Studies in political science have witnessed a proliferation of literature on civil society in recent years. In the long tradition of thoughts and since the times of political philosophers Montesquieu, Hegel and Tocqueville, the concept of civil society has been alive. After the Second World War, the scholars employed this concept to investigate why some democracies survived the Great Depression while others crumbled and gave way to Fascism. Dramatic democratic transitions in these areas and in other Third World countries during these two decades, the so-called “third wave” provided new opportunities and challenges to the study of civil society.
In Politics of Post-Civil Society: Contemporary History of Political Movements in India, Ajay Gudavarthy has attempted to map the discourse and politics of contemporary political movements in India. In the course of constructing the political landscape of these movements, the book foregrounds the strategies through which these movements are pushing and nudging towards a new politics of post-civil society. Early European political philosophers defined civil society in the context of the relationship between the state and the society. For the later philosophers such as Montesquieu and Tocqueville, it stood in opposition to the state while Marxists such as Gramsci identified civil society with realms outside the power of the state. These definitions of civil society in relational terms are also reflected in recent literatures. Fukuyama has defined civil society as the realm of spontaneously created social structures separate from the state that underlie democratic political institutions. To Dunn, it is “the domain of relationships which falls between the private realm of the family on the one hand and the state on the other”.
According to Gudavarthy, the civil society has set parameters in offering practices that are the means as also certain normative ideals that are the ends to be achieved to preserve democracy and expand the process of democratisation. The author critically unpacks the concept of ‘political society’, which was formulated as a response to the idea of civil society in the post-colonial context and reframes issues of democracy and agency in India within a wider scope than has ever been published before.
The author strongly feels that while these movements appear to be confronted with insurmountable problems, they still manage to hold a promise and a hope. Tracing a detailed history and contemporary dynamics of the five most significant political movements in contemporary India—the civil rights, the Dalit and Naxalite struggles, the feminist politics and the movements to arrest degradation of the environment, he comes to the conclusion that each of these movements engaged, transformed and influenced other political movements. They remained, and continue to remain, distinct.
Yet, these mediations happen, not outside the context of specific social groups and organised political movements but by thinking through them and thinking with them. They generate new political practices, actors and a new expanded agency. The politics of post-civil society, therefore, is politics within constituencies that are taking shape of politics beyond constituency. By posing questions of democracy and agency, Gudavarthy significantly advances on the debate on civil and political society and move towards presenting alternative interpretations of popular politics in contemporary post-colonial societies.
He rescues “civil society” from its rather anodyne and apolitical conceptualisation, and establishes it as a site of insurgent, radical and possibly transformational politics.