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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 27 New Delhi June 25, 2016

Working of Indian Electoral Democracy

Sunday 26 June 2016


by Aijaz Ashraf Wani and Mehrag Ud Din Bhat

Why India Votes by Mukulika Banerjee; Routledge Publishers; 2014; pages: 326 (2nd edition); ISBN: 9781138019713; Price: Rs 595.

Elections form the bedrock of any democracy in the world. Elections give power to the people and enable them to choose their leaders who make decisions on their behalf. Without elections democracy cannot be based on the wishes and aspirations of the people. Rather, it will turn into any other form of government where decisions are made by one person or a group of persons based on their own self-interests. Some important questions that puzzle researchers are as follows: what is so special about elections, even though they legitimise a system that ultimately fails the most vulnerable? Do elections mean anything more than a system of procedures and arrangements to elect politicians to power? Is there something about participating in them that makes the experience a special one unlike all other experiences in life? What do people think about elections and what do they get after exercising their right to vote? Why do people consider elections as sacred and compare these with weddings and religious festivals? These are the questions that the book under review tries to answer.

Why India Votes  by Mukulika Banerjee is an important contribution to the debate over electoral politics and democracy. Banerjee is not a political scientist but an anthropologist. Her methods are not statistical but ethnographic. Anthropologists have in the past studied and often written about Indian elections. But this is the first time that a well-researched and coordinated study of this magnitude has been undertaken. To provide answers to the question, Why India Votes?, Banerjee sent ethnographers with expertise to fieldwork sites across India during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections: in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and Uttar Pradesh.

The study has been divided into six chapters followed by appendices. Each chapter has a descriptive narrative illustrated by examples from several locations, with quotations from printed material, mobile-phone texts, interviews, speeches, and so on. There are useful boxed summaries of things like ‘Elections and Music’ or events.

The Introductory Chapter analyses the faith of the Indian voters in the election process. The author argues that on the Election Day in India, the everyday reality of inequality of wealth and status that dominate day-to-day life across the country is suspended and popular sovergnity is asserted for a day. The author highlights that political participation is a multidimensional; rather than a unitary, phenomenon of viewing elections as the only institutional arrangement. She especially highlights the working of the Election Commission of India (ECI) during the elections. The author points out that the ECI is one of the main public institutions along with the judiciary and police that creates a level playing field for electoral competition for the political parties and independent candidates. The author quotes Bikhu Parekh who states that “elections, public deliberation and peaceful protest are the three main components of the democratic system. Among them only elections have survived in good health because of fallen standards of public debate and degeneration of public protests into anger rather then disciplined campaign”. The result is that the “burdens of deliberation and protest have transferred into the institution of elections alone”. (p. 19) The chapter ends with the argument that illiteracy and poverty are not the impediments to under-standing the practice of voting in the Indian elections because people have developed a good understanding of the ideas of democracy and citizenship across India.

Chapter 2, titled “The Campaign”, deals exten-sively with the processes and instruments of campaigning. It highlights issues such as how political parties try to reach out to the electorate by distributing flags, pamphlets and posters during the election campaign and the role of these materials in elections. The author underscores the role of ‘paid news’ in shaping the voting behaviour of the electorate during the elections.

Pointing to the nexus between political parties and media houses, the author observes that by providing extensive media coverage to the candidates of the political parties, who pay the highest sum of money to the media owners, the political parties often tarnish the image of their rival parties and candidates in order to gain the support of the public. Banerjee particularly underlines the importance of the personal image of the candidate to be seen by the public. She writes that good oratorical style and catchy words are essential ingredients for a memorable speech and candidates keep working hard to nurture these skills during elections. Candidates often remain careful with their visual self-presentation, paying close attention to the clothes they wear, the colours they choose etc. during the election campaign. These things play an important part in moulding the voting behaviour of the electorate during elections. She further writes that election campaigns in India are so important that during this time the entire nation appears to shift into another gear.

The Chapter on “Political Languages” talks about the use of language by people during elections in different social settings. She argues that the local language of the people is more advanced than the language of intellectuals in capturing the people’s perceptions during elections. Referring to the still persistent patri-archial nature of society and polity in India, the author states that during elections men out-number women in public discussions regarding politics. She points to the lower castes like SCs, STs and Dalits, who are often forgotten by the successive governments before the elections, but are used by the political parties for votes at the time of elections. The author argues that although caste-based practices within society have declined across India, there has been an increase in caste-based politics. She writes that in India people compare elections with weddings because elections here provide the same excitement as at the time of weddings. People beat drums, dance in front of candidates like they do before the bride and bridegroom at weddings.

The fourth Chapter, titled”Polling Station”, talks about the experience of people casting their votes. She explains that voting day is important for the people because they feel empowered, being able to vote on equal terms regardless of caste, class, gender and sex. The polling station is the only place where equality in the true sense prevails. People of India feel that polling day is the only day when the lower-caste people come in contact with the upper castes that otherwise is difficult in a caste-ridden society like India. The author contends that the polling station is the only place where the voter, political parties and the entire state of India come together in conducting the business of true democracy which otherwise is very difficult to be seen in the country. The author highlights that voters see themselves as masters on the voting day. Voters compare their vote with the atom. Banerjee quotes the words of a Dalit woman who said: “My vote is like an atom; it may be small but it packs a lot of power.” (p. 140)

Chapter 5, titled “Why People Vote”, is an important chapter where the author depicts the true picture of electoral democracy in India. To answer the most important question as to why Indians vote, the author put this question to a cross-section of voters and got a variety of answers from across the nation. While some vote for material benefit, many support a candidate or party out of loyalty, and others vote against someone as a mark of protest. The author further explains that many in India vote because of peer pressure, while others vote for being counted as citizens of the country, still others think that it is important to vote in order to be recognised as equal citizens. There are others who think that voting is a right and to exercise this right is important. The author also brings out different factors that influence people to vote differently. There are many women who vote out of compulsion because if they will not, they will have to face the wrath of their husbands. Some vote because they think that they will get their work done in the government office with the help of the candidate whom they vote for. Then there are people who exercise the right to vote with the hope of making Indian democracy work.

The concluding chapter of the book asserts that elections have emerged as one of the most vital institutions that can mediate between the citizens and the state. The author argues that elections play an important role in mediating the tension between the state and popular politics and in acting as a pivot in the balance between the rule of law and the rule of numbers. She reveals that elections have become so integral to the people of India that they think it is better to choose the devil who governs them than having to suffer an autocrat. (p. 169) Further, she points out that in order evolve genuine democracy, the need of the hour is to strengthen the constitutional provisions of universal adult franchise and the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.

On the whole the book portrays the true picture of the functioning of electoral democracy in India. It makes the people across the country believe that participating in elections can bring about egalitarianism and social change which other institutions so far have failed to ensure. The book investigates the motivations of voters, their thinking about politicians, political parties, the electoral process, democracy and their own role within it. It is an important read for the students of democracy in general and Indian politics in particular.

Dr Aijaz Ashraf Wani is a Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, University of Kashmir. Mehrag ud Din Bhat is a Ph.D scholar at the Department of Political Science, University of Kashmir.

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