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From Crisis of Governability to Neo-Institutional Understanding of Governance in India

A Comparative Book Review

DEMOCRACY AND DISCONTENT:  India’s Growing Crisis of Governability

Atul Kohli[1], Cambridge University Press. 1990

THE PUZZLE OF INDIA’S GOVERNANCE: Culture, Context and Comparative Theory

 Subrata K. Mitra[2]. Routledge, London, 2006.


During last two decades, when scholars were discussing on governance, the “good governance” discourse was dominant point of view. This approach has so many normative aspects. As a concept, good governance carries liberal values that reflect priorities and values of its definers. These sources of definition have the ontological control over the definition of these categories. Therefore criticizers believe that good governance approaches can be compared with modernization theory for the same reasons.   In spite of this kind of criticism, good governance as dominant discourse is used for analyzing of condition of developing countries. Therefore most researches and works on governance and development in India are under control of ‘good governance’ discourse.  In this book review, the main objective is introducing and analyzing of scholarly works that were not influenced by good governance approaches. This book review shed light on less discussed works on governance in India that provide different analytical tool boxes for analyzing of governance in India.

This review is based on the analyzing of Prof. Atul Kohli’s influential work:Democracy and discontent:  India’s Growing Crisis of Governability and Prof. Subrata Mitra’s book," The Puzzle of India’s Governance: Culture, Context and Comparative Theory". My objective is to depict the methodological development of current comparative politics about India, tool boxes of conceptualizing India’s politics, and the implication and contribution of these patterns to comparative politics in Kohli and Mitra's works. Moreover the second objective is illustration of difference of theoretical framework of both of them. Although Kohli’s work is based on historical institutionalism and Huntington’s explanation of political disorder in changing societies, but Mitra tries to develop an illustrated analysis of Indian politics within a rational choice framework, combining theoretical modeling and careful empirical work.

In fact, “the Puzzle of India’s Governance” was written in response of Kohli’s work. So first of all, the main claims of “Democracy and discontent” should be investigated.

As it can be seen, in the first pages of this book, Kohli assumes that a crisis of governability is growing in India and he tries to explain the roots of this crisis. The historical context of his analysis is two Gandhi’s era. He discussed political changes in India from the late of 1960s to late of 1980s.  

He portrayed Congress Party as the key institutional manifestation of India’s newly discovered national unity after colonial time.  This Party reached into village level to incorporate the previously immobilized masses. This institutional arrangement was clearly dominated by educated nationalist elites. In other hand, they were striving to bring the poor and oppressed masses in the main stream of modernization of India’s political economy. The dominant ideology of Congress party was marriage between nationalism and democratic socialism.

Based on his definition, state’s capacity to govern is the capacity simultaneously to promote development and to accommodate diverse in testers.  According to him after congress era (since the mid-1960s) this capacity has declined. Kohli states along with decline in capacity to govern, order and authority have been eroding.

According to Kolhi  “crisis of governability” is caused by the “organizational vacuum” left after the Congress Party’s position weakened without being replaced  by another strong political party(with the exception of West Bengal and partially Tamil Nadu). In fact Kohli´s work (1990) was based on analyzing of the turbulent 1980s.

Kohli defines the concept of governability with direct attention to state’s capacity to govern. According to him for Indian situation, the issue of its growing crisis of governability refers to three kind of problem:

1. Absence of enduring coalition

2. Policy ineffectiveness

3. Incapacity to accommodate political conflict without violence

He knows pursuit of political goals by violent means as the most obvious indicator of increasing problems of governability. Based on his analysis political violence had increased after decline of Congress system in India.     


Figure 1: Political violence in India 1955-1985 (Kohli, 1990, p. 8)

Another important fact about theoretical considerations of Kohli’s work is that he is influenced by Samuel B. Huntington. ‘Political Order in Changing Societies,  (1968)emerged against the intellectual trend towards modernization theory in the post-War period.

Kohli states that he cannot avoid “institutions” and “institutionalization” in his study on governability. He used definition of institution developed by Huntington: organization and procedures that have come to be accepted by a society and thus have acquired a measure of value and stability. Institutionalization then refers to a process whereby political structure and practices take roots; it is both essential and fraught with analytical pitfalls for study of governability.  

 It should be mentioned that Huntington noted that during the 1950s and 1960s political violence and disorder actually increased dramatically. The period was marked, not by political development, but by “political decay.” Contrary to the expectations of modernization theory, this “violence and instability” was “in a large part the product of rapid social change and the rapid mobilization of new groups into politics coupled with the slow development of political institutions (Huntington, 1968, p. 4)In fact, poor countries are generally stable. Modern countries also tend to be stable. Political disorder is most likely to occur during the process of modernization, in Huntigton’s words “[i]t is not the absence of modernity but the efforts to achieve it which produce political disorder (p. 41).” Economic development and social mobilization can have disruptive effects. In particular, economic development leads to increased economic inequality, while social mobilization makes that inequality less legitimate (p. 59).

Figure 2: Huntington-Gurr ‘Polarization’ Model

This kind of Institutional analysis influenced scholars like Kohli (1990)and his forecasts for more violence political disorder should be understood in Huntington way of analysis.

But as Mitra (2006) showed in his work, in spite of regular crises and recurrent violence independent India has nonetheless sustained democratic institutions. Mitra (2006, p. 8)in his work in the Kolhi´s way, used the incidence of riots and murders as quantitative indicators of governance and provided evidences that the level of governance despite of Kohli´s prognosis, increased and the number of riots declined.

Figure 3 Riots in India, 1950–98 (Mitra S. K., 2006, p. 8)

This book, however, addresses what is perhaps the classic problem in the analysis of Indian politics: Why is that in spite of regular crises and recurrent violence independent India has nonetheless sustained democratic institutions? How and why has India evaded the fate of becoming a ‘failed state’ in spite of regular prognoses that this was likely to happen. This book examines how India has been able to sustain democratic governance while undergoing substantial political, social and economic change through a neo- institutional rational choice model of governance, bounded by local culture and context.

He uses ‘rational choice’ and ‘neo-institutionalism’ as theoretical framework of this research. Although there are two scholarly approaches to governance, ‘social capital’ and ‘evolutionary institutionalism’ but he tries to create comprehensive framework, for his analysis. Despite social capital scholars like Putnam that find their solution to problem of orderly rule in trust, shared norms and social networks, researchers with evolutionary institutionalist approach like Samuel Huntington, focuses  on context of governance and continues and growing evolution of institution as the main explanation of orderly rule. But Mitra goes further and while he concedes the role of culture and context in orderly rule, but he suggests that order happen when both sides of transaction decide for their reason to abide the rules and this decision is not stick by context or culture, but it involves their perception of risk and outcomes and it is rational.

Accordingly he portrays different picture of level of governance. The level of governance of an organization depends on the ability of the stakeholders to learn the rules of the organization and conduct their transactions according to those rules. The level of governance of a state depends on its ability to transform citizens into actors and stakeholders in the main organs of the body politic.

Mitra differentiates between “thin,” a state-bound conception of governance, and “thick,” specific rules informing the social world of individuals and groups. Governance lies at the overlap of the thin norms of the state and the thick perception of social groups. If we want to measure governance, we need to consider both. Mitra knows governance is located at the overlapping zone of thin norms of the state and the thick perceptions of social groups.

Figure 4: The modern state, traditional society and governance: competing and converging perspectives. (Mitra S. K., 2006, p. 21)


Mitra criticizes the cross-cultural theory of governance and he believes this theory faced the challenge of providing a general explanation of governance which could be meaningful to actors at the lowest level of political system as well as top of power hierarchy.  

According to him, governance is a conceptual variable in its own right, open in measurement by quantitative or qualitative indicators, but he emphasizes on elites and ordinary people`s preferences as real and important points in depicting governance, so his view is distinguished from ‘good governance’ approaches. He states even when the definers of good governance  act out of best intentions, the pre-qualification lowers the legitimacy of concept for those affected by it in direct proportion to the hiatus between what they perceive as their interest and those who minder.  

The main argument of the book is summed up in two statements: (a) ‘the benign elasticity of India’s institutions [which is what accounts for the durability of the Indian state and of democracy] is the result of effective governance [= ‘orderly rule’], the result of strategic thinking on the part of her elites’ [lifting the argument away from tautology]—rather than of something to do with Indian culture; and (b) ‘individual rationality bounded by local context and embedded values, based on the perception of sanctions, welfare and identity as well as general trust, is the main motor for innovative, systematic, orderly change’ (both quotes p. 1).

As it was mentioned, Mitra’s framework is rational choice neo-institutionalism, whereby all interactions between social actors ultimately be represented as two-player games that are hierarchically ordered and with outcomes that depend on the information available to the actors. Governance is seen as a self-generating side product of the interaction between social actors who pursue not governance in and of itself but their own egoistic material objectives, which they pursue drawing on the logic of human ingenuity. In every game, not only the concrete objectives are known and at stake but also the rules of the game, which can be changed. Understanding the context of the game is crucial for understanding the logic of the actors and for predicting outcomes.

This is the ‘puzzle of India’s governance’ that Mitra sets out to unravel, drawing on his analytical toolbox and the results of interviews with 150 members of regional elites, including police officers, administrators and political leaders, in Punjab, Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Maharashtra—the states that he takes up for comparative analysis. Mitra’s conception of elite is wide. He includes not only politicians but also administrators and people involved in the management of law and order (policemen and judges) at the local, regional, and national level, arguing that they all contribute to the complex texture of governance in India According to him, Indian states a laboratory for comparative analysis. And he claims to have been methodologically innovative in unpacking the concept of governance ‘through a thorough understanding of what it conveys to the stakeholders’ based on the results of the elite interviews.

The states here have been purposefully selected to take into account India’s regional heterogeneity in terms of governance through a concrete analysis of the different patterns, such as ‘reform from below’ (West Bengal), ‘masked coercion from above’ (Maharashtra and Gujarat), ‘stalemated conflict’ (Bihar), ‘identity established’ (Tamil Nadu), and ‘identity contested’ (Punjab).

Mitra’s objective here is not to write histories of these states but “to extract the underlying pattern of regional homeostasis, elite cohesion, and the convergence of micro parameters and macro policies and institutions that account for order and anarchy in the regions.

This sketches the explanatory model that underpins the book as a whole: the level (or quality) of governance, which varies across Indian states, is determined by individual expectations about sanctions—the implementation of law and order, the prospects for welfare, and by the extent to which individuals believe that their identities are protected by the state. ‘Effective governance’ is crucially affected—this is the key finding of the comparative study of the six states.

Mitra suggests that effective governance in the form of orderly rule, more than ‘the innate cohesion of society and culture, or the specific context of colonial rule and transfer of power’, has been a key to the resilience.

He explains his decision to measure ‘governance’ in terms of the incidence of riots and murders partly because of evidence from his survey of inter-correlation of these variables with perceptions of other governance factors that are shown up in the interviews. For examining the state-centric approach to the level of governance in a particular state, he combines statistical indices tracking the occurrence of murder and riots.

In Chapter 4, by the cohesiveness of the regional elite who play a vital role in bridging ‘the interface of modern state and traditional society’ and by the nature of party competition whether it institutionalizes the links between state and individuals effectively or not.

Mitra’s important contribution in this analysis is that he shows us that the level of governance of a state depends on its ability to transform citizens into actors and stakeholders in the main organs of the body politic.According to him, one of the main examples of the ability of the Indian state to turn rebels into stakeholders is the political development in Tamil Nadu after the DMK party got hold of power in 1967, and its propaganda, based on anti-Brahman,anti-northern, and anti-Hindi cultural nationalism, gradually evaporated under the pressure to cope with the tasks of daily state administration and the necessity to maintain friendly relations with the federal government.

One of the most important statement of this book is India’s continental dimensions and complex social structure manifest themselves in a cascade of political groupings that nevertheless are able to sustain coherent and orderly rule. Her political institutions and process, bearing the complex legacies of English utilitarianism, colonial rule and resistance to it through the mobilizationg of marginal social groups and indigenous values, speak in a thousand and one voices but still ensure a general continuity in public policy.

 Mitra concludes that the ‘orderly conduct of affairs’ in the Indian state is to be attributed to four factors: first, the ability of its modern institutions to tap into the historical memory of colonial state traditions; second, the evolving political processes that have a propensity to cut across ethnically diverse groups rather than conflating conflict in a manner that would deepen the rift that divides them; third, the collective legacy of colonial rule and the nationalist struggle that has in many ways prefigured certain positive features of Indian democracy; and fourth, the elasticity of political institutions shown in accommodating embedded cultural values, undergoing strategic reforms and maintaining the difficult balance between coercion and persuasion in the management of law and governance.


The last chapter of the book ‘Negotiating Governance in Changing Societies,” poses the question as to whether there is something in the Indian experience and its struggle for orderly rule within the limitations of its democratic constitution that could be taken as a lesson for politics in general. Mitra refutes the views of some authors on the mystical ways of India or that India owes her democratic resilience entirely to the British legacy; and due to this fact the country constitutes a privileged exception in the postcolonial world. Mitra’s position has avery important implication. If India’s case is not unique but rather the outcome of the accommodative strategy of negotiation followed by Indian state and their elites, following a similar strategy should lead to a high level of governance anywhere in the world. Contrary to predictions based on generalizations from micro-studies of communal violence  Mitra’s   prognosis for India’s democracy is optimistic.

However as it was discussed by Mitra (2006, p. 1)India belongs to a minority of changing societies1that have achieved the distinction of having durability, adaptability and innovativeness as characteristics of their institutions. He argued that relatively benign elasticity of India’s institutions is the result of effective governance (a concept he uses throughout his work to imply orderly rule), the result of strategic thinking on the part of her elites. India’s decision-makers in politics, administration and the management of law and order, based in localities, regions and at the national level, often owe their own origin and survival to their effectiveness as brokers between the modern state and traditional society. Indian democracy both ordains and lives by the resonance between elite decisions and mass preferences.

Figure 5: dynamic neo-institutional model of governance based on elite strategies (Mitra S. K., 2006, p. 16)

Subrata Mitra shows finally that ‘rational-choice neo-institutionalism can provide a more precise understanding of both continuities and discontinuities than the broad culture-driven structural functionalism that has underpinned the myth of ineluctable, eternal India’.


[1]Atul Kohli is professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.

[2]Subrata K.Mitra is professor of political science at Heidelberg University.