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Crisis of Democracy in Post-colonial Countries UPSC NOTE


Crisis of democracy in post-colonial countries

  • Heller, Patrick (2023). Parties, Civil Society and Democratic Deepening: Comparing India, Brazil and South Africa, Studies in Indian Politics.

  • Democracies around the world are in regression mode. 

  • Debates on the crisis of democracy typically draw on the experience in OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. 

  • The focus is on the effects of globalisation and how the economic marginalisation of the lower classes has bolstered support for rightwing populism.

  • But in this paper, political sociologist Patrick Heller argues that “the sources of rightwing populism in post-colonial democracies are very different” than in the Global North and “the consequences are much more serious”.

  • Reactionary politics in post-colonial democracies are not merely “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.” 

  • Patrick Heller makes his case through a comparative study of three countries — India, South Africa and Brazil — all of which share similar structural and historical characteristics and have experienced major crises in democracy.

What are the reasons for the democratic crises in these post-colonial nations?

  • A balance between political and civil society is critical for the sustenance of democratic institutions and practices. 

  • Democratic crisis is a symptom of the failure to incorporate the “subproletariant” — the masses who remain outside the realm of capitalist accumulation — into the economic and social mainstream. 

  • It is when the subproletariat begin to make some economic and political gains through collective mobilisation that traditionally dominant elites form a reactionary social coalition. 

  • Democratic backsliding reaches a crisis point when the reactionary social coalition, having consolidated its grip on state power, starts to “subvert democratic institutions and practices in order to preserve or restore their social and economic privileges”.

  • Most post-colonial democracies were born of “passive revolutions” — independence movements that preserved elite power and “largely left intact the colonial developmental legacies of an unincorporated mass subproletariat”.

  • In India, the ‘subproletariat’ refers to the surplus mass of rural and urban unemployed/underemployed trapped in the informal sector. 

  • Indian democracy is yet to achieve “a degree of material incorporation of labouring classes in a private property economy” — a failing it shares with South Africa and Brazil. 

  • This failure, according to Heller, is linked to the nature of dominant political parties or regimes and their relationship to nationalism.

  • In India, South Africa and Brazil “electoral democracy was ushered in by broad-based but elite-dominated political formations.” 

  • In India, it was the Congress, in post-apartheid South Africa, it was the African National Congress (ANC), while in Brazil it was the Estado Novo. All three gave only limited representation to sections of the popular classes.

  • But some of these nationalist parties also pre-empted the emergence of political formations that have more effectively incorporated the masses.

  • In this regard, it is Brazil that breaks ranks with India and South Africa with the coming to power in 2002 of Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT – Partido dos Trabalhadores). 

  • PT undertook substantial measures to incorporate the working masses into the economic mainstream through a combination of institutional, welfare and labour reforms. 

  • It was the empowerment of the subproletariat during this period that sparked the reaction which culminated in the election of the neo-fascist Bolsonaro regime in 2018. 

  • Yet, it was the work done by the PT over the 14 years it was in power that enabled it to build a coalition of the poorer classes which voted it back to power in 2022.

Brazil’s exceptionalism

  • According to Heller, what sets Brazil apart from India and South Africa is the nature of the historical relationship between the party system and civil society, and here, ironically enough, Brazil owes its higher democratic resilience to two decades of military rule (1964-84). 

  • The military preserved the form, if not the substance, of electoral democracy by sponsoring “two political parties — a government party and an opposition party — that competed in regular elections.” 

  • This resulted in the party system losing credibility in the eyes of the masses, who mobilised independently through civil society organisations.

  • As a growing middle class became increasingly disenchanted with the lack of political freedoms, it joined hands with workers movements battling for higher wages, and various rights-based movements. 

  • These movements, acting as a broad-based coalition, brought the authoritarian era to an end, ushering in democracy. 

  • And when the PT came to power in 2002, they continued to exert power, resulting in a number of reforms that led to real democratic deepening over an uninterrupted period of 14 years.

  • In contrast, in South Africa and India, the prevalence of political society (the Congress and BJP in India and the ANC in South Africa) over popular civil society “has sustained dominant social pacts.” 

  • In South Africa, the ANC, belying its idealistic and inclusive origins in the anti-apartheid mobilisation, has “orchestrated an alliance of white capital and a rising black middle class that has come at the expense of pursuing a more transformative project of class and racial inclusion”. 

  • In India, the Congress and the BJP, for all their differences, have both enjoyed electoral success “on the strength of a social pact that links corporate and landed interests to a broadening middle class.” 

  • Their efforts at inclusion were predicated on top-down state intervention which only ensured the “subsistence of the vast population outside the circuits of capitalist accumulation”.

The need for a robust civil society

  • According to Heller, so long as large segments of the population remain socially and economically excluded — the stability of the democratic order would remain at risk. 

  • The tensions that arise from this exclusion would be played out in a balance between civil society and political parties. 

  • We saw this in the Indian context with the anti-CAA and anti-farm law protests. 

  • With a lacklustre political Opposition, the only two instances where the BJP regime at the Centre publicly backed down was when civil society formations rose in revolt.

  • Heller concludes that where the balance between the parties and civil societies favour the former, the democratic crisis would worsen. 

  • A weakened or contained civil society is less likely to be able to push back against the authoritarian impulses.

  • But where the balance favours civil society, the “parties are more likely to seek genuine accommodations with the popular classes, and such accommodations mark an advance in democratic deepening.” 

  • Countries that want to arrest democratic backsliding would be more likely to taste success if they have a vibrant civil society, and strong, organic links between civil society and political parties that uphold liberal, democratic values.



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Learnerz IAS | Concept oriented UPSC Classes in Malayalam: Crisis of Democracy in Post-colonial Countries UPSC NOTE
Crisis of Democracy in Post-colonial Countries UPSC NOTE
Learnerz IAS | Concept oriented UPSC Classes in Malayalam
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