Trysts with Democracy: Political Practice in South Asia

Trysts with Democracy: Political Practice in South Asia


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This volume offers a collection of lucid, theoretically stimulating articles that explore and analyse the institutions and values which are salient in understanding political practices in South Asia. Combining a wide range of theoretical and empirical approaches, and blending the work of experts long established in their respective fields with refreshing and innovative approaches by younger scholars, this collaborative and cross-disciplinary endeavour facilitates a deeper understanding of the subcontinent's diverse and complex political and democratic practices in the 21st century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780857287731
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 03/15/2011
Series: Anthem South Asian Studies
Edition description: First
Pages: 324
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Stig Toft Madsen has studied anthropology and sociology. He has taught and researched in universities in Denmark and Sweden; he has also published a book on human rights in South Asia, edited an anthology on the environment and has published widely on other South Asian matters.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen is a research fellow at the Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo. An anthropologist by training, he has done intensive fieldwork in West Bengal. He has published articles on social movements and peasants’ struggles, Hindu nationalism in Denmark, and women in Indian politics.

Uwe Skoda is assistant professor of South Asian studies at Aarhus University, Denmark. Educated in anthropology at Free University Berlin, he has written on kingship and peasantry, social organisation and kinship, Hindu nationalism, and politics and ritual performances. His regional focus is central-eastern India, particularly Orissa.

Read an Excerpt

Trysts with Democracy

Political Practice in South Asia

By Stig Toft Madsen, Kenneth Bo Nielsen, Uwe Skoda

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2011 Stig Toft Madsen, Kenneth Bo Nielsen and Uwe Skoda
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85728-773-1



Stig Toft Madsen, Kenneth Bo Nielsen and Uwe Skoda

The European form of liberal democracy is derived from a singular set of historical and political developments particular to Western Europe, and constitutes only one among a range of alternative conceptions that have grown out of different social conditions (Frankel 2000; Jayal 2001, 9; Taylor 2007; Nugent 2008). In Trysts with Democracy, we analyse those clusters of political practices that combine to constitute democracy and democratic processes in South Asia. We do this by asking how democratic values are embedded in social and political institutions in South Asia, and how widely held 'everyday' political values inform the multiple ways in which democracy is imagined, understood and appropriated.

When Karl Marx surveyed British India, he dismissed its village communities as 'the solid foundation of Oriental despotism' (Marx 2000, 16–17). Since then democracy has acquired considerable temporal depth on the Indian Subcontinent. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, elections to municipalities and district boards were initiated under British rule. Autonomous and responsible provincial legislative councils were created around the First World War and fully developed with the Government of India Act in 1935. In Sri Lanka universal suffrage was already in place before Ceylon became independent (Richardson and Samarasinghe 1998), while independence brought universal adult suffrage to India. In 2008, a century and a half after Marx's observation, a Lokniti political science association team surveyed the state of democracy in South Asia and found the once solid foundation of Oriental despotism apparently crumbling. Fully 88 percent of those surveyed now held democracy to be a suitable form of government for their country. But the same survey also found that only 9 percent had an unqualified preference for democracy. The rest were 'weak democrats' who held that military dictatorship, monarchy, rule by technocratic elites or by non-elected leaders might also be suitable forms of government (State of Democracy in South Asia. A Report 2008, 11–13). The spectre of democracy has been set free in South Asia, but it is still far from being the only game in town. Like the ancient ruins dotting the subcontinent, the social facts of dynastic rule, caste dominance, and religious authority still play a political role. This is hardly surprising. As Barfield reiterates in his recent book on Afghanistan's political history, politics was never for the people at large. The emirs and sultans who ruled the region in the past relied on those who were in their service, but the throne itself remained a dynastic monopoly because succession rules limited the number of contenders for the throne to a small number of heirs who, in turn, often engaged in bloody tanistry before the final victor would emerge (Barfield 2010, 88). Exclusionary rules of succession kept the number of competitors low. Under colonial rule, on the other hand, democracy gradually increased the number of competitors for political office, and hence also increased the threat of political instability. Yet, by and large democratic procedures and institutions have – if not abrogated by military rule – ensured orderly and non-warlike transfers of power.

The anthology Trysts with Democracy presents empirically detailed and theoretically stimulating articles that explore and analyse institutions and values salient in understanding both formal as well as everyday political practices in South Asia. It proceeds from the assumption that scholars working on South Asia often need to rework existing analytic concepts or develop new ones appropriate to social and political structures indigenous to the subcontinent. Following this dictum the articles in this volume approach the interrelated issues of democracy and political practice in South Asia from a cross-disciplinary point of view to revisit, challenge and transform theories about the South Asian tryst with democracy.

One Man One Vote does not Mean All Men are Equal

Robin Fox (1967, 10) once observed that 'kinship is to anthropology what logic is to philosophy or the nude is to art; it is the basic discipline of the subject'. Likewise, electoral studies are what make political science tick. Indeed, free and fair elections define what democracy is in a formal sense. As an important element of political practice more vital to democracy than sex to marriage, elections and the seemingly straightforward act of 'voting' signify and concretise democracy. Despite the centrality of voting to the maintenance of the everyday political machine, the last three decades have seen a decline in the study of elections and elected bodies within the field of anthropology (Gupta 2005, 184). By contrast, this volume devotes several chapters to these pivotal democratic procedures and practices, and the meanings with which they are imbued in the South Asian context.

In his opening contribution, Pedersen takes us through the history of formal or procedural democracy in India and the theoretical debates that have sought to explain its rise and perseverance. Pedersen shows how despite their obvious substantive links, the two debates have existed in almost complete mutual isolation. This has meant that, ironically, the contemporary and ongoing debate on the stability of India's democracy has very few links to the debate on the historical reasons for the introduction of democracy in the first place. Pedersen also documents how the debates on Indian democracy often seem to have been more influenced by popular current theoretical paradigms than by a process of cumulative learning, and he suggests that:

'It is much more likely that the advent and survival of democracy in India will continue to puzzle social scientists and that new attempts to explain why India became democratic will appear dressed in the theoretical garb of their time, but failing to provide convincing answers.'

Against this backdrop he warns that to continue to regard India and its democracy as a 'unique case that defies any explanation using more generally applicable theoretical paradigms' would amount to intellectual bankrupcy.

Procedural democracy, in Pedersen's view, is not a hollow crown but the very process which allows even the poorest a say in who is to rule them. For some, the very fact of being included in the voters' list lends to villagers a bureaucratic proof of their existence and their status as citizens (cf. Banerjee 2008; Price and Srinivas 2010). It may even make an Indian villager feel like a 'sultan for a day' (Gilmartin 2009). Yet, one man one vote does not make all men equal. Already before the Indian constitution came into force B. R. Ambedkar foresaw one of the conundrums reiterated in this volume, viz. that social and economic equality does not automatically flow from political equality:

'In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value' (quoted in Khilnani 1999, 35).

It is well-known that democracy in India (and South Asia) continues to co-exist with high socio-economic inequality and widespread poverty. Dipankar Gupta has argued that while democracy and engrained notions of social justice do not permit widespread starvation and malnutrition in European welfare states it does in India (Sperling 2010; Gupta 2009, 80–1; cf. also Banik 2007). The uncomfortable question, as Granville Austin (2010) wrote on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the India constitution, is: 'can India be a great democracy, strong in itself and in the eyes of the world, so long as so many of its people are denied the promise of the Preamble', i.e. justice, equality and fraternity.

If people, as the Lokniti report shows, can be both for and against democracy, one may expect that democracy in South Asia would co-exist not just with inequality, but would combine with a range of values and practices that ought not to accompany it. Democracy co-exits with courts failing to deliver justice, and with widespread human rights violations in many parts of South Asia. To take the example of Sri Lanka in 2010: The country is considered democratic, but as the killing of around twenty journalists under the Rajapakse government testifies, it is not a liberal democracy. According to one ranking the country ranks number 162 of 175 countries – behind Iraq, Sudan and Libya – in terms of press freedom (Reporters without Borders 2009). In South Asia democracy is also compatible with familism to the extent that political dynasties have ruled democracies in South Asia for much of the time since independence; and with caste to the extent that democracy may reinforce caste in a positive feed-back loop. Democracy is even compatible with communal riots and pogroms, or with religious fanaticism as detailed in Gugler's chapter on sectarian conflict in Pakistan, a country which formally returned to democracy at the general elections in 2008.

While political scientists are divided between those who define democracy in terms of procedures and those who require substance, the gulf between democracy in the formal and the substantivist sense seems to be of less importance to South Asians. Like democratic formalists, many South Asians take 'the vote' to be the sine qua non of democracy, but they are also eager substantivists in so far as the vote 'is immediately followed by other expectations – of food at affordable prices, or perhaps more commonly of infrastructure, schools and other forms of "development"' (Ruud, this volume). The vote is part of an exchange relation trans-substantiating the act of voting into the delivery of benefits. This is not the picture of an ideal commonweal, but of a series of dyadic hierarchical relations tying locals to people of power. In his study of electoral politics and democracy in Bangladesh Ruud takes a closer look at how democracy actually works, i.e. the issue of the everyday functioning of the democratic machine. Drawing on the works of Mukulika Banerjee (2007; 2008) and Lucia Michelutti (2008) Ruud asks how ordinary South Asians see democracy and how they understand their place in it. Ruud focuses on the various locally and culturally embedded meanings that democracy acquires as it is transplanted from its Western context of origin to the oftentimes inhospitable soil of Bangladesh, which has witnessed the abrogation of democracy and the dismissal of popularly elected governments on more than one occasion. Based on field studies of two villages Ruud brings out the complexity of democracy's local meaning and significance among his Bangladeshi informants. While the act of voting, and the expectation of some form of material benefits and 'development' to flow from this act, emerge as locally defining features, Ruud also shows how democracy is perceived as an appealing and desired form of governance, and indeed as a 'citizen's choice'. For many of Ruud's informants the vocabulary of democracy is not alien. They master the language of citizenship and are quite aware of the voter's rights and role in a democratic system. Ruud's finding thus questions the idea that because South Asia's poor conduct most of their politics outside civil society proper, they have little patience with and use for the idea of citizenship (Chatterjee 2004). Ruud's informants would no doubt be offended by such a dismissive reading, since for them democracy is intimately tied to both citizenship and dignity.

Yet while everyone can be a citizen not everyone can become a leader. When asked, Ruud's informants explained that ordinary people did not make good political leaders. Instead they preferred leaders who, in an almost Kautilyan fashion, embodied personal qualities like education, wealth, generosity, and a proven talent for getting things done. Voters especially valued candidates who were close to one of the country's supreme political leaders, and who could therefore ensure for the constituency a continuous flow of patronage from above. Ruud's contribution thus demonstrates that ordinary South Asians can cherish citizenship and democratic for the egalitarianism and dignity they offer, while also adhering to strong hierarchical ideas about personhood, leadership and patronage without any contradiction.

Factions and Dynasties, Leaders and Constituencies

The contributions by Madsen, Skoda and Price likewise confront the question of the making and unmaking of political leadership in contemporary South Asian politics. South Asian politics has been dominated by powerful dynasties that pass on their accumulated political capital, reputation (Price 2000, 176) and charisma (Chakravorty 1999) from one generation to the next. Dynastic leaders placed at the pinnacle of national politics are projected as powerful individuals capable of leading and caring for the nation in both turbulent and peaceful times, yet they are also expected to carry themselves with a suitable degree of modesty and humility as servants of the nation, and to display a distinct disinterest in political power. Tellingly the opening line in the most recent edition of Benazir Bhutto's autobiography simply reads: 'I didn't choose this life; it chose me' (2007, xi). And, recalling her first swearing-in ceremony as PM: 'I had not asked for this role; I had not asked for this mantle. But the forces of destiny and the forces of history had thrust me forward, and I felt privileged and awed' (2007, 392). In India Jawaharlal Nehru found a dynastic concept of succession 'repulsive to the mind' (Frank 2001, 269) and thought it 'a wholly undemocratic and an undesirable thing' (Frank 2001, 320). Later his daughter Indira Gandhi wrote that:

'It may seem strange that a person in politics should be wholly without political ambition but I am afraid that I am that sort of freak ... I did not want to come either to Parliament or to be in Government' (in Frank 2001, 283).

Months later she was appointed Prime Minister of India. And later both Rajiv (Malhotra 2003, 122) and Sonia Gandhi renounced politics, only to go on to occupy some of the most powerful political offices in the country. Evidently, the principle of dynastic succession remains firmly embedded in the democratic politics of South Asia and endorsed by the electorate.

In his contribution Madsen explores one such political dynasty. Madsen portrays Ajit Singh, the son of the late Charan Singh who rose to briefly serve as India's PM shortly before the collapse of the Janata Party government in 1979. Like other dynastic successors Ajit Singh rejects having seized upon the opportunity to pursue a career in politics upon his father's death. According to Ajit Singh he inherited his father's political turban because of the repeated pressure being exerted by the personal following of the ailing Charan Singh. The demise of Charan Singh thus set in motion the transformation of Ajit Singh from IIT engineer to MP and minister even as Charan Singh's constituency of Baghpat was passed on to him. Charan Singh's claim to fame was his role in the abolition of hereditary economicc power in the shape of large zamindari landholdings in Uttar Pradesh. By partaking of his father's accumulated political capital, Ajit Singh and his son Jayant now control a comparable store of political capital. What distinguishes these two forms of capital is the element of choice inherent in democracy. While property rights are constitutionally guaranteed, dynastic rights under democracy are subject to renewal at election time.


Excerpted from Trysts with Democracy by Stig Toft Madsen, Kenneth Bo Nielsen, Uwe Skoda. Copyright © 2011 Stig Toft Madsen, Kenneth Bo Nielsen and Uwe Skoda. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

1. Introduction – Stig Toft Madsen, Kenneth Bo Nielsen and Uwe Skoda; 2. Why Did India Become a Democracy and Why Did It Remain Democratic? A Survey of the Literature and Some Comments to the Scholarly Debate – Jørgen Dige Pedersen; 3. Democracy in Bangladesh: A Village View – Arild Engelsen Ruud; 4. Ajit Singh s/o Charan Singh – Stig Toft Madsen; 5. A Princely Politician in an Indigenized Democracy: A Raja and His Electoral Situation in Rural Orissa 2004 – Uwe Skoda; 6. A Political Breakthrough for Irrigation Development: The Congress Assembly Campaign in Andhra Pradesh in 2003-2004 – Pamela Price; 7. Congress Factionalism Revisited: West Bengal – Kenneth Bo Nielsen; 8. Nepal: Governance and Democracy in a Frail State – Neil Webster; 9. Entanglement of Politics and Education in Sri Lanka – Birgitte Refslund Sørensen; 10. Shifting Between the Local and Transnational: Space, Power and Politics in War-Torn Sri Lanka – Cathrine Brun and Nicholas Van Hear; 11. Domestic Roots of Indian Foreign Policy – Walter Andersen; 12. Political Practice and Post-Islamism in Pakistan – Thomas Gugler

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