With reference to South Asia, we argue that recourse to the conventional structuralist and transition accounts of democratisation sustains an unhelpful dichotomy. Those approaches tend towards either determinism or agent-driven contingency. In contrast, an alternative approach that recognises the relevance of both structure and agency is proposed. In certain circumstances, human agency opens up the possibility of the relatively rapid transformation of structures. In particular, there are periods of political openness when structures are malleable, and individuals, or individuals acting collectively, are able to reshape structures. Decolonisation both constituted a moment of transition and opened up the possibility of structural change in the context of enhanced elite agency. For the purposes of comparison, the discussion covers the three cases of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Particular attention is drawn to political parties and the structure of ethnic diversity as leading explanatory variables.