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WHY ETHNIC PARTIES SUCCEED: Patronage and Ethnic Head Counts in India by Kanchan Chandra. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004. (Foundation Books, Delhi)

THIS is an impressive first book by an accomplished young political scientist teaching at the MIT. It is a study of how ethnic parties succeed and why people vote the way they do when they vote for ethnic parties, and in particular why scheduled caste voters vote for the Bahujan Samaj Party. To Kanchan Chandra, the answer to this question is not as self-evident as it may appear, and she chooses to answer it by employing a ‘thin’ rational choice explanation. Judged from an intra-epistemic methodological perspective, this is an outstanding, possibly even flawless, work. From outside the rational choice/game theory mode of explanation, however, it appears to leave some important questions unanswered.

Pared to its essentials, the framing argument is that India is a ‘patronage-democracy’, defined as a democracy in which access to resources, jobs and services is concentrated in the state, and elected officials have the power to distribute these resources to voters, which they prefer to do in an individualized, rather than collective, way. In other words, rents take the form of votes, and the state resources that are thus ‘sold’ typically include jobs, livelihood through poverty alleviation programmes, access to water for irrigation, credit, land titles, and so forth. It is not promises of policy, but of implementation, that are more beneficial, because the latter are a source of continuous, rather than one-time, support.

In a patronage-democracy, Chandra argues, voters do not assess ethnic parties on the basis of their position on issues, but rather through ‘ethnic head counts’, which show how many co-ethnics are represented in important positions in the party, and so potentially capable of extending patronage. Thus, what drives people to vote for an ethnic party which claims to represent the ethnic group to which they belong is not simple ethnic solidarity or appeals to emotion, but rather hard-nosed – and in this case perhaps the word ‘calculated’ is apposite – instrumentalism and strategic motivations. As strategic actors, they vote for the party only if, in their estimation, it has a reasonable chance of winning; otherwise, they vote to play the ‘spoiler’ for competing parties.

It is in these terms that the performance of the BSP in the three states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Karnataka is examined. Chandra shows how, in UP and Punjab, the BSP was more successful in persuading scheduled caste voters to vote for it, because – for different reasons specific to each of these states, but broadly pertaining to the ‘representational blockage’ in other parties – the ethnic head count of the BSP leadership was positive. In Karnataka, by contrast, the fact that there was greater ‘representational openness’ in the Congress (for historical reasons going back to the 1969 split), and its higher echelons had a number of scheduled caste ministers, made it the natural choice of voters belonging to these groups. Chandra also illustrates the possibilities her theory holds for explaining the strategies of ethnic mobilization of three other parties: the BJP, the DMK, and the JMM.

This is a self-consciously denormativised account of democracy, and indeed Chandra describes her interpretation of Indian democracy as ‘cynical’ in its emphasis on the struggle over scarce resources controlled and provided by the state that have the power to impact the lives of both voters and political elites. Her interpretation of the BSP and its voter support seeks to contest the view that Indian democracy is maturing or deepening. It invokes an almost Schumpeterian world in which democracy is little more than a competitive struggle, among political elites, for the people’s vote. The difference is that Chandra’s voters, unlike Schumpeter’s, are far from herd-like. Chandra asserts that, despite the low levels of penetration of the media documented by survey research, voters are not constrained by a lack of information. She implicitly credits them with an impressive political acumen and a canny, almost mathematical, intelligence in making their voting decisions. And in doing so, the voter of Chandra’s description curiously begins to resemble the democratically empowered voter of the normatively informed theories that her study rebuts.

If indeed such instrumental voting is the norm, what, beyond the outcome of the election, can it be reasonably expected to achieve? As Chandra herself points out, if a politician’s exercise of his discretionary influence is used for the benefit of one individual, it can actually make a difference to the lives of four or five people in the village. That being so, and given the fact of patronage being limited by a scarcity of resources, is it the monumental scale of deprivation and disadvantage that conveys the appearance of failure as far as actual policy implementation is concerned? Or is it the case that ethnic parties do actually deliver, but the fact that this occurs on an individualized basis obscures the scale of the achievement in collective terms, and in any case makes it difficult to verify? Evidence on re-election or rejection in subsequent elections could provide a pointer.

Albeit in passing, the author mounts the rather daring thesis that the success of Indira Gandhi’s Garibi Hatao campaign should be attributed to ‘changes in the representational profile of Congress prior to the election campaign… including the rise of Backward Castes and Scheduled Castes’ (pp. 220-21), at least in Karnataka, Gujarat and Punjab. The argument that it was the ethnic profiling of the party before the polls that won the election for Indira Gandhi, rather than the still fresh appeal of welfarist populism, would need to be more convincingly demonstrated. Indeed, if voters are so discerning, why is it that parties bother with competitive populism, instead of getting down to the task of reorganizing and arranging their internal structures so as to maximize their vote-getting potential? Also, it is not entirely clear what, in this context, may explain the phenomenon of the BSP sponsoring upper caste and Muslim candidates in large numbers.

Finally, the argument that voters and politicians ‘invest in an identity because it offers them the best available means by which to obtain desired benefits, and not because such identification is valuable in itself’ (p. 11) is qualified by Chandra herself as she suggests that benefits are not merely material but also psychic, the latter including individual self-esteem through social recognition (p. 63). There is no independent weightage in this argument for the rewards of recognition, and one wonders whether this is because recognition, almost by definition, is a good that is not individually deliverable, but essentially collective. The underestimating of what Chandra calls ‘psychic benefits’ can be a concern if her theory is extended to groups such as minorities, beset with insecurity, in whose perception the determinants of their psychic and material condition are the same.

Niraja Gopal Jayal


RECOVERING SUBVERSION: Feminist Politics Beyond the Law by Nivedita Menon. Permanent Black, Delhi, 2004.

THE women’s movement and feminist politics in India has, since its stirrings in the late 1970s, fought for, and often got, law reform. Laws on rape – especially custodial rape, dowry, sex selection and sati – have been wrested from Parliament. The court has been petitioned to dictate changed stances on sexual harassment at the workplace, to impel the enforcement of the law made to prevent sex selective abortion, and to attempt to introduce the notion of equality into ‘personal’ laws (the last, most unsuccessfully). Institutions of state such as the Law Commission have had their priorities infiltrated by a feminist agenda, either by direct address – as in three feminists sending a draft bill on sexual assault 1993 to the Law Commission for debate and adoption – or through the courts, as when child sexual abuse was referred to the Law Commission by the Supreme Court, or when the National Commission for Women was called in by the Supreme Court to work on crisis centres and compensation as a response to rape. It is this role given to law that is at the centre of Nivedita Menon’s concerns in Recovering Subversion.

Nivedita does not see law as having the capacity ‘to act as a transformative instrument’ (p. 3). On the contrary, ‘since the law seeks uniformity and concrete identities, it tends to flatten all ambiguity and multiplicity to fit dominant norms’ (p. 208). ‘[L]egal discourse functions by fixing meaning, by creating uniform categories out of a multiplicity of possibilities by suturing open-endedness’; so ‘the rigid codification required within legal discourse’ may ‘render sterile’ the experience that feminism validates as ‘real’ (p. 107). The encounter of feminism with the arena of law ‘points to the possibility that functioning in a manner compatible with legal discourse can radically refract the ethical and emancipatory impulse of feminism’ (p. 3). And, ‘feminist politics centring on the law may not have the liberatory potential intended’, particularly given the ‘normalising’ function that law so often performs (pp. 17-18).

So far this may not call for much argument. Feminism is certainly not the law’s agenda. Law as a tool of social engineering, as preceding social change, or as holding the potential for social revolution, stands severely challenged. The status quoist nature of the law, and the one-step-forward-and-then-sidestep game that we see played out in the law’s arena, has been the stuff of which experience with the law is made. Yet, as Nivedita concedes: ‘Insofar as the law exists, and is an influential force, we cannot withdraw from its orbit…’ (p. 232). The problem is that it can neither be ‘the agent of transformation’ (p. 236) nor can we turn to the law ‘to produce new rights, or to emancipate us.’

The thesis that law is not a site in which to locate feminist politics prompts the question: Why indeed did feminists, and the women’s movement, engage so much with the law? Was it only to make ‘public’ that which had been ghettoised in the private? Was this an indication of an absence of a ‘strong movement’ on matters of the body and sexuality? (p. 222) Was it to have been a co-optation of the state in furthering feminist politics? Were these demands for formal equality? Was it a matter of symbolism to suggest that the subject of the legislation was serious, and law making was a statement acknowledging this fact? These explanations are offered but in passing, often rhetorically, and so do not provide a basis for assessing if the reason for intervening through the law served or thwarted the purpose, or made little difference.

Since the underlying theme is about the centrality given to law in feminist politics, there is no attempt to locate it in a range of other dynamics that inhabited the feminist arena. What SEWA did for women, and to the field of work, economics and the community (as producers) would, it would seem, alter perceptions about the centrality that was invested in the law. The mobilising of women against ‘development’ projects where women, and men, learnt to meet and deal with the violence of the state – the numbers who speak oh-so-normally of having felt the lathi and of having spent nights and days in prison cells are testimony – speak volumes about the place that protests have earned. The genius of feminising the protection of the environment represented in Chipko could safely be contrasted with the overriding environmentalism that has found an ally in the courts. The generation of, especially, knowledge and perspective through ‘women’s studies’ has opened up a veritable mine with many layered nodes. The resurrection of literature, and the images and politics conjured up by creative energies that recast the world in a feminist mould has changed the intensity and import of the published word. All this, in illustration, does not find a resonance in the book. So, the use of the law becomes a singular theme for discourse. Not siting the law in the larger context of feminist engagement, but isolating it, seems to refract the argument and throws back images as from a funny mirror.

May be this is influenced by the three areas that Nivedita selects for analysis and comment – sex selection, abortion and female foeticide or femicide; rape and sexual harassment; and reservation for women in Parliament and the legislatures. The style is easy and engaging, and it is a pleasure to weave through the complexity as constructed, then unravelled. That law’s language and meaning have a reductionist effect, where the nuances of choice, coercion, consent and identity, for example, lose their nuances and threaten to distort and divert the feminist agenda is engagingly debated. The challenge to the constituting of ‘women’ as a subject of feminist politics, and the teasing out of the question that may have no answer in its wake – ‘If there is no "woman" then who is the subject of feminist politics?’ – reconstitutes the terms of the discourse.

Nandita Haksar’s rejection of ‘Article 14’ equality for a struggle within tribal communities to evolve new customs which are more egalitarian – ‘a far more difficult task than filing a petition under Article 14 or getting the support of women who have no stakes in the survival of tribal society’ (quoted at p. 6) – clearly has Nivedita reaching out as to a kindred spirit. So too Nandita’s assessment that continual recourse to the law is a ‘substitute for the other harder option of building a movement for an alternative vision’ (quoted at p. 154). The problem is that, in Nivedita’s rendition, it becomes an argument for cultural relativism and for a denial of the potential or politics of universality of human rights. When Nivedita recognises a multi-layeredness of rights, which gets flattened out when translated into law, there is a statement to explore. But when she concludes that ‘[r]ights are not inherent in human beings, they are not natural and universal, but are constituted by different kinds of political practice’ (p. 208); and when, writing about sati, she asserts that sati may be opposed to ‘conventional’ morality according to Feinberg – represented here as a representative of ‘western societies’ – but ‘from the point of view of Indian society such an act could constitute "true" morality in Feinberg’s sense’ (p. 39), there could be a problem. For, in navigating democracy and objectifying free will, for instance, may be she is locating herself in setting out the canvas of feminist politics while including a version of rights history; but there is a void in acknowledging the politics of human rights that has battled its way to universality. Since she does not address the Asian values debate, for instance, it is difficult to understand how her cultural particularities differ from it, nor even how this tolerance of particularities advances feminist politics.

In a work that is woven around the law, the conflation of the Constitution with laws, of the enactment of the laws with their enforcement, of the law with judgments that pepper the text, is somewhat distracting. As is the narrow understanding of something as complex as the ‘rule of law’, which is parenthetically dismissed as ‘the due observance of the procedures prescribed for making a valid decision’ (p. 119). Also, the ‘law’ versus ‘no-law’ positions have not been investigated. The vastness of the atmosphere into which the discussion on rape disappears the ‘offence’ of rape, for instance, makes ‘non-law’ an event for discursive analysis. However, the weft and the warp of the argument presented in Recovering Subversion – including the institutionalisation (and funding) of NGOs; free will, choice and the imposition of ‘choice’ through acquiring for feminist discourse a dominance (as in the intolerance of sex selective abortion and the assumption that no woman would ever want to abort a foetus that is female); the constituting of the body and person as ‘woman’; the co-optation of the feminist agenda by the Hindu Right as a way of recovering places ceded to communities and identities; the opting for undemocratic means of intervention, such as going to court, because it is the easier route (p.151) – constructs a context for delineating and structuring some problems that feminist politics will have to address if it has to move beyond where it now is.

Usha Ramanathan


HINDU NATIONALISM AND INDIAN POLITICS [with an introduction by Pratap Bahnu Mehta]. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2004.

THE upsurge of Hindu nationalism has been among the most marked feature of post-Ayodhya Indian politics. The omnibus under review brings together three meticulously researched and authoritative texts written over the last half a decade that taken together provide the reader an opportunity to undertake an academic journey into the ideology, strategy and social and organizational bases of Hindu nationalism in a comparative mode. In the endeavour the reader is ably guided by an incisive introduction by Mehta who situates the three scholarly works in the present context of Hindutva politics.

Significantly, the three books complement each other. While Zavos ably traces the evolution of the idea of Hindutva in the early 20th century period focusing on the different political idioms and organizational strategies it employed, Hansen relates them in the modern context and also reflects on the relationship between Hindu nationalism and other forms of nationalism in contemporary Indian democracy. The edited venture of Hansen and Jafferlot brings together the essays with an empirical focus that analyzes Hindutva politics in terms of the electoral strategies employed by the BJP, the vanguard part of the Hindutva organizations, at both the national and state level.

A dispassionate analysis of the BJP remains indispensable for an understanding of the socio-cultural causes of the growth of Hindu nationalism. Albeit in a subtler form, the BJP led Hindutva forces have been able to impart a definitive rightist slant to Indian politics during their last six years in power. The effort to bring about a cultural transformation of the civil society in a structural sense was evidenced in the attempt at effecting a ban on cow slaughter, reconfiguration of Indian education, anti-conversion legislation, marginalization of Muslim politics – to recall just a few measures. One may also refer to the BJP in its belligerent episodic avatars in our recent history reflective of its core ideology, i.e. its campaign for the sacred sites like the liberation of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janambhoomi in Ayodhaya or rath yatras/gaurav yatras taken up by Joshi, Advani, Modi and their ilk.

What is Hindu nationalism? It is an ideology that aims at the creation of an awareness among all the people classified as Hindus of their Hindu identity irrespective of their internal social, cultural and regional distinctions. Drawing inference from Savarkar’s vision of India in a civilizational form, the proponents of Hindutva mobilize the people by invoking the commonness of ethnicity, race, religion, territory, history and culture that encompasses all other differences. The search for an integrated Hindu identity, Zavos argues, results in the assertion of cultural and spiritual superiority of Hinduism in ‘a highly politicized context’. Attention is drawn towards its pluralism, compositeness and tolerance. Referring to the colonial context, Hansen suggests that Hindu nationalism, as a powerful idiom was but ‘one of the several contingent outcomes of a protracted struggle over the definition of Indian nationhood.’

Besides the above strategy of benchmarking Indian identity, Hindu nationalism also creates ‘a common narrative of subjugation’ as Mehta puts it. In this narrative, Hindus have for centuries been victim of onslaught from ‘others’ – Muslims and Christians. Hindutva thus represents an effort to come to terms with a history of subjugation, ‘an assertion of the will that will finally put Hindus in charge of their own destiny.’ Both Zavos and Hansen suggest that Hindu nationalism is primarily a political creation of agents like RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal and like minded organizations. On the basis of their study of the BJP, the political face of Hindu nationalism and its electoral politics, Hansen and Jafferlot make two significant observations. First, that there is no real contradiction between ideological purity and the political pragmatism shown by the BJP in a coalition era as both serve as an instrument of other. Second, in order to broaden its social and spatial base, BJP’s strategy has been to ‘adapt to the characteristics of regional politics and local social equations.’

Ashutosh Kumar


* An omnibus comprising of John Zavos, The Emergence of Hindu Nationalism in India; Thomas Blom Hansen, The Saffron Wave; Christophe Jafferlot and Thomas Blom Hansen, eds., The BJP and the Compulsions of Politics in India.


DALIT DIARY 1999-2003: Reflection on Apartheid in India by Chandra Bhan Prasad. Navyana Publishing, Pondicherry, 2004.

UNAPOLOGETIC ideologues for a (literally) sectarian cause generate immense unease, and nowhere more so than in the upper caste/class liberal/progressive/secular circles. In part, this reflects a stylistic/aesthetic divide; since ‘people like us’ have abrogated to ourselves the privilege to define what is proper/correct, we rarely appreciate an ‘outsider’ seeking to break into our ranks. More so when the terms of exchange are not being defined by us. An Uncle Tom is acceptable, a Michael X is not.

The actual divide is deeper for, despite our claiming the ‘dalit cause’ and railing against the iniquitous Hindu (read Indian) social order, most of us continue to cling to the ‘myth’ of a plural and permeable civilizational ethos wherein markers of birth, while discriminatory, do not bind us to a fixed social position. This is why the term ‘apartheid’ to describe the social position of Indian dalits finds limited favour, as do attempts to equate race to caste.

Chandra Bhan Prasad occupies an unusual position in the Indian social/intellectual discourse. Despite there being a number of prominent dalit intellectuals, Prasad, as the introduction to this collection of column pieces by Robin Jeffrey underscores, remains the first dalit commentator to have won regular column space in a ‘significant daily newspaper’. Without quibbling over the description of The Pioneer as ‘significant’, the column did mark a welcome rupture in our news media. It is shocking, though never admitted, that in 1999 there was not a single dalit in the newsrooms of India’s media. For all our claims to affirmative action and reservation, the sheer injustice of this fact has still to be admitted by either our media or educational establishments. Many of the articles in this collection point out how the leading intellectual centres and newspapers in the country’s capital – Delhi University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, and others – have continued over the years to flout constitutional obligations towards representation for dalits, despite public funding.

If such is the situation in our leading academic institutions, this when many of their faculty claim to be progressive and argue for reservation, should we be surprised at the rage suffusing dalit writing and commentary? Or the commonly used epithets of manuvad and brahmanvaad? Equally, if our state and society continue to stonewall all legitimate demands for representation and justice, why is it illegitimate for spokespersons and leaders of the dalit cause to seek redressal elsewhere – be it the British Raj earlier or the United Nations now? Hiding behind concerns of aesthetics or nationalism will not suffice.

There is more to Chandra Bhan’s writing. It is instructive that despite persistent focus on the exclusion of the dalits from all spheres and attention, his columns are not a litany of oppression stories. Taking his cue from the US experience of affirmative action – both to correct historical wrongs and ensure representational diversity – his advocacy to the state and political parties is to take seriously their constitutional commitments, if not extend them. Like Ambedkar, the most quoted thinker in the collection, he argues against the impossibility of a civil society unless a sufficient number of dalits get due place in all sectors of society. He is a votary of extending reservation by caste into the private sector, of helping create a strata of significant dalit entrepreneurs, favours Digvijay Singh’s Dalit Agenda and is willing to speak positively of all individuals/groups/parties/and enterprises agreeable to move in this direction.

In doing so he directly challenges the votaries of merit and efficiency, pointing out the caste-biased nature of their arguments. Once again, drawing from the experience of the US media, he demonstrates that once an enterprise is committed to diversity, it will redeploy resources and training to meet quality standards. In brief, what he is most opposed to is tokenism and rhetoric, the unwillingness to put one’s money where one’s mouth is.

What has most riled the progressives, one suspects, is his tendency to club together the secularists and communalists when it comes to the dalit question. He also gets irritatingly personal – asking individuals as to the number of their dalit friends, whether they eat in dalit houses, hire dalit employees, and so on. Since many of us belonging to a certain social strata are likely to fail such tests, we prefer to ignore him. His article ‘Welcome to a food festival’ extolling the uniqueness (and virtues) of dalit food, listing at some length the ‘guest list’, invites sociological scrutiny and provides a rare look at Delhi’s ‘correct’ progressive circle. Surprisingly, one missed Chandan Mitra, the ‘supportive’ editor of The Pioneer.

The downside of Chandra Bhan Prasad’s framework is that since the gross truth that he foregrounds is undeniable, it is difficult to discuss the implications of his policy recommendations without encountering the charge of caste bias. In the hands of a less skilful practitioner, the caste first framework can and does become totalizing, the only litmus test of ‘correctness’. Take his discussion on criminalisation of politics (p. 211-213) where he ascribes ‘a spirit of de-democratization to shudra consciousness. Criminalization among dalits is thus explained away as an inevitable consequence. ‘Since a shudra-led society restricts the space for democratic methods, even dalit parties can be no exception.’ Evidently, Mayawati for all her ill-gotten gains, scams, and opportunistic politics has to be contextually understood even as the Mulayam Singh’s stand condemned. One wonders what Chandra Bhan would make of the ongoing fracas between Mayawati and members of her mentor, Kanshi Ram’s family, ostensibly over control of trust funds and properties created by the now incapacitated leader. Is pointing to similar depredations by other (upper caste) leaders and parties an acceptable response?

There is also some doubt over CBP’s reading of Babasaheb Ambedkar, in particular his understanding of the role of caste-based reservations as part of a larger affirmative action programme. In one column piece, Prasad castigates Jagjivan Ram for not walking out of the Congress when Ambedkar submitted his resignation from the cabinet, claiming that had he (Ram) done so, the trajectory of dalit politics would have been different. Later, he praises Jagjivan Babu for most ensuring that dalits break into the otherwise restricted job and education market. But is that not because he sought to ‘fight from within’ and follow somewhat flexible principles, much like what CBP himself seems to be doing.

In the same vein, take the discussion over US attempts to respond to the race question. It is undeniable that the various civil liberties unions and the National Council for the Advancement of Coloured Peoples lobbied over years (successfully) to incorporate diversity in all spheres as a foundational principle. This led to the government adopting policies in awarding contracts, jobs and education which enhanced the proportion of coloured people in different sectors, both public and private. So far commendable. It is equally true that coloured people are overwhelmingly represented in prisons, get disenfranchised and remain confined to the underclass. Why does CBP not even mention this?

Readers of V.T. Rajshekhar’s Dalit Voice will be familiar with the polemic between Prasad and the editor of the magazine with CBP charged with being soft on brahmanvaad. There are also significant differences between the positions and analysis advanced by Prasad and other thinkers like Kancha Ilaiah and Gopal Guru. Hopefully, this is reflective less of egotist turf battles and more a search for autonomous dalit voices and politics.

Finally, a collection of column pieces does not always make for a good book, unless effort is expended to remove repetition and iron out the contradictions. Quibbling apart, Dalit Diary demands a serious engagement.

Harsh Sethi