The Vernacularization of Democracy: Political Participation and Popular Politics in North India./Democratie Vernaculaire: Participation Politique et Politique Populaire Dans le Nord De l'Inde

By Michelutti, Lucia | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, September 2007 | Go to article overview

The Vernacularization of Democracy: Political Participation and Popular Politics in North India./Democratie Vernaculaire: Participation Politique et Politique Populaire Dans le Nord De l'Inde


Michelutti, Lucia, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


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.

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