Jonathan Spencer, a political anthropologist, says, “elections are the principal means whereby ordinary people remind themselves that, whatever the appearances to the contrary, ‘they’ are in charge of their own destiny” (2007: 76). This point became clearer to me during my fieldwork where I started interacting with villagers in the remote villages of Bihar. Despite being aloof and exempted from the very basic presence of state infrastructure (like good roads, electricity, functional primary health care system, or even a basic primary school), the villagers are always upbeat about participating in the elections. Whenever I asked them if they had voted in the last election or not, they almost always shot back asking, “Kahe nahi karbe vote?” (Why would I not vote?). On being questioned further as to why they voted, their responses came in an intriguing statement, “Jaise roti ko pakane ke liye palatna zaroori hai, waise hi sarkar ko bhi adal-badal karna zaroori hai” (Like bread needs to be turned around for it to become well cooked, similarly a govt. also needs to be changed for it to function better).
This type of political consciousness forces one to look at elections, not just as rituals of participation or legitimation, but as important avenues of forging exchange relationships with patrons, as well as, negotiating the terms of patronage politics between politicians and voters. Such a strategic understanding of elections also helps us answer questions like why do voters elect criminal candidates? What is the role of money power in elections? How have elections in India changed over years? And why study elections to understand state-society interactions? Elections offer such a crucial site for this power negotiation between different social groups, which determine and influence the distribution and access to power and other resources among these social groups.
Most theorists of democracy, defined India as an improbable democracy at the time of its independence. Fraught with high levels of poverty, illiteracy and a heterogeneity in social groups, earlier unseen anywhere else in the democratic world, the success of India’s democracy has indeed been a fascinating phenomenon for social scientists to explore for decades. Despite the neoliberal reforms and the advent of globalisation and privatisation leading to a more pro-capitalist approach by the state, Indian society still has a significant section dwelling at its social and economic margins. However, interestingly enough, there has been a massive churning in the political margins of India’s democracy, allowing a more bottom-up participation of hitherto backward sections of the society in the mainstream electoral politics. This shifting or churning in the political margins has influenced the ways in which power distribution in the society is negotiated and renegotiated. As Atul Kohli (2009: 4) has pointed out, a study of this power negotiation, is important to understand and analyze leadership strategies, design of political institutions and the political role of diverse social groups, which together form the basis of state-society interactions.
- Kohli, A. (2009). Democracy and Development in India: From Socialism to Pro-Business. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
- Spencer, J. (2007). Anthropology, Politics and the State: Democracy and Violence in South Asia. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press.