” (Cohen and Arato 1992, pp. ix-x).

  6. 6.

    In his first inaugural address (January 1, 1995), the sociologist-turned-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso noted that “Brazil is not poor: it is unequal.” In his autobiography Cardoso predictably paints a rosy picture of democratic and economic progress during his two administrations, but throughout keeps returning to the problem of inequality.

  7. 7.

    The 1990s has been described as the decade of “council democracy.” By one estimate there were at least eighty-four national councils at this time, and thousands of local level councils, including 1167 councils in Sao Paulo state alone (Alvarez 1997, p. 27).

  8. 8.

    Interviews with Cardoso in 2008 and 2009.

  9. 9.

    The exception here is Kerala, where CITU (the CPM-affiliated labor federation) has made significant inroads into the informal sector (Heller 1999). In a very different pattern, new non-aligned movements have emerged in the informal sector, most notably SEWA (Self-employed Women’s Association) and small but significant organizing efforts in the construction and bidi industries (Agarwala 2013).

  10. 10.

    Most notably the cultural organization the Vishva Hindu Parivad (VHP) has nurtured and propagated the ideology of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) and the paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has provided training and social support to Hindu youth and a pipeline of cadres to the BJP, including Modi himself.

  11. 11.

    As political theorist and public intellectual Pratap Bhanu Mehta surmises, India’s identity politics are increasing “creating a culture where each life is reduced to, and completely foretold in, its identity.” Indian Express, Op-ed, Feburary 24, 2019.

  12. 12.

    During the campaign Modi himself strategically downplayed his traditional communal rhetoric, but at the level of parliamentary constituencies the BJP actively played on communal divisions. Most remarkably, of the 282 BJP candidates elected to parliament in 2014, not one was a Muslim, marking the first time in India’s democratic history that Muslims have no representation in the ruling party. During Modi’s government, there has also been a marked uptick in nationalist discourse, including use of colonial-era sedition laws to silence critics and the use of national security laws to detain human rights activists.

  13. 13.

    “The assassination surge on those fighting corruption” Mail and Guardian, October 3, 2014. Accessed July 1, 2017. https://mg.co.za/article/2014-10-03-the-assassination-surge-on-those-fighting-corruption

  14. 14.

    In October 2012 the government released a report that claimed that protest activity had increased dramatically that year and that 80% of the protests were violent (Hart 2014, p. 49).

  15. 15.

    The centrist parties that most observers assumed would benefit most from Rouseff’s removal and Lula’s imprisonment were in fact decimated in the election. Bolsonaro’s party was itself entirely new and has no coherence other than opportunistic ties to Bolsonaro and his family. The only major traditional party that secured a significant vote share was the PT, the only Brazilian party with roots in organized civil society.


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I am grateful to Peter Evans, Andreas Wimmer, Chris Gibson, Pauline Jones-Luong, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Elizabeth Wood, Archon Fung, Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Marcelo Silva, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Ashutosh Varshney for their comments and thoughts.

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Heller, P. Divergent trajectories of democratic deepening: comparing Brazil, India, and South Africa. Theor Soc 48, 351–382 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-019-09351-7

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  • Civil society
  • Democracy
  • Inequality
  • Local government
  • Social movements
  • State