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Localisation of Democracy

The Vernacularisation of Democracy: Politics, Caste and Religion in India by Lucia Michelutti,

Economic & Political Weekly EPW March 21, 2009 vol xliv no 1233book reviewLocalisation of DemocracyManjari KatjuThe Vernacularisation of Democracy: Politics, Caste and Religion in India by Lucia Michelutti (London, New York, New Delhi: Routledge), 2008; pp XX + 253, Rs 675.The “deepening” of democracy in India has been a subject of keen academic interest. Institutional studies have been supplemented by research on mat-ters like the elections, which have un-earthed a socio-political minefield raising interesting questions. The changing voting patterns have revealed the enthusiasm or apathy of varied sections towards political participation. Research has also focused on political culture to see how it has influ-enced or been influenced by the demo-cratic apparatus. What has amazed ana-lysts and commentators is that the process of democratic deepening in India has occurred despite the widespread poverty, squalor, illiteracy and social divisions. Democratic government was considered to be an institution of the well-to-do suited for robust industrial-urban societies. Con-versely, it was considered unworkable in underdeveloped societies with their characteristic backward economic con-ditions. However, the Indian case has been a leading current against this thesis. Not only did Indian democracy move ahead despite the innumerable social and economic problems, it drew its strength from the vulnerable/marginalised, the very sections which are and seen as ill-equipped for adjusting to democratic functioning. It is these sections which have come in support of democracy and would not like to replace it with any other form of government. Power DecentralisationAnalysts have highlighted the role played by power decentralisation and the accom-modation of group demands in making the democratic project successful in India (Kohli 2001). The power dispersion, how-ever, does not imply that the framework of a centralised state has been abandoned. Similarly, group demands have been ac-commodated without the interests ofthe powerful being discarded. A balance has been struck between the rival interests which has helped in strengthening demo-cracy. In turn, the institutionalisation of democratic practices has unfolded a pro-cess of blurring social hierarchies and powered the struggle for more dignity and self-respect (Alam 2004). This has opened up a process of weakening the inherited social structures and social hierarchies and brought growing sections of society into the political arena. Moreover, genera-tional shifts have seen new kinds of mobi-lisations on new agendas. Michelutti, in her book, looks at similar issues raised by Indian democratisation though her handling of them is anthro-pological. Focusing on the popular-side as distinct from the institutional-side of democratic consolidation, she discusses what she calls the process of vernaculari-sation of democratic politics. By using ethnographic tools, she points to the ways in which democracy gets rooted in socio-cultural practices and becomes an insepa-rable part of the lives of ordinary people. Yadavs of MathuraHere she takes the Yadav community of Mathura (Uttar Pradesh) to demonstrate the social embedding of democracy. The Yadavs, the marginalised people, have be-come an important force in Uttar Pradesh politics. Playing an important role in tak-ing ahead the other backward classes’ movement, they demanded the implemen-tation of the Mandal Commission recom-mendations, the lobbying for which hap-pened “in the name of Krishna” as Mic-helutti writes. Their supposed religious descent places upon them the responsi-bility of fighting against social exploitation in thiskali yuga and brings about justice. They see themselves as saviours of the backward classes and depict B P Mandal as a glorified soul in their caste literature. Michelutti demonstrates how the zamindari abolition legislation and the green revolution, which led to cultivators getting ownership rights – brought about far-reaching socio-political changes. The Yadavs/Ahirs, Gujjars and Jats who gained from these agrarian policies in western Uttar Pradesh, went on to become dominant forces in contemporary politics and gradu-ally moved away from the Congress. This and subsequent developments like the kisan movements, saw the Congress political domination seriously challenged in western Uttar Pradesh and the rise of political par-ties like the Lok Dal, and later, the Samaj-wadi Party to represent local interests. It is interesting to bring in some of the past analysis on democratic expansion into the picture again. The agrarian changes, like zamindari abolition, brought about decisive socio-economic transfor-mations, but no less important in the growth of democracy was the process of expansion of the state’s network and the process of power diffusion. Weiner (1965) linked this democratic expansion to the rise of the mass political culture in India. In a nutshell, the emergence of the mass political culture following independence was attributed by him to the work of three forces (Weiner’s argument is much more detailed, but to put things in pers-pective this summary should do): the expansion of governmental activity and institutions, the dispersion of power and the democratisation of power. The first brought the government into develop-mental activity – the setting up of schools, hospitals, irrigation, roads included. The second, through the process of decentrali-sation, dispersed power locally and made it available to larger numbers of people. The third, through the abolition of princely states and zamindari and the introduction of universal adult suffrage, reduced the powers of big landlords/rajas, and made the new institutions subject to popular control. Thus, as Weiner says though the elite frowns upon mass politics, it is this very elite (the national political leaders, planners and the senior administrative cadre) which, in a large measure, created
BOOK REVIEWMarch 21, 2009 vol xliv no 12 EPW Economic & Political Weekly34conditions for the emergence of the mass political culture. The sections which became dominant consequently moved away from the Congress and looked for alternatives or opted for self-representation. The Yadavs form one such group in Uttar Pradesh.Michelutti documents how for an in-creasing number of Yadavs the idiom of kinship holds much more importance than the idiom of purity-pollution. She indi-cates that historically the Ahir/Yadav caste cluster has had a marked tribal char-acter, which has meant that “substantial-isation” or overarching aggregation is not alien to them. This identification as mem-bers of a large kin-community weakens some of the existing internal subdivisions and builds united and large blocs that give a competitive edge in the electoral arena. She shows how in towns like Mathura breaching of endogamy in inter-subcaste unions has become much more acceptable and among the Yadavs approval for these is particularly high pointing towards the importance of numerical strength in a democracy. She draws attention to the Ya-dav caste federations/associations which emerged to voice the interests of the Yadavs and to bargain for a better share in state patronage. On their part, the active members of these federations became part of the Samajwadi Party, which articulates their political positions. The formation of these Yadav federations reminds one of the term paracommunities used by the Rudolphs for caste associations. These paracommunities emerge from as-criptive identities but also differ from them. The two are distinguishable in their quali-ties and numerical strength – where the sub-castes are linked in geographically ex-tended associations (Rudolph and Rudolph 1967). The coming together of the sub-castes as paracommunities enables members of castes to pursue the goals of social mobility, political power and economic advantage (ibid). This adaptation is linked to demo-cratic institutionalisation, where a cement-ed identity makes the access to political power easier. Similar is the case with the Yadavs of Mathura as shown by Michelutti. Collective IdentityMichelutti discusses how the Yadavs view themselves as belonging to an undifferen-tiated group. The subdivisional boundaries that divided the Yadavs as Yaduvanshis, Nandavanshis and Goallavanshis are ex-punged to merge the three into a larger community with an overarching title, Krishnavanshi. Michelutti says that Krishnavanshi is a title that does not have an occupational or territorial foundation. What is interesting is that she was unable to find this title in any of the ethnogra-phies of the Yadavs/Ahirs recorded in colonial times or collected more recently, which indicates its very recent origin. She found that the importance of a larger col-lective identity in a democracy is being recognised by the Yadavs. As such a united Yadav identity is seen as modern and pro-gressive. On the other hand, divisions are seen as “backward” and “non-progress” (p 117). In Michelutti’s words, “The Krishnavanshi Yadavs see themselves as modern members of a national Yadav com-munity. They adhere to a substantialised idea of caste and such a position is contin-uously reinforced by their promotion of subcaste fusion”. This does not mean that all internal social hierarchy is erased. While ritual differences have become weak “…the ine-quality among the local Yadavs is today primarily a product of economic and political conditions” (p 117). The competi-tion between the Yadav families is ex-pressed in marriage alliances and prefer-ences for marrying their daughters into an economically superior family. And what is quite interesting is that despite the emphasis on fusion of the sub-castes, exogamy is rule which is to be adhered to. The rule of not marrying within the father’s and mother’s clan is considered a “heritage” to be maintained.In the Name of KrishnaHighlighting their self-perception as extraordinarily political, Michelutti points out how the Yadavs trace their supposed political qualities to the Yadav caste patron deity – Krishna. Krishna is depicted by the Yadavs as a democratic-socialist-politician, who was the first fighter for social justice. The Yadav folklore portrays the basic ideals of the Yadav race as republican democracy and secularism. Michelutti commendably shows how this folk understanding of democracy is brought into the political realm and simultaneously used to reinforce a sense of Yadav com-monality. Central to this understanding is the language of religious descent. Here, I must quote Michelutti herself, “Yadav political rhetoric depicts the god-ancestor Krishna as a muscular ‘socialist’ politi-cian, and ordinary Yadavs as ‘natural politicians’. By linking Krishna mytho-history with the modern democratic and socialist political world this rhetoric supports Yadav political interests and muscular political styles” (p 17). Michelutti points out that the Yadav kinship struc-ture is such that it leads to horizontal organisation, has loose endogamous rules, emphasises descent rather than the ideology of purity and pollution and an imprecise ritual status in the caste system. She argues that this horizontal formation and ambiguous ritual status have found a new strength in the modern caste society based on secular principles of difference and equality rather than on the hierar-chical understanding. It has contributed to local political socialisation and the entrance of political democracy at the local levels.Several works on Indian democracy have noted the changes brought about by the institutionalisation of democratic norms and the consequent responses to it. Using the evidence of elections, constitu-tional amendments, parliamentary acts, judicial verdicts, etc, these studies high-light the growing politicisation and com-petition for resources in India. They also demonstrate the growing secularisation of caste and increasing mobilisations around them. Moreover, they show the support for democratic rule and the grow-ing enthusiasm for political participation among the masses in India. Michelutti confirms some of these assertions, but brings a different kind of evidence to buttress them. She focuses on ordinary life to show how democracy is acquiring social roots in India – how the values and practices of democracy are seeping into the social and cultural prac-tices of ordinary people. As such, Michelut-ti’s work is a valuable contribution to the research on Indian democracy. It brings out the finer points of localisation of democracy by showing how social groups are adapting themselves and devising ways of political efficacy.
BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW March 21, 2009 vol xliv no 1235To conclude I must add a few small points. Though the book carries a map of India portraying the towns where the Yadavs predominantly reside, it would have been helpful if a map of Mathura was also carried to depict the precise sites where the research was carried out. Also, the glossary contains some avoidable errors – Lok Sabha is the lower house of Parliament and not the Parliament, mundan is a ton-suring ceremony and not a mere shaving ceremony, panda is not a pilgrimage just a temple priest, laddus are round sweets which come in huge variety, and a brass or iron vessel is not a tasla but a kalsa. These minor errors apart, works such as Michelutti’s are important because they build up our scarce pool of inter-disciplinary research. They portray how the study of Indian politics has to con-tinue to reach out to other disciplines to unearth insights and obtain deeper understandings of the transformations that are taking place in the socio-political realm. This work on the vernaculari-sation of democracy demonstrates how the study of Indian politics can gain from the methodological tools which anthropology has to offer. This disci-plinary reaching-out will sharpen our inspection of past events and help us gauge future trends.Email:mkatju@gmail.comReferencesAlam, Javeed (2004): Who Wants Democracy? (Hyderabad: Orient Longman).Kohli, Atul, ed. (2001): The Success of India’s Demo-cracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).Rudolph, Lloyd I and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph (1967) (Reprint 1987):The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India (Hyderabad: Orient Longman).Weiner, Myron (1965): “India: Two Political Cultures” in Lucian Pye and Sidney Verba (ed.),Political Culture and Political Development (Princeton: Princeton University Press).Reflections on Policymaking in Half MeasureK S KrishnaswamyThis slim volume, which has the sub-title “Memoirs of a Development Economist”, is largely an account of V V Bhatt’s distinguished achievements as a scholar and a high official in both India and the World Bank. Much the greater part of his career in India was in the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) research department and later as chief executive of the Industrial Development Bank of India (IDBI).This was during the 1950s and 1960s, which were decades of an intense plan-ning effort – and equally intense debate on the many economic and social issues thrown up in the process. Though not di-rectly concerned with the doings of the Planning Commission, Bhatt and his col-leagues in the RBI were drawn into a series of debates on such matters as deficit financing, saving and investment, choice of technology and other issues related to economic development and productive employment. During his years at Harvard University as well as in the RBI he had occasion to both meet and debate on development topics with distinguished economists and social scientists, Indian and foreign.This ability to identify practical or esoteric issues of relevance to economic and social engineering characterised his contribution as both a researcher and teacher in the many institutions he has served over the years. Like all upcoming economists in that period, Bhatt deve-loped fruitful association withThe Economic Weekly and its famous editor Sachin Chaudhuri.Though Bhatt has recounted in these memoirs the many development issues on which he worked during these years, he has been distressingly brief about them. Most of them were vital matters of con-cern during India’s planning decades – and many of them still continue to be so even today. Unfortunately, Bhatt has not thought it fit to expatiate on at least some of them, setting out the questions as they came up as well as his stand on them. The years since the early 1950s, when he start-ed working for the RBI, have seen enor-mous changes in the Indian (and the world) scene, which have been reflected in economic policies as also economic thought. It would have been useful to see how Bhatt reacted to these, keeping in view his basic philosophy of economic development and related issues such as poverty alleviation, income distribution, the free-market system, globalisation, and so forth.It was obviously not an economic history that he had set out to write; even so one misses in these pages some account of his specific contributions to the body of eco-nomic thought on planning for economic development, on the various modifications in India’s economy over the years. Bhatt has highlighted the major ones and point-ed out how the nature and purposes of macroeconomic planning were trans-formed after 1966.That was truly climacteric in both eco-nomic and political affairs, when Indira Gandhi assumed control and destroyed all democratic institutions systematically. Even more importantly she corrupted them all, virtually beyond repair. This malady has continued in India’s body poli-tic and made governance a mockery. All this may be as Bhatt implies, a conse-quence of the “licence-control raj” which came into being in earlier years. However, it would have been useful if he had consid-ered what else could have been done when domestic savings were limited and struc-tural transformation through substantial public investment in infrastructure and basic industries was badly needed, and not much foreign savings was available. Is it also not possible to argue that later pri-vate investments in consumer goods and services were possible to some extent be-cause of earlier public investments?It has since become clear that left to itself the private sector in India has Perspectives on Development: Memoirs of a Development Economistby V V Bhatt (New Delhi: Academic Foundation), 2008; pp 135, Rs 595.

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