The process of vernacularization of democratic politics
Research on democracy and democratization has tended to emphasize macro-level explanations of 'transition' and 'consolidation' which stress the roles played by institutions and elites (e.g. Diamond, Plattner, Chu & Tien 1997; Linz & Stepan 1996; O'Donnell & Schmitter 1986). However, by focusing on 'institutional factors' rather than on 'the practices and ideas of local people', which locally legitimize or do not legitimize democracy and practices associated with it, these studies have tended to provide accounts of only one side of the process. This article aims to redress this balance by focusing on what I call 'the process of vernacularization of democratic politics', meaning the ways in which values and practices of democracy become embedded in particular cultural and social practices, and in the process become entrenched in the consciousness of ordinary people. More specifically the article is about the ways in which 'democracy' has acquired social roots in India and has produced new social relations and values which in turn have energized popular politics.
Anthropology offers an ideal point of departure for a radical rethinking of democratization theories. Its ethnographic method has the potential to enter and understand worlds (such as popular politics) which are often left unexplored or under-explored by the more formal methodologies of other social science disciplines. However, despite this potential, until recently the anthropology of democracy has been a marginal topic of study. Indeed, anthropology has not only failed to generate ethnographic studies of 'democracy' but it has also failed to provide a critique of the Orientalism that is entailed in much of the theorizing about democracy. Universalistic and modernist misconceptions about democratization processes and the assumed homogeneity and static nature of culture are still commonplace in comparative politics and political science.
Following the decolonization period, anthropologists produced ethnographic accounts of how democracy was working (or failing to work) in the new independent countries (see Geertz 1963). In this context, democracy was considered a universal political form, and an indicator of modernity and progress. In recent years government agencies, NGOs, and international organizations have promoted democracy as the panacea for developing countries (see Paley 2002). These organizations often focus on promoting free and fair elections and good governance. In today's political discourse 'democracy' is widely considered the only legitimate political regime. Mainstream political studies which try to make sense of democratization processes have therefore often been trapped in this modernist narrative.
In a seminal paper Jonathan Spencer argues that the modern institutions of government in post-colonial countries have been understudied due to their presumed 'transparency' and foreign origin (1997:14). Accordingly, since 'democracy' originates in the West, its interpretation in post-colonial states has been considered essentially similar to those in the West and hence anthropologically irrelevant and intellectually unchallenging (Spencer 1997:13). Only in the last decade have anthropologists begun to turn their attention to formal political institutions and to macro-political areas of inquiry. Many of the current ethnographic insights on the working of democracy in different settings have emerged as part of discussions about 'the state' (see, e.g., Fuller & Harriss 2001), 'post-communism regimes' (Verdery 1996), post-colonialism (Chatterjee 2004), and civil society (Comaroff & Comaroff 1999). However, few have been the studies which directly address democracy as an object of ethnographic enquiry (see Paley 2002). Illustrations about how democracy has come to be understood and practised in local contexts can be found in the work of Gutmann (2002) in Mexico, Paley's (2001) study of Chilean democracy, and Schirmer's (1998) work on Guatemalan politics and the military. In Africa, West (2005) and Apter (1987) have looked, respectively, at how elections have been reshaped by witchcraft in Mozambique, and by ritual practices among Nigerian Yorubas. Schaffer (1997) examined how the term 'democracy' is translated among the Wolof in Senegal. In Latin America Coronil's (1997) study of cultural politics in Venezuela shows how democracy has different meanings for different sections of society. Lastly, Tambiah (1997) shows that democracy in parts of South Asia is understood more in terms of collective rights than individual rights. This has particular relevance for the present study with regard to the political significance of caste and communities in India.
From the 1950s to the early 1970s anthropologists wrote extensively on democratic politics in India. Together with political scientists and sociologists, they produced a large literature on village politics (Bailey 1963), on factionalism, caste, and politics (Kothari 1970; Srinivas 1962), and on elections (Fox 1969). However, since the early 1970s, with some noteworthy exceptions (e.g. Robinson 1988), studies on the politics of democracy have generally failed to follow the lead given by Bailey (1963) in exploring local politics ethnographically. In the last decade anthropologists intrigued by the phenomenon of Hindu nationalism and by caste populism went back to the study of Indian politics (see, e.g., Banerjee 1999; Hansen 1999; 2001). Importantly this new literature on the anthropology of democracy draws attention to the daily lives and political struggles of people living in non-elite sectors of society. The present article contributes to this emerging literature and looks at how democratic ideas and practices are lived and experienced among a traditionally marginalized sector of the Indian society.
My main premise is that for anthropologists of post-colonial societies (but not only), 'democracy' should be regarded as one of many traditional ethnographic topics (such as kinship, religion, kingship, etc.) which ethnographers study to unpack the socio-cultural institutions and practices of the societies under investigation. The hypothesis behind this approach is that the moment democracy enters a particular historical and socio-cultural setting it becomes vernacularized, and through vernacularization it produces new social relations and values which in turn shape political rhetoric and political culture. Hence, an anthropology of democracy should study 'democracy' as both the product and the producer of different socio-political relations.
In the following sections I explore these dynamics in the context of the rise of popular democracy in the Indian sub-continent. The Indian situation is, however, not unique, and I argue that the concept of 'vernacularization of democracy' can be fruitfully applied to understand contemporary popular politics and democratic trends in other settings. What is comparable between India and other parts of the world is the rise of political participation among 'the lower orders' of society. In recent years there has been a dramatic rise in support for popular politics and political figures who present themselves as leaders of the under-privileged and as promoters of pro-poor social policies in countries like Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Indonesia.
Democratic practices associated with popular politics often base their strength and legitimacy on the principle of popular sovereignty versus the more conventional notions of liberal democracy. These popular forms of political participation are often accompanied by a polarization of opinions and political practices between the so-called 'ordinary people' (the governed) ('the bahujan samaj' in India, 'el pueblo' in Latin America) and the elites. It is plausible to think that democracy has entered the political imagination not only of Indians, but also of 'Venezuelans', 'Bolivians', and so on. Looking at democratization processes through the prism of vernacularization will therefore help to understand how and why democracy grounds itself in everyday life and becomes part of conceptual worlds that are often far removed from theories of liberal democracy.
Overview of Indian popular democracy
Conventional theories of democratization which emphasize modernity (Lipset 1983 ), homogeneity (Dahl 1982), and civil society (Diamond 1993) would consider India a difficult environment in which for democracy to succeed. However, despite these apparent challenges, India represents one of the principal success stories of democratic transition and consolidation. The history of Indian post-colonial politics can be characterized in three broad stages. First, from Independence to 1967 the party system was dominated by the Congress party. It was an inclusive secular party which was supported by upper castes, lower castes, and different religious and ethnic communities. Secondly, from 1967 to 1993 there was what Yogendra Yadav (1997) termed 'the Congress opposition system'. In this period, although still dominant at the national level, the Congress faced more meaningful opposition at the state and regional levels. The Janata Party, a coalition of opposition parties, took office in 1977, and then in 1989 the Congress was defeated again by a new coalition of the National Front/Janata Dal. Thirdly, in the late 1980s and early 1990s the Indian party system moved from a one-dominant party system to a genuine competitive multi-party system. Regional parties began to capture a greater share of votes, and they started to mobilize members of lower castes. Parallel to this trend (and sometimes in opposition), this period also saw the rise of Hindu nationalism and the ascendancy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist party which was in office at the national level for much of the time from 1996 to 2004 either as a minority government or in coalition with regional …