Book review: Why India Votes by Mukulika Banerjee


There are few questions that irritate me more than, “Why should I vote?” To a political enthusiast like myself who has spent countless hours knocking on strangers’ doors and urging them to vote, the more appropriate question seems to be, “Why shouldn’t I vote?” Yet I find a fundamental disconnect when trying to communicate this to those who pose the question. It’s almost as if one who asks the question, “Why should I vote?” carries a philosophy that predetermines their not ending up at the booth on Election Day.

Economists and political scientists have puzzled over this question as well for some time. When so many people vote in elections, what is the point in your voting? The odds that your individual vote will determine the outcome are close to nil. So why not just stay at home on Election Day, and not deal with all that bother of going to your local school and waiting in line? It is almost as if the fields of political science and economics lack the proper conceptual tools to understand this behavior properly, a glaring irony when so much of political science examines why people vote a certain way once they have made the affirmative decision to vote.

Why India Votes, by Mukulika Banerjee of the London School of Economic and Political Science, is a refreshing and engrossing contribution to the debate over this question. Banerjee is not a political scientist or economist. She is an anthropologist. Though she uses the findings of CSDS national election studies to inform her analysis (full disclosure: I am presently working with CSDS’ Lokniti unit), her methods are not statistical. They are ethnographic. To understand the question her title poses, Banerjee sent ethnographers with regional expertise to twelve fieldwork sites across India during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections: one in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal, and two in Uttar Pradesh. Each ethnographer was tasked with writing a 10,000 word report on four research questions:

1) What did an election campaign look like from the vantage of the voter?

2) How plastic was the language of politics – what new words were coined, what local metaphors were used to describe the processes of electoral democracy, etc.?

3) What happened on Polling Day? How did people experience the act of voting itself? What were the culture of the polling booth and the attitudes of polling officials towards voters like?

4) What were the reasons that people gave for voting when they were asked “Why do you vote?”

Banerjee then synthesized the findings of her ethnographer team into a concise and flowing manuscript that treats the reader to close-up views of electoral campaigns across the subcontinent. Rich descriptions abound of women putting on their finest saris before voting, Electoral Commission officials scrambling to fulfil their obligations, colorful metaphors used to discuss politics at tea stands, and frenzied rallies in the run-up to Election Day. This is not rajniti, the world of politicians angling for advantage over one another. It is decidedly lokniti, an in-depth look at how politics plays out in the hamlets, fields, and slums of the world’s largest democracy.

What she finds is that elections and the campaigns that accompany them are about so much more than choosing a representative for a faraway legislative body. Banerjee often uses the word “carnival” to characterize Indian elections in that they create a unique space where the normal rules of social interaction are suspended. Elections bring communities together at the same time that they divide them. In a country with staggering extremes of inequality that is still often riven by caste divisions, elections offer an opportunity to level the playing field. As a Dalit voter says to one ethnographer, “At election time even if the candidate is from an upper caste he still has to come to my doorstep to ask for my vote.” Or as a group of villagers explain, “During the elections, citizens are honored by political parties, leaders and the government…It is the voters who become God and decide the fate of all leaders. At least for one day, we voters get the power to choose and reject.” Through these quotations, it is not difficult to understand why poor and lower caste citizens vote more consistently than rich and upper caste citizens.

Banerjee goes to some lengths to explore how the procedures of electoral democracy serve their own purpose beyond making sure the election is run smoothly. The Electoral Commission, which consistently ranks as one of the most trusted institutions in Indian society, works vigilantly to maintain its independence as it manages the tremendous logistics of organizing polling booths, checking voter registrations, and counting votes. Officials are very careful to avoid the impression of favoring one party or caste over another. Because of this independence, they have the authority to enforce a Model Code of Conduct that regulates the activities of campaigns. Campaigns work around these regulations in their own ways — liquor was distributed to voters the night before elections in lieu of cash at some of the fieldwork sites — but toe the line carefully enough to not be in clear violation of the letter of the code. Elections are then a regular demonstration of India’s commitment to the rule of law.

It is the final analytical chapter, in which Banerjee explores Indians’ stated motivations for voting, that is the most moving and enlightening of Why India Votes. Banerjee carefully avoids over-generalization and really lets Indian voters speak for themselves. Some talk about voting purely out habit; some talk about pressure from landowners, relatives, and husbands; some talk about expressing anger at the ruling party; some appeal to their obligations as citizens and their feelings of duty. A number of these responses are worth quoting here at length. One middle-aged man in Gujarat:

A person who votes is considered as a human being. If we don’t vote then we will not be considered part of the community called “human.” If one wants to live a proper life then he has to prove himself to be part of it. And if we don’t vote then what is the difference between human beings and the animals? I vote because I am a human being and I have the right to choose a government of my choice. Have you heard of animals going to vote?

A mother of four with little formal education, active in the Dalit movement in Chhattisgarh:

We believe that the elected representative should work hard for the people. If we can’t call back the elected representatives who doesn’t work for the people, then there is no meaning to democracy as such, we must have the right not only to vote and elect but also to remove the person from his power and position so that he or she understands the one singular fact of being accountable and responsible towards the masses.

Most articulate of all is a vignette about Rukmini Bai of Madhya Pradesh:

One morning in May, when the agricultural grain market was winding down from a busy season of wheat sales, we found Rukmini Bai, an elderly woman who worked in the trading yard, wiping away tears with the end of her sari. She was inconsolable, and explained that the day before she had been unable to vote at the elections because she did not have the correct identification. She had produced other pieces of paper with no success, so in the end, she had to wait outside the polling booth and watch everyone else emerge with newly-inked fingers proving that they had cast their vote, while her own remained bare. When we asked why this made her so sad she explained that she always wanted to vote because every vote was important and she did not want to waste hers. When we tried to console her saying that it was after all, only one vote, and that she should not feel so bad about affecting the outcome, she paused amidst her tears and said, “You see me? My work is to sweep up all the grain that falls from the sacks and the weighing scales on the floor. At the end of the day, I sell what I have collected and I am allowed to keep half the money. That is my income. So you see, I understand the value of each grain of wheat. On the floor they look insignificant, just one isolated grain of wheat, but each grain that is added to the heap determines what I earn. My vote is like those grains of wheat.”

Why India Votes also draws attention to some of the unique features of Indian politics. In a striking contrast to American politics, poor and lower caste Indians are consistently more likely to vote than rich and upper caste Indians. In another reversal of American political trends, turnout for local elections is much higher than state elections, which is in turn higher than turnout for national elections. Election day itself is a national holiday in which employees do not go to work.

Together the different components of Why India Votes reveal that while motivations for voting are varied and can be articulated in different ways, voting is simultaneously a personal and social act. In India, the act of voting and the carnival-like atmosphere of campaigns provide many voters with a feeling of equality, of independence, and of community all at once. Perhaps this is why historically experiments to decouple the personal from the social aspects of voting on the grounds of privacy have decreased turnout, not increased it. Banerjee cites the example of Switzerland:

Some years ago, in Switzerland…an experiment with postal voting was abandoned after it revealed that despite the greater logistical convenience of a postal ballot, turnout figures actually dropped. The reason was that in the small world of Swiss cantons, people knew each other and wanted to be seen to be public performing this act of civic participation.

Similar experiments in the United States, a much larger country than Switzerland, have yielded the same results. Most notable of these is an experiment that is still ongoing, the secret ballot. Before the 1890s, elections in the United States were very public affairs in which the (white, male) electorate gathered at local meetings to announce their vote in front of their neighbors. Following the examples of Australia and England, the United States introduced the secret ballot to reduce voter intimidation and bribing right before the turn of the twentieth century. Voter turnout fell gradually afterwards, from 79 percent of eligible voters in the 1888 election to 55 percent in the most recent 2012 presidential election. Yale political scientists Donald Green and Alan Gerber have shown in their seminal work Get Out the Vote that the most effective means to boost turnout is telling voters that their neighbors will be informed whether they voted (a matter of public record) after Election Day. Whether in India, Switzerland, or the United States, the personal and social aspects of voting are deeply interwoven. To degrade the latter for the sake of the former is a contradiction.

This book convinced me that I have a long way to traverse in understanding democratic politics, and that the increasingly quantitative methods of political science cannot alone provide adequate explanation for political behavior in representative democracies. This leads me to ask who the anthropologists and sociologists are that have conducted similarly ground-breaking qualitative research on American elections. The Obama re-election campaign used ethnographic research to understand the American electorate. But do we have anything out there close to Why India Votes? Where is the Why America Votes for our times?


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