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Sacred Elections

The poorest and most socially disadvantaged in India are no less enthusiastic supporters of democracy and the electoral process than the rest. This fact therefore begs the question: "why do people vote?". Through insights gained through long-term ethnographic research, the answer lies in recognising the sacrosanct place elections have come to occupy in modern Indian public life.

Sacred Elections

The poorest and most socially disadvantaged in India are no less enthusiastic supporters of democracy and the electoral process than the rest. This fact therefore begs the question: “why do people vote?”. Through insights gained through long-term ethnographic research, the answer lies in recognising the sacrosanct place elections have come to occupy in modern Indian public life.


hile democracy clearly involves things other than voting

– such as a free press and civil rights – elections are

still its fundamental and defining feature [Pzerworski 1991, Pastor 1998, Schmitter and Karl 1991 in Coles 2004: 553]. In the case of India, there is perhaps little need to argue why one should take interest in elections. For one thing, with nearly 700 million voters, a general election to Lok Sabha is the largest single organised event in the world. It involves 8,00,000 polling stations, over one million voting machines and proceeds in many phases to facilitate the movement around the country of electoral commission officials and the security forces who guard the polling stations.

Moreover, notwithstanding impressions to the contrary, voting goes on with great enthusiasm. Although voting is not mandatory, and the journey to the nearest polling station can be a difficult one, voter turnout is fairly impressive. General elections to Lok Sabha have recorded turnout of around 60 per cent while it is about 70 per cent or above for the state assembly elections and significantly higher for panchayat elections [Yadav 1999, Palshikar and Kumar 2004]. Further the officially reported turnout is often an underestimate, because the electoral rolls are usually inflated and often contain many names of those who are dead or have moved away on a temporary or permanent basis.

More than the level of turnout, what is most striking about the Indian elections is the pattern of political participation that defies commonsensical expectations and academic theories alike in at least three respects. First, turnout in the Indian elections defies the general trend, especially in older democracies, of decline over time. In the last five decades the overall pattern is that of stable and even increasing turnout in elections. Second, the turnout tends to go up as one goes down the tiers of democracy. As noted above, the turnout in the local and state elections tends to be substantially higher than that in the national elections. Finally, the turnout is not lower among citizens at the lower end of the social and economic hierarchy; if anything, the reverse is true, since a poor, low caste person is more likely to vote here than an upper caste, upper class person. Also, the rural electorate votes more than their urban counterparts; voting in the tribal areas has caught up with the rest of the country; and the gap between the turnout of men and women has reduced substantially in the recent years [Yadav 1999].

Much of this goes against the standard image of the “political man” presented by political science research [Lipset 1981]. It is important to note that we are not dealing merely with just a curious turnout pattern. This pattern which reflects a robust level of belief in the efficacy of one’s vote and a strong support for democracy is supported by available data on wider political attitudes. In this respect the underprivileged groups have turned stronger supporters of the democratic system than before [Linz, Stepan and Yadav 2007].

So we may ask – why this enthusiasm? Why do people whose lives in fact improve very little from election to election, nonetheless continue to think of them as important events which “demand” their participation? Why does their faith in their votes continue despite the continued subjection of the vast rural poor interests to those of the minority urbanites? Why is it that the disadvantaged and socially exploited turn out to be the staunchest and most vociferous supporters of elections? Put bluntly: why on earth do India’s “poor of the earth” bother to vote at all?

There are two kind of explanations which are usually offered. First, the one derived from rational choice theory, is that the vote is a rational and instrumental tool to maximise self-interest and the voters use it for an improvement in the material condition of their lives. A good example of this kind of reasoning is Kanchan Chandra’s discussion of what she calls “patronage democracy” [Chandra 2004]. In Uttar Pradesh for instance, she argues, voters routinely assess the chances of “their” party, defined by caste and ethnicity, in deciding whether to vote for a particular party or alliance. Here, democracy is all about “patronage”, with the government in power delivering even the most basic of entitlements as handouts to its clients. In this assessment, voting strategically and often therefore increases one’s chances of accruing these benefits. According to this instrumentalist view, elections are arenas for transactional behaviour and the skilful deployment of one’s vote as an instrument can lead to tangible benefits.

A second kind of explanation is the symbolic view of elections. From this perspective, democracy is really an untrue but vitally important myth in support of social cohesion, with elections as its central and regular ritual enactment that helps maintain and restore equilibrium. The ability to vote is thus seen as a necessary safety valve which allows for the airing of popular disaffection and opinion, but which nevertheless ultimately restores status quo. In such a reading, elections require the complicity of all participants in a deliberate mis-recognition of the emptiness of its procedures and of the lack of any significant changes which this ritual brings about, but are yet a necessary charade to mollify a restless electorate.

Let us now turn to the ethnographic data, to what an election day is really like in a village in contemporary India, before we are able to judge the utility of the above explanations. While this description is drawn from observations made over several elections in two villages in West Bengal, I have avoided using those details which might in any way be specific to the Bengal political situation. There are of course a number of factors which are unique to Bengal: its unbroken record of communist government over three decades, an especially high percentage of people who attend political rallies and campaign meetings and a pattern of high participation more than in any other states [NES 1999]. For the purposes of the paper however I cite information and observations which can be fairly generalised for other parts of rural India. For instance, the low-caste, village dwelling illiterate Muslim farmers in my own fieldwork site fully live up to the national trend of a democratic upsurge from below in the last 15 years. The account below will bear this out.

The ‘Bhote’ Festival

Local politics in the two villages of Madanpur and Chishti1 were dominated by one man, the local Communist Party representative (universally known as “Comrade”) and he controlled all benefits, loans and opportunities. For a number of reasons that I discuss elsewhere, it is beyond the imagination of many villagers that they not vote for the Comrade’s party. The two villages along with a third share a polling station which was located in the primary school in the third village and the local Left Front candidate belongs to the Forward Bloc. The villages of Madanpur and Chishti were populated almost entirely by Muslims of all castes along with a smaller population of Doms and Bagdis. Figures from the ballot box of their polling station indicated that more than 90 per cent of the adult population from the two villages voted regularly in all elections. People did not vote only on account of ill-health or physical absence from the village on urgent business in a distant part of the state. Having been in the village during several different elections, I came to meet various missing members of families who lived elsewhere but travelled specially back to cast their vote. The case of Amir Ali who came back from his visit to his daughter’s in-laws without a seat on a 36-hour journey by train, bus and ferry to make it through the doors of the polling station minutes before they closed, was not entirely unusual.

On election day,2 the village woke earlier than usual and bustled around urgently with an air of suppressed excitement, like on important festivals. Chores were stripped down to the bare necessities of fetching water and milking cattle, with all attention centred around the imminent mile long journey to the polls, with the constant enquiry of “so, when are you planning to go for the vote?” The men preferred to go in the early morning cool to be present when the doors opened, the women necessarily later after children and cooking pots had been seen to. Keen to look respectable, men swapped the usual ‘lungis’ and ‘dhotis’ for their best trousers, while women wore jewellery and make-up and took out their handloom saris (I was chided for not having put on something new). The children were initially bemused, since unlike on other festivals when they were the centre of attention, today they were largely ignored by their preoccupied elders. They soon realised however that this meant a whole day of no school and unsupervised fun and games.

People travelled to the booth in groups of three or four, partly for moral support but also to help pass the time while trying to hitch a ride from passing trucks or queuing in the sun to vote. The polling station was the little school building in a neighbouring village and adorned by bunting and banners, it could be mistaken from a distance for a shrine or a country fair. Outside were rows of chairs for the various parties’ agents who formed a seated guard of honour for any approaching voter, mildly intimidating in their eagerness to check names off their lists. The polling officials were keen to ensure that the day remained trouble free and armed guards stood around, languid but alert.

For weeks before the election there had been endless discussion (during quilt making, mat weaving and tea drinking) about the magical new contraption of the electronic voting machine (EVM). The local Communist Party agent had helpfully familiarised his supporters with one of the curious black boxes, with its buttons that lit up like the eyes of a dark deity, in order to ensure people would not be too nervous to go to the polling house, or too incompetent to use it (pressing two buttons “spoiled the ballot”). This demonstration was followed by lots of speculation about the “computar”, including guesstimates of how many votes it could register per minute.

Those households who had not been given a preview worried that this was because the machine had mind-reading powers and had already ascertained that they were not intending to vote communist. Rumours spread that it gave you an electric shock if you voted for another party, or that there was a hidden cable which allowed officials to monitor which button lit up and so blew open the secrecy of the ballot. There was also talk of new special ointments circulating that could remove the black finger mark and so allow the same person to use the machine again and again. Some regretted losing the satisfaction of folding one’s ballot paper and stuffing it in a sealed box, but others were relieved they no longer risked humiliation in front of the officials from their awkwardness with a pencil and reasoned that pressing a button was familiar enough from the radios and TVs in the village.

Before someone could cast their vote, their left index finger had to be marked with black ink by the polling officer inside the polling station.3 Such a method is not unique to India – in Bosnia for example, as Kimberly Coles (2004) discusses, a more hi-tech version was used, with silver nitrate based ink that showed up only under ultra-violet light.4 Whereas there it was resented as an intrusion into personal space and offensive indication that the people could not be trusted (so that before long it was abandoned), in India it seemed unobjectionably congruent with all the other body decorations which indicate ritual participation, such as henna on women’s palms, ‘bindis’ and ‘tilaks’ on foreheads, ‘rakhis’ tied on wrists, or the utter submersion in the rainbow of Holi. Thus, in much the same way, the black votemark on the finger is worn with pride as a testament to one’s participation, like a sacred thread around the wrist after a Hindu ritual, or the discolouration on a pious Muslim’s forehead caused by years of bowing to the ground in prayer, a coveted stigmata.

Also since the vote-mark goes away once its function is fulfilled, it can also be seen as belonging to that broad range of ephemeral ritual inscriptions seen throughout India, such as the intricate floor designs of ‘rangoli’, ‘kolam’ or ‘alpona’, made with dry colours, rice flour and grains on the day of a festival, involving hours of work, but soon washed away or allowed to fade to make way for new ones later. More generally, Indian elections produce their own genres of ephemeral art, in elaborate murals, witty cartoons, and the huge cut out figures of politicians that appear on walls everywhere during the campaign but are removed after polling, and not to mention all the bunting and banners, pamphlets, mock ballot papers, flags and such like.

Walking around the village on election day a number of interesting scenes presented themselves to the observer. For instance, in Madanpur, to the right of the main village lane, stood a bullock cart ready to depart. All one could see on this heaving, heavily loaded cart were feet in plastic slippers dangling from underneath a make shift curtain covering the cart. In it sat some elite women no doubt. Their cover was blown when one of them was suddenly jettisoned from her perch. She hurried home amidst laughter and teasing remarks to change her everyday mill sari into a “proper” handloom one. A casual conclusion of such a scene would be to assume that village women dress up to go to the polls, but longer-term knowledge would reveal several other observations. To start with, the presence of the bullock cart inside a village, however intrinsic to rural Bengal, was an unusual site. In was rarely used to transport people; women walked or took buses, men and children cycled. The group of 10 women

Economic and Political Weekly April 28, 2007 who were huddled together were thus obviously wealthy enough to hire a cart and convert it into a ‘porta-zenana’ to protect their rules of purdah. In Madanpur they were women of the syed caste who normally did not leave the house, and when they did it was only to retrieve animals who had strayed outside their courtyard or to make a quick dash to the local grocers. They were always barefoot and only knew how to sit on the floor. So for these women to be in their best saris, crisp and billowing with starch, feet in slippers, precariously balanced on an overcrowded bench of the bullock cart, one could surmise that this was no ordinary day. They looked uncomfortable and excited. They were: Meher, the local Comrade’s abandoned first wife who voted out a sense of filial duty and hoped that he would notice her commitment; Naseeba, the Comrade’s sister who knew that she would be in trouble with her brother if she was not seen to have made the effort, and it was she who was sent back to change her sari; two other women were sisters, married to two brothers, Jaker and Shaker, who had long mounted a rival power group to the Comrade. Their party, the Congress, was moribund but they continued to secretly support it. By travelling together with the other elite women and the Comrade’s relatives, they hoped to deflect interest in their rival political loyalties. A fifth woman was Manohara, Akbar’s wife. Akbar was an enigmatic and knowledgeable man with twinkling eyes but he refused to talk politics with me for fear of retaliation from the Comrade. He was an old rival and one who had been punished in the past for his views. Korima’s husband was the articulate Mukhtar who was the village intellectual who nevertheless kept out of realpolitik. As an intelligent but illiterate woman, Korima understood her husband’s explanations about the duty to vote and she had shown up with her two newly arrived daughters-in-law. Rokiya and her daughter while elite, were impoverished, and now supported the Comrade in the hope of material benefits in the future. This tableau of women on a bullock cart journeying to the polling station, which would appear to a casual observer to be nothing remarkable, was in truth the microcosm of a larger world of village politics, and the presence of these women was an intricate triangulation of various motivations that drove them to vote.

Crossing over to the twin village of Chishti on the other side of the highway, I came across Tinkari Dom sitting quietly in the courtyard of his house surrounded by the low mud huts of his son and sons-in-law. His daughter-in-law sat at a distance washing clothes. No one else was in sight. Again a casual conclusion might have been the lack of enthusiasm for elections among low caste Hindus, but knowing their family intimately, I knew Tinkari was an articulate and politicised individual who had brought up a son to be the same. The large family was close knit and among the most perceptive and politically committed in their village, but on polling day Tinkari was bitter and depressed because it was on this day more than any others that the enormous influence the Comrade wielded really became apparent. What was otherwise implicit became visible as one could see people physically making the journey to the polling station out of loyalty, fear or anger towards him. The Comrade was an important factor in everyone’s participation in the elections. Tinkari’s own impoverished situation, which he normally bore with dignity, seemed unbearable in comparison. Living quite literally in shadow of the Comrade’s sprawling compound, he ruminated his past. It was he who had recruited the Comrade as a young man into politics serving as his mentor, but was soon outmanoeuvred by the younger man’s skilled strategising. The daughter-in-law attempted to lighten the mood by telling me about stupid women who were pressing the button on the EVM more than once and thereby spoiling their vote. The casual conclusion would therefore be wide off the mark.

Far from being the result of being illiterate and low caste, Tinkari’s reluctance to go to the polls was the result of his superior understanding and experience of how politics actually worked. Again, it would be impossible to know this without sustained engagement with the people of this village.

Before I left Tinkari’s house he also told me to watch out for what “the masters” might say. “They have always been Congress supporters but they may sing a different tune today” he warned me. There were several masters in Chishti. They were schoolmasters in primary schools and earned an enviable wage of more than Rs 10,000 a month. Surrounded as they were by illiteracy, daily wage earners and the uncertainties of agriculture, they were among the most envied men in the village. The fifth house on the right was Hanif Master’s who told me cheerfully that he had already been to the polling station. Again, the mistaken casual observation would be to note that schoolteachers by virtue of their education showed the greatest enthusiasm for elections. Instead, the truth of the matter was that Hanif had just ended a rather public challenge to the Comrade’s authority just before the elections because of the help he needed from the Comrade in acquiring a plot of land adjacent to his house for his son’s wedding which was scheduled to be held soon after the elections. His enthusiasm for registering his vote thus had a pecuniary edge.

Returning back to the bus stop on the highway to make my own journey to the polling station I spotted a family waiting by the roadside hoping to hitch a ride. Kubera, who rang a tiny paan shop with her husband, had been wanting for months for her daughter and son-in-law to visit her, but had failed to persuade them. With the election, she had a useful pretext and threatened them the consequences of Comrade’s wrath if he found out they hadn’t been to vote. As they all waited by the side of a melting highway on that blistering May afternoon, she remarked to me that the Party should feed them too on election day and not just their workers. “After all” she said with a wink, “we are doing the most important work of all of pressing the button. Without that, they are nothing”. Her statement would have blown any hasty conclusions about the poor Kubera being forced to go to the polling station at any cost by party workers away. She may have been speaking only in jest, but she was serious about the basic message. Election day made apparent the relationship between the Party and its supporters. An idea of mutual entitlement has grown on both sides. While the Party may have grown complacent while in power for nearly three decades, it is on election day that voters like Kubera offer them a harsh reality check: “Without us the Party is nothing”. However brief, this sentiment instils a certain humility, a nervousness on the part of Party workers while campaigning. Misjudged arrogance could cost them a seat and they are aware of this. All unfulfilled promises have to be explained away, and more promises made, and made convincingly. This may seem like a charade enacted every time, but as we have seen, the charade is an important performance that redresses power balances, however briefly.

After voting, back in the village, the hours passed in the relaxed and satisfied conviviality of a holiday, comparing notes on who had gone to the poll when and letting passers-by know that they themselves had indeed already long been. The excitement of the day, the presence of otherwise absent relatives, the peer pressure to participate, the satisfied exhaustion of an important duty successfully discharged all indicated that elections are clearly regarded and treated as being in substantially the same space as religious festivals and rites of passage celebrations. It seems then that we are now getting closer to the heart of why ordinary and marginalised Indians vote in such numbers. Not to vote would be akin to not celebrating your child’s wedding – conceptually possible, but so curmudgeonly, eccentric and anti-social that only a tiny minority would want or dare not to do it.

So Why Do People Vote?

In the light of what we have learnt about the lived experience of an election, let us re-visit the two explanations usually offered to explain the role of elections in a democracy. First, from the narrow viewpoint of marginal utility, voting is hardly ever a rational activity, since as studies of American elections have shown, single votes almost never affect the outcomes of elections [Dubner and Levitt 2005] – and this must be still more true of India’s vast constituencies, yet unlike in the US, it does not result in voter apathy.

Second, in West Bengal at least, the choice of who to vote for is in fact rather secondary, since the Left Front has ruled for nearly 30 years and is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. So you either vote against it, wasting your vote and hardly improving your material circumstances; or you vote for it, knowing that while it has brought some significant improvements to the lives of the poor (e g, land reform), these lie well in the past, with little obvious promise for the future.

Third, and more generally, the Indian voter is no more sanguine about politicians and manifestos than anyone else, as became apparent from my discussions in the village around the time of elections. Very few felt any hope of material benefit from casting their vote and complained that the hopeful candidates during campaign meetings would say “Vote in our favour. We will look after you”, but were then never seen again until the next elections. While basic necessities such as water, electricity and employment were key issues, the voters knew full well of the funds that were misappropriated or otherwise diverted by local politicos and officials.

So the vote is not really a very plausible tool of material improvement. However, couldn’t it still be a powerful instrument of morality and protest, bringing the satisfaction of “throwing the rascals out”? There is certainly something in this – the Indian voter is a canny rejecter of incumbents; it was estimated that between 1989 and 1999 chances were two out of three that the ruling party in any state would lose elections [Yadav 1999]. On the whole however, even such anti-incumbency feeling cannot really explain Indian enthusiasm for voting – for voters are well aware that this usually means merely exchanging one set of rascals for another. In fact, most of my villagers seemed to regard becoming a politician as an intrinsically corrupting process. As Ali put it, “poor people should not become leaders because otherwise they will become like rich people. When they say ‘gharibi hatao’ (eradicate poverty!) do they mean that or ‘gharib ko hatao’ (eradicate the poor!); the chief minister and all, do they want to get rid of us? It is not a government for the poor people”. In their evaluative framework, rich people are evil and rich people in politics are doubly so.

One can see therefore why an instrumentalist view of the urge to vote can start to look a bit threadbare. So in response, some commentators, keen to preserve and define the importance of elections nonetheless, have taken a robustly non-rationalist view of them, the second of the two kinds of explanations I recounted at the start of this paper. Steven Lukes makes a virtue out of necessity by arguing that elections are a way in which “a particular political system reproduces itself” and elections “express the symbolic affirmation of the voters’ acceptance of the political system and their role within it” (1975:304) – which is to say that an election is really just an elaborate way to embrace the status quo. John Dunn puts the matter less rosily, but somewhat similarly, seeing elections as “events which confuse in a very intimate and purposeful way, the largely symbolic identifications of large numbers of people with their effects upon the politically effective conduct of rather small numbers of people” [Dunn 1980:112]. According to Dunn, this confusion is beneficial because it makes the electorate feel empowered, albeit briefly, and merely symbolically. This is a conception of elections as “ritual” – though the conception of ritual it assumes is rather denuded, being equated with the absence of intentionality or instrumentality, and thus with something essentially repetitive and automative. Nonetheless, this view’s recognition of the symbolic value of what might otherwise be seen as just a dry and statistical event means that it is still a rather fruitful way to reconsider things in the Indian context, given what we have learnt from our ethnographic description above.

At a national level for instance, it is conspicuous that an administration that often struggles to deliver prosaic matters of infrastructure in an effective and timely way, always raises its performance for general elections and other mega scale rituals like the Kumbha mela. The vast township of tents set up for the millions of pilgrims at Kumbha Nagar, the thoughtful establishment of entire bespoke Haj terminals at Indian airports, and the punctual press releases of the election commission detailing vital polling information well in advance of the election, all see the civil and military machinery running at unprecedented pitches of perfection.5 Each of these mass public events come round periodically according to their own calendar and internal logic, bringing together vast numbers of otherwise unconnected people in participation and faith. Information about “where” and “when” is miraculously diffused among millions who never read a newspaper or listen to the radio, with almanacs, delivery boys and itinerant peddlers all playing their part.

At the domestic level too, most Indians conduct their everyday affairs by the relaxed rhythm of Indian stretchable time. Yet these same people suddenly become fiends of precision and punctuality when it comes to holding rituals during the auspicious timeslots ascertained from almanacs, while temporary moments of confusion about their conduct seem always to be resolved by the timely arrival, out of the blue, of someone who knows exactly what comes next, or of a portion of vital missing ingredient.6

Before proceeding with this line of argument further, it is only fair to note however that there has been recent anthropological criticism of the notion of elections as ritual. Kimberly Coles concedes that “An election fits well into many of the characteristics and categories of ritual and ritual-like action: formalism, traditionalism, disciplined invariance and repetition, rule governance, sacral symbolism, and performance” but nonetheless, she argues that this kind of perspective tends to lead to a neglect of electoral techniques and technologies and their significance, which if properly considered, make an election look less like a Catholic mass and more like a scientific laboratory [Coles 2004:553].

Her account from Bosnia therefore focuses on the detail of electoral laws, polling stations, election officials and ballots, and taking her lead from Bruno Latour on laboratories, she thus sees elections as sites that create knowledge, truth and neutrality, and so enable democracy, like science, to wield hegemonic authority through its representation as quite distinct from society and subjectivity. The key then is to assess how the human agents and technological apparatus interact in the cultural practice of elections. This is a difficult but potentially rewarding agenda for electoral ethnography and I already edged somewhat in this direction in my discussion of finger marking. More broadly, in discharging its role to defend and foster India’s democracy, the election commission has certainly created its own set of techniques

Economic and Political Weekly April 28, 2007 and practices to suit the country’s particular needs, such as facilitating the participation of illiterate voters by requiring each political party to be represented by a symbol in campaign material and on the ballot paper [Jaffrelot 2006]. More recently, over one million electronic voting machines have been deployed as mandatory replacements for paper voting.

Nonetheless, I don’t think Coles’ view of the importance of electoral technology necessarily contradicts or undermines the idea of election-as-ritual. For as Michael Herzfeld has argued, the modern form of bureaucratic rationality looks very much like the ritual systems of religions [Herzfeld 1992]. Both are exclusive communities whose members’ individual sins cannot undermine the ultimate perfection of the ideal they all share and both post a direct identification between the community of believers and the unity of that ideal: “we may view the continual reaffirmation of this transcendent identity as an effect of some bureaucratic labour and the labour itself is highly ritualistic: forms, symbols, texts, sanctions, obeisance”.

Moreover, the archaeologist (David Wengrow 2006) has provided additional historical depth to this rejection of a dichotomy between modern bureaucracy and ancient charisma, by showing how bureaucratic procedures in ancient Egypt in fact evolved through the gradual extension into the world of the living of the elaborate mortuary rituals that had long controlled the world of the dead. As a result, Egypt’s political culture came to be dominated by a strange but intense synthesis of bureaucracy and sacrifice

– a mix which Wengrow hints may be closer to the realities of our modern state than we might wish to acknowledge.

From this perspective, I am tempted to see a fusion between India’s electoral bureaucracy and a ritual not of death, but of birth. For as with the US over 170 years before, the tryst with destiny of 1947 created in one stroke, and indivisibly, both a new nation and a democracy, whilst the election commission was set up by an Act of Parliament immediately after. Thus the commission has ever since seen itself as a key guardian not merely of elections but of the very nation itself, a sacred duty which it discharges with great seriousness and diligence. In practical terms, its reach and standardisation throughout every corner of the motherland make it one of only a handful of institutions (the army, railways, cricket and movies) that are genuinely pan-Indian and that can serve to bind the vast and varied country together. Consequently, conducting elections in a fair and efficient way helps generate not only faith in the democratic system, but also patriotic faith in the idea of India itself. Again, surveys revealed the evidence of this trust in the election commission, people’s belief that elections were largely free and fair and an overwhelming support for the commission’s decision to switch to EVMs [Rao 2004 and NES 1999]. The population thus greatly appreciates the work of the commission, rating it as the most respected public institution (the police are the least) and supporting it through action by availing themselves in great numbers of its voting technologies – it would be rude not to! From this perspective, to dwell mainly on the election’s festive aspect and collective effervescence in the village, as I did earlier, is still to miss what is actually most important and interesting in the comparison of election and ritual in the Indian context – namely that so many people seem to share a genuine and thoughtful reverence for the democratic process as in some sense “sacred” or “sacrosanct”.7

This is somewhat surprising – for given the rural population’s own poverty and their disillusionment with politicians, one might have expected to hear from them the sort of authoritarian and populist opinions aired among middle class urban Indian voters, about the pressing need for stability, discipline in public life, and “a strong pair of hands”. Instead, strong evidence of rural respect for the lofty ideals of the democratic process emerges from large-scale survey research – and was equally clear in my own ethnographic findings. For example, many of the same people who gave trenchant critiques of politicians nonetheless spoke resolutely of voting as a duty of all responsible citizens, which contributed to clear cut and legitimised electoral results, thereby helping achieve political stability and avoid the vast expense of frequently repeated elections. Hence not bothering to cast a vote was condemned as careless and even criminal. For as one woman put it: “even one vote can change the result, so that is an expensive waste”. Another woman admitted her lack of political sophistication, but was in no doubt about her role and duty: “we don’t know why governments break up, we are not concerned with election results; our job is to vote”.8

Such views explain why on election day villagers discreetly checked out each other’s fingers and made their surprise and disapproval known to those who as yet bore no mark. Any excuse for not voting, other than perhaps severe illness, was met with a barely concealed scepticism, and such peer pressure led even natives who had migrated elsewhere to make expensive journeys back to their home constituency.9 If many saw voting as a duty of citizenship, others put more stress on voting as an “expression” of citizenship. As one man who dwelt in a particularly remote corner of the state told me: “If I don’t even vote, no one will know I exist!” Another said “If we don’t vote how can we prove that we are citizens of our country?” For these people, living in semi-forgotten corners of the nation, well outside the India that was purportedly “shining”, this opportunity to prove one’s membership of the nation and confirm one’s status as a citizen was acutely felt. The ability to register one’s existence through such a physical presentation of one’s body (and vote) at the ballot box was the ultimate validation of one’s identity as a citizen, above everything else. The legal principle of habeus corpus which Agamben has argued can become “modern democracy’s strength and at the same time its inner contradiction”, when one considered in the context of Indian electoral law makes it curiously empowering [Agamben 1998:124]. Agamben points out that while the legal principle of habeus corpus was meant to ensure that the accused did not avoid judgment, it also in turn exposed the body to sovereign power: “Corpus is a two-faced being, the bearer both of subjection to sovereign power and of individual liberties” (ibid:125; original emphasis). In the case of the Indian voter however, the legal requirement to be present in person to cast a vote, is interpreted by my informants at least, as a rare flowering of their individual liberties in an arid reality of constant subjection. Exercising one’s right to vote thus provided one of the very few ways to express one’s citizenship and in a more appealing and dignified mode than merely claiming one’s rice ration.

The egalitarian mechanics of the poll afforded particular pleasure. People relished the fact that everyone, regardless of caste and class, had to stand cheek by jowl in the queue and wait their turn and the marking of all fingers, regardless of status, was a similarly satisfying displacement of the administrative thumb prints which had long stigmatised the illiterate. People also noted the fact that unlike religious rituals, which required the presence of an officiating imam or priest but not necessarily a congregation, an election could not be held without them – a “festival for the people, not for Allah!”

Whilst homo equalis may indeed exist alongside homo hierarchicus in the conceptual reality of contemporary India (as Andre Beteille has forcefully and plausibly argued), in everyday life it is submerged deep beneath chronic social inequality and deprivation. So the levelling of the polling station is an almost unique event where equality is brought to life, however fleetingly, and where the enduring pain of ignominy and oppression is dulled, at least for a day. And given this brief unveiling of a deeper value usually suppressed, it is little wonder that the event has a carnivalesque import and explosive potential which requires a cessation of all normal activity and close monitoring by security troops and the election commission.

Another aspect of this egalitarianism was the frequent description of the vote as the people’s weapon: “Why would anyone want to waste this opportunity? – the vote is our weapon. No one knows what is really in my heart, which party I like and I can express this in secret, on my own, in the booth covered with sacking!” In line with what we said earlier however, it is not seen as a weapon to secure better lives, but more realistically, as part of a constant attritional battle to ensure that the treatment of the poor and the marginalised did not get any worse. As one man neatly put it: “The fact that I can cast my vote is a right. But we have also got our rights through voting. Voting brings more power in our hands and so if we don’t exercise this right, the government becomes autocratic”. They thus implied that using their vote compels governments and political parties to display at least a basic minimum concern and assistance, and so in a sense echoed Amartya Sen’s well known observation that electoral accountability means that famines do not occur in democracies.

Sacred Elections

My reading of elections as sacred is therefore a modification of the election-as-ritual approach. First, it takes the symbolism seriously, by paying close attention to what the participants in elections make of its message. The vote is felt to possess both symbolic power, in expressing people’s self-respect and selfworth, and instrumental power, in helping to ward off potential attacks by the state upon that self-worth. The vital importance of such power for dignity and survival, along with the appealing formal equality of the vote’s operation and the sense of dutiful participation as citizen-subjects which it affords, together generate that deep felt sense of “something sacred” which gives a moral and emotional core to the ritual elements of the election and draws India’s voters irresistably towards it.

Second, my approach is akin to anthropologists like Wendy James (2003) who have attempted to de-link “ritual” from religion. James argues that the word ritual is weighed down with the “aura of incense” and general religiosity, and more importantly, that it has come to be regarded as a disembodied mirror of “society” or “culture”. She suggests instead that the notion of the “ceremonial” would be a freer and more fruitful term. In her usage, a “ceremony” is not a reflection of something more solid or an effect of something deeper. In particular, ‘ceremony’ cannot reflect or represent “society” because it is in fact intrinsic to what we mean by society – hence ceremony assumes sociality in a way that the more abstract ritual often does not. In James’s imaginative metaphor, ceremony, like dance, portrays “[social] structure in motion” and the anthropologist’s task is to come to an understanding of the choreography.

In the context of this paper then we cannot simply think of an election as one big ritual serving a single function (whether of affirmation or subversion) in respect of society. Nor should we interpret elections as actually religious despite their sharing that quality of inviolability which religious rituals indeed posses in Indian life. Rather, we should see the ceremony of an election as a congeries of socio-cultural “dances” emerging out of the habits, circumstances and motivations of everyday life. In this vein, anthropologist Jonathan Spencer rejects the notion that elections in Sri Lanka (in the 1980s) were some kind of symbolic ritual dressing that conceals or mystifies the “reality” of political life or necessarily confirms communitas or the status quo. Instead, he describes them as moral dramas, to indicate the ways in which they have “a more lingering impact on people’s everyday lives” (25-26). Elections could be the site of genuine dissent with real consequences, since they were a licence for people to say and do the things which they normally felt too ashamed to say or do, “a time to sort out the good people from the bad” and to establish enduring moral codes for the future.

Equally, it finally became clear to me – after prolonged work in the village – that all actors in the “macro-politics” of election day were conducting themselves in ways that were inextricably linked to the previous months and years of the “micro-politics” of the village. In retrospect, election day was when the complexity of the village’s social life was distilled into moments of structure and clarity, when diffuse tensions and loyalties were made unusually manifest. So the election offered potentially powerful snap shots that light up a longer and more diffuse “thick description”.

In this paper I have sought to provide some flavour of this thick description so as to explore why the disadvantaged in India are those most committed to the idea of democracy and participate in elections with such enthusiasm. What we have learnt is that while the material benefits of participating in elections are entirely unpredictable, elections as ceremonies have come to stand for much more. They offer an opportunity for the expression of citizenship, and for an understanding of the duties and rights involved in living in a democracy. As a result, they have become as much an end in themselves, as a means to a better society (and the extraordinary efficiency and incorruptability of the election commission in conducting elections have further added to their importance).

Elections have thus come to be considered sacrosanct in much the same way as rituals are in Indian social life. As discussed above, just as slack attitudes to time at the work place are replaced by uncompromising punctuality in religious rituals, so elections are conducted in India with an unparalleled degree of probity because of their unique status in public life. To call them sacred therefore is not to imply that there is anything “religious” about them, but to signify inviolability.

Durkheim’s qualification on the use of the word religious is entirely appropriate here: “We know today that a religion does not necessarily imply symbols and rites in the full sense, or temples or priests. All this external apparatus is merely its superficial aspect. Essentially, it is nothing other than a system of collective beliefs and practices which have a special authority. And it has this special authority derived from a moral supremacy because it rises above private goals” [Durkheim 1898: 23]. Durkheim uses this definition to characterise individualism, which he considers to be the “very religion of humanity” because it is a glorification not of individual qualities, but the divine humanity which he shares with all men. Thus each individual has a right to this religious aspect because each has within him something of that humanity whose divine character renders it sacred and inviolable to others.

This Durkheimian idea of sacred individualism is crucial (I would argue) to understanding elections as sacred expressions of citizenship. For at their best, elections facilitate moments of political “anti-structure” and allow for different political imaginaries to be configured. They cast a shadow, however brief, over the smug and corrupt, by reminding them that their end could be nigh, wrought by an electorate which despite its marginality during the past year, has a festive and solemn moment of power and equality that holds out hope and succour for the next. It is

Economic and Political Weekly April 28, 2007 a “ritual of thraldom” to democracy, and worthy of its sacred ceremonial.




[My first and foremost thanks go to Manish Gupta, Jawhar Sircar and theircolleagues in the Indian Administrative Services in West Bengal for theirhelp with my research over several years. It was a challenge from SanjayMitra, IAS, to come up with an explanation for their unusual bureaucraticalacrity which forced me to think about elections imaginatively. For theirinsightful comments and questions on this paper I thank Paul Brass, DipeshChakravarty, Veena Das, Peter deSouza, Julian Watts, Yogendra Yadav,members of the research seminars at University College London, LondonSchool of Economics, and the ‘Anthropology of Democracy’ seminar heldat Santa Fe, USA in March 2005.]

1 Names of the two villages have been changed.

2 These scenes are mainly from the assembly elections of May 2001 whenthere was some discussion in the media about a possible challenge tothe Left Front’s performance from Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.While some people in the village discussed this, most were unaware ofthis news, and treated it like any other election.

3 The instructions given by the election commission to polling officers onthis subject are detailed and explicit. They specify which of the officersshould do the ink marking, how to clean a finger if it looks covered inany suspiciously oily substance, which finger is to be used if the leftforefinger is missing and so on.

4 Coles construes this as marking the body to identify the citizen-subject.When this practice was discontinued in the 2000 elections Coles heardpeople warn against multiple voting as now “Anyone can pretend to beanyone without some sort of physical mark!”. While the main reasonsfor discontinuing the pratice may have had as much to do with budgetaryconstraints for ultraviolet lights, their maintenance, batteries and inkbottles, the official line was to emphasise elections as an inclusionaryrather than exclusionary practice and that the basis of trust should beidentificatory rather than physical evidence [Coles 2004: 552].

5 A good example of this level of imagination and efficiency was in evidenceone year when there was severe flooding in West Bengal during theelections. Rather than throw their hands up in despair, the local administration converted trains into mobile polling stations, arranging for themto stop at various points on the tracks (which on account of being locatedon higher ground were above the water level), so that people could travelby boat across the waterlogged fields to come and cast their vote.

6 A small rite at a brick kiln illustrates my point. It takes about 10 daysof continuous daylight labour to build a Chinese style brick kiln, duringwhich the bricks are shaped, baked and then placed in concentric circlesinterspersed with charcoal. On the final day the kiln is lit at sundown.While this is done, a little puja is performed with incense sticks and flowersas the person who lights the fire asks for forgiveness for committing thesin of burning earth. Once the fire is lit and the flames spread throughthe intricate flues of the kiln, sweets are distributed to all the labourers and onlookers. It is a little celebration but one which is carried out with every element present, with sweets and flowers, which I had not ever seenin the village in the entire time I had spent there, not only appearing butappearing on time and in the middle of nowhere where the kiln was located.

7 It is startling and satisfying to learn too therefore that this sacrosanct qualityof elections, which is a popular grassroots one is also endorsed by othernational institutions. In a forthcoming paper, the historian David Gilmartin(2007) explores the provenance of the notion of popular sovereigntythrough electoral law in modern India and quotes a telling response fromthe Supreme Court to an appeal regarding election malpractice in 1981:“In a democracy such as ours the purity and sanctity of elections, thesacrosanct and sacred nature of the electoral process must be perseveredand maintained”. Gilmartin goes on to clarify this quote, in a similar veinto my own clarification about the use of the word “sacred” that this isnot in a religious sense but signifies the conceptual space that standsoutside both state and society.

8 This notion of “duty” was also akin to the sense of duty when peoplespeak of having to pay their condolences at a relative’s death: a grudgingobligation which can be inconvenient but unthinkable not to fulfil. It isworth reminding ourselves here that voter fatigue is a distinct possibilityin Bengal given that sometimes in the span of less than 18 months threemajor elections might be held. For instance, the March 1998 and October1999 all India general elections and the May 1998 panchayat elections.

9 In case we assume that such commitment to voting under peer pressureor commitment to civic duty is a curiously Indian phenomenon, acomparative example from Switzerland helps prove that this is not thecase. Based on a study conducted by Patricia Funk, Dubner and Levitt note: “The Swiss love to vote – on parliamentary elections, on plebiscites,on whatever may arise. But voter participation had begun to slip overthe years, so a new option was introduced: the mail-in ballot. Every eligibleSwiss citizen began to automatically receive a ballot in the mail, whichcould then be completed and returned by mail.” The “cost” of votingin terms of time and inconvenience had been effectively lowered and thusan economic model would predict voter turnout to increase substantially.But is that what happened? “Not at all” says the report. In fact, voterturnout often decreased, especially in smaller cantons and in the smallercommunities within cantons. But why on earth would fewer people votewhen the cost of doing so is lowered? In Switzerland, as in the US, “thereexists a fairly strong social norm that a good citizen should go to thepolls,” Funk writes. “As long as poll-voting was the only option, therewas an incentive (or pressure) to go to the polls only to be seen handingin the vote. The motivation could be hope for social esteem, benefits frombeing perceived as a cooperator or just the avoidance of informal sanctions.Since in small communities, people know each other better and gossipabout who fulfils civic duties and who doesn’t, the benefits of norm adherence were particularly high in this type of community.” In otherwords, Dubner and Levitt conclude, we do vote out of self-interest – a conclusion that will satisfy economists – but not necessarily the sameself-interest as indicated by our actual ballot choice. The Swiss studysuggests that we may be driven to vote less by a financial incentive thana social one. It may be that the most valuable payoff of voting is simplybeing seen at the polling place by your friends or co-workers [Dubnerand Levitt 2005].


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