The paper analyses the new architecture of global governance which is characterised by unaccountable international institutions and scattered sovereignties. It examines the dilemmas of civil society actors (social movements and NGOs) involved in protecting the rights of local communities through strategic issue-based alliances with the state or the World Bank, whose legitimacy they question in other contexts. The cunning state remains a central actor in selectively transposing neoliberal policies to the national terrain and capitalises on its perceived weakness in order to render itself unaccountable to its citizens. The argument draws on empirical material from India around conflicts over the patenting of genetic resources, biodiversity conservation, forced displacement and privatisation of common property resources.