Mukulika Banerjee on anthropology’s insights into politics, why India votes, and the upcoming West Bengal elections


Mukulika Banerjee is the Director of the South Asia Centre and Associate Professor of Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics. Her published books and edited volumes include The Pathan Unarmed: Opposition and Memory in the North West FrontierThe Sari (with Daniel Miller), Muslim Portraits: Everyday Lives in India, and Why India Votes. She has received several prestigious grants and awards for her research.

Banerjee is currently working on a project entitled ‘Explaining Electoral Change in Urban and Rural India’ (EECURI) funded by the India-Europe research networking programme of the ESRC, ICSSR and ANR (2012-16). This project brings together a network of scholars at King’s, LSE, University of London, Sciences-Po, JNU, BR Ambedkar University (Lucknow) and the NGO Janaagraha to study changing patterns of electoral politics in contemporary India. Mukulika is directing a series of ethnographic studies of Panchayat and State Assembly elections between 2012-2015, including studies of elections in Delhi, Bihar, Chattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and West Bengal. This research as part of a large-scale interdisciplinary research scheme (with partner institutions in Europe and India) that will uncover the reality of democratic governance in contemporary India.

Last year I reviewed Banerjee’s book, Why India Votes, on this blog. On February 9, I connected with her over Skype from her London office to discuss the unique insights anthropology offers to our understanding of politics, Why India Votes, and expectations regarding the upcoming West Bengal elections. The transcript of the conversation below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

On political behavior through the lens of anthropology

Sam Solomon: I liked how your book used qualitative research methods — the team of ethnographers — but also incorporated quantitative data, including CSDS survey data. Why don’t we see more research like this? Or is this more research like this that I am not aware of?

Mukulika Banerjee: I don’t think it is arrogant to say that there isn’t research like this in anthropology. This was a real experiment. Because what you’ve had in anthropology in the last, say, fifteen to twenty years, is that political anthropology as a sub-field has really disappeared. It was seminal in the formation of anthropological theory in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, in that period of the development of the discipline, when modern social anthropology really came to be. Discussions of politics and discussion of political behavior right up to the transactionalists in the 70s was absolutely central to the discipline itself.

Now, what happened? Partly because of the critique of transactionalism — and that’s interesting in light of what we are discussing, politics and elections — it was quite evident that transactional behavior in the way that anthropologists were describing it was really inaccurate when trying to understand how people actually behaved. And so that kind of pulled the whole sub-discipline of political anthropology down. Combined with the writing of people reading Said’s Orientalism, and the discovery of Foucault in translations, [this] meant that thinking about the world, and thinking about power and institutions, became absolutely organic to the way you thought about any institution in society. So you could think about power in the family and kinship as much as you did in political institutions and kingships or sovereign bodies. It was almost as if now that everyone understood how insidious and ubiquitous power was, you did not need a special sub-discipline to study politics as such because politics was everywhere. You had politics of the family, you had politics of kinship, and politics of the economy, of course. So what happened as a result is that the anthropological attention to political institutions as political institutions seems to have collapsed, and there was no systematic study of political institutions.

We were studying social movements. We were studying different kinds of interactions of post-colonial dynamics, of the remnants of indirect rule in sub-Saharan rule and South Asia. We were studying caste and politics. There was a lot of study of Indian politics, if you talk about India now specifically. But there was very little attention to political institutions, say, after F.G. Bailey’s book, who was working in Orissa. And Bailey, coming out of that Manchester school in anthropology, was interested in connecting his local village study to national politics. So he scaled it up. The way he did it was to study factions. Factionalism was the language of studying local politics in those days. He looked at how factions are formed, how leaders’ followings were maintained, what were the ingredients of good political leadership at the village level, then examined this phenomenon at the district level, and then took it up to the state level in Orissa. That was one model. I’m trying to think if there are exceptions to this, but within anthropology certainly the study of political institutions came to a grinding halt at that time.

When I started, I was very much trained in that tradition. I wasn’t a particularly keen election watcher. I was interested in politics, but my doctoral research had been in Pakistan on an anti-colonial movement against British colonialism among Muslim Pashtun men. That’s what had intrigued me. That’s what my earlier work was about. So I was in a completely different space. But CSDS was very central to the story. Lokniti was just formed, and the ‘99 survey showed this statistic which I talk about in the book. And people have rehearsed this many, many times. Now it has become so much part of our consciousness that we pretend that we have known it forever. But I remember the moment in ‘99 when the NES results showed, for the first time, that poor, rural, low caste voters are more likely to vote than their urban, male, high caste counterparts.

This was a startling moment. Yogendra [Yadav] had revived the whole survey tradition. He was building a team. He was reviving the longitudinal surveys that CSDS had been doing. And it was startling. There was a lot of excitement around this finding because we hadn’t realized this, that this was happening in Indian elections. And it was a conversation with Yogendra — I was just finishing my Pathan book at that time in ‘99 — and he said, “This is a really interesting finding. We have found this as political scientists. The survey’s done very well. We’ve sampled it well. It’s a good instrument. But we can’t explain it. We don’t know why we are getting this finding. Why are rural, low caste, poor voters more likely to vote? What is it that they invest in this process? That is something this survey simply cannot take on as a research question. And we need an ethnographer.” And I was just beginning to come out of the last project and looking for the next one. And I thought, “Yeah, that’s fascinating.” That is something which really animates my imagination.

The reason I’m telling you this background story is to explain how I came to study something so central to politics like elections as a result of the limits of survey data and survey methodology. It was a very organic relationship. I don’t think anthropology, brilliant as it is as a discipline — and I wouldn’t be anything else — has the capacity to pick up such a macro trend. That kind of macro trend where you can say in a vast country like India, we can say definitively that poor, rural, low caste people are likely to vote more. That anthropology can’t do. But once you find it, anthropology is very good in probing the questions. Because it’s subjective. It has to be long-term. It has to be qualitative. It has to understand people on the ground. Motivations can never be understood in compartmentalized ways. You can’t understand political motivations divorced from religious motivations divorced from familial motivations and so on. And anthropology is the social science par excellence to do that kind of holistic understanding.

SS: Something that struck me from the book — and from your answer as well — is that political scientists and anthropologists both study political and social phenomena, but the tools that they have and the vocabulary they have to understand these phenomena are so different. It seems to me that often times they are talking past each other.

I worked for a company doing survey research for several years. I worked on some qualitative projects where we were doing focus groups and in-depth interviews as well. So I got to see how different research tools provide different types of insights into whatever it is we are trying to study. And I see it at CSDS a little bit as well because CSDS has different research units. I’m working with Lokniti, and they’re numbers geeks, and they’re looking at SPSS outputs, and producing articles and journal pieces where they’re looking at trends. Then there’s Sarai [doing] media studies. Then there’s the Indian Languages department, and they have their own research agenda.

What struck me about your book is that it was an interesting meeting point where it seemed like it is possible for these different disciplines to talk to each other. Because I think they should. I have been to political science conferences that are very, very quantitative-heavy — this has been in the United States — and I’ve heard people say, “Sociology…what is that?” Or, “Anthropology? Come on!” And I’ve had conversations with people here — not anthropologists, but one person who is in film studies, and he was saying, “What can surveys really tell you, right? People change their minds all the time.”

All these different experiences have made me feel as though the different disciplines of social science are often talking past each other or not really trying to interact with each other. I wonder if there are some examples to counter that. I found your book was a way to bridge that divide.

MB: That’s really interesting that you should say that because I know the people you’re describing. And I can hear Ravi Vasudevan say that sentence that you just said: “What’s the point of surveys? People change their minds all the time” [editor’s note: I was not referring to Ravi Vasudevan in the above remark].

We are all wedded and committed to our silos at one level. The way universities work, the way associations work, you can’t go across. You can’t have dual membership. Forget multiple membership of different disciplines. You’re simply not allowed to do that. Anthropology always attracted me because when I moved to the Delhi School of Economics to study sociology… when I say social anthropology, in the Indian context it’s sociology. My counterparts in India are sociologists. The anthropologists tend to do more folklore of physical anthropology in India on the whole. Shail Mayaram at CSDS — Shail and I did our M.Phils together so I know her quite well — she’s an anthropologist in Britain and a sociologist in India.

I’ve thought about this a lot. I can speak only for myself. What I find most interesting is to be led by the question rather than by the discipline. It depends on what you’re interested in. Let me give you a completely off-field example. Have you seen my book on the sari?

SS: I haven’t.

MB: [walks to bookshelf, takes copy of The Sari down, and holds it up the screen] This is what it is. Can you see it?

SS: Yes.

MB: Then, if you open it… [turns pages of the book to reveal many beautiful photographs of women dressed in different styles of saris] It’s 300 pages full of color photographs and designs.

It’s always important what the research question is. I refuse to be wedded to any particular discipline. It is more a question of what is interesting to study and that’s why I’m a social scientist. Now, on the basis of a slightly personal experience of wearing saris to work in London and teaching British students, a student who actually taught at the London School of Fashion said to me, “How can a modern woman like you wear something that looks so antiquated and Victorian? And isn’t it interesting?”

So the question was: can the sari be modern? And then it was a question of how does one write something about this which is representative of India rather than of what the natural anthropological tendency would be: to go and focus on a particular location and try to understand it in-depth. At this point, I had already been doing about three or four years of research in these two villages of West Bengal where I’d been returning every year for the last fifteen years. I had a very good sense of what rural India’s engagement with the sari was, as opposed to the urban milieu in which I’d grown up. But rather than do what would be the classical anthropological study of going to one place, and then people say, “Well, that’s true of your two villages in West Bengal. What about Tamil Nadu? Or what about Gujarat?”, my co-author and I set up a random selection of women. It was randomized in that it was arbitrary, but it was very carefully designed to cover women from different professions, different castes, different classes, different regions, urban and rural. And on the basis of all that we wrote this book, making an argument for not only that the sari is modern but actually it’s the quintessential modern garment. That’s the twist we put on the story.

It’s a book that sold more than 10,000 copies, which for an academic book is being widely read. Even now it’s got a second life; the publishers got lots of course adoptions in the US, so now they’ve brought out a black-and-white version to make it more affordable for students. And it’s selling. People are reading it because I think it makes Indian modernity as an issue very accessible to a student or an outsider. You think clothing is a fairly accessible issue. Anyone can pick it up and think about it. So book clubs have adopted it. Within the discipline of anthropology, my colleagues wouldn’t be very persuaded that this is a scholarly piece of writing in the kind of standards we hold ourselves to.

Somewhere along the line, you’ve got to make a choice. There are two kinds of writing you can do: one is that the audience is entirely made of your peers in your discipline, which is scholarly in a very particular language, and I think inaccessibility to that writing by all surrounding disciplines as indeed the wider world is a hallmark of that kind of scholarship. It has to be a specialist language. We have to be incomprehensible in order to be taken seriously, in the way that economists don’t bother explaining to us, unless you ask them, what their language means. In the way that mathematicians don’t. I think social science aspires to that kind of inscrutability to be taken seriously. And there is a second category of writings which you can do, which is about communication and insight and understanding. Of being able to share the excitement of your genuine insight, which is gained through scholarship. I will never compromise the rigor of my research, but what you learn from it can be disseminated in so many ways. I think your blog is exactly that second category of communication, where you engage with writings really in-depth and seriously, but when you write about it, anyone — even your grandmother — can read it and learn something about what you’re doing in India, what you’re reading, and what kind of things you’re thinking about. That’s point number one about language and communication and audiences.

The second thing — when you were talking about political scientists in the US, I know many of them and our department of government of LSE is going more and more that way, it’s getting more and more quant — is that it depends on what you’re trying to understand. What is your object of study? As an anthropologist, I’m always, always interested in the ordinary person. So when I studied an anti-colonial movement, I was interested in their evolution. I lived in the house of the leader of the movement’s son. The leader had just died, which is what sparked my interest, but his son was alive. I stayed in his house, and I got into a real argument with him because I was not interested only in the story of his father. I was interested in the common Joe who never knew his father who was a part of the movement.

By the same token, the reason why the NES finding excited me so much was because this was not about political parties. This was about ordinary voters. And so much of Indian politics, as you know well, is dominated by politicians and political parties and factions within [them]. And the media are lazy as hell, so they think personality-driven stories are the most interesting. That’s all the discourse is about, whereas the whole system would be meaningless if it wasn’t for ordinary people engaging with it. So when this finding came out about the electorate, I said, “Great. Nobody else is interested in the electorate.” Or — actually, that’s inaccurate — the electorate becomes important to political scientists only in terms of who they’re voting for. So you need to count. So you’re counting votes, and you’re interested in what kind of person votes for BJP, what kind of voter is likely to vote for their caste party, or for women. But it’s always about who they are going to vote for, and I think political science goes a long way in that. I think the NES can be worked on a lot more than we do at the moment. We need to break this down much further and really interrogate the material, because I fear that actually the most interesting insights are counterintuitive. That’s why how you interrogate the material, the data itself, is so important. And I don’t think the NES data has been worked enough by a distance, but more and more people are doing it.

What I was interested in as an anthropologist was the finding that people were voting. Not that a majority of rural Indians were voting Congress. That we kind of knew. But the fact that they were voting at all was a question that, as far as I could tell — and you will tell me, because you have time to read and look around more — I didn’t see anyone else looking at that question. And that was the most startling, most interesting thing. In a sense, I started thinking about this in ‘99, and it’s been vindicated as a research question because as you know the turnout goes up every single election we have. Whether it is national, whether it is the Bihar elections, now women are outstripping men. Bizarre things are happening. It’s in such contrast to the state of the country in so many ways that it’s a real puzzle that we need to understand. So that’s what animated this book.

Therefore, if you are going to probe why people are voting, this is where an anthropological sense of ordinary people amongst whom one tends to live and work really helps. A lot of human activity would be classified by anyone working with quantitative data as irrational. Most of our human activity is that and that’s why things work. People are not maximizing all the time. That is why the world continues to function. I think voting in India is the irrational activity par excellence. It is not about maximization of ends. It is certainly not about increasing any tangible influence. It is not about a zero-sum kind of transaction where if I vote somebody else can’t vote; it’s not that kind of thing. All the instrumental reasons that are cited again and again — the assumption we make about poor people in India all the time that somehow people vote because they’re going to get something out of it — more and more research is showing to be completely untrue. Yes, people get a lot of things, but that has nothing to do with who they’re voting for or the fact that they’re there at all. All of those things kind of go out of the window, and all of the things which we unearth in the course of this study was about a whole set of ideas which nobody had frankly taken seriously up to this point. But it’s taking people seriously because it’s entirely inductive. I’m not making this up. It’s what’s happening on the ground and it needs to be reported.

On why India votes

SS: You chose a certain number of states to put your ethnographer teams at for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

I was talking about your book and your research at the CSDS office before I came here. In some way I was almost fishing for questions: “I’m going to talk to Dr. Banerjee. I’m trying to think about good questions to ask.” Someone put up a good question. They said, “There’s a certain reality of Indian elections for the states that her book has chosen.” We looked at the turnout data from different states for 2014.

Your work was looking at the 2009 Lok Sabha election. 2014 was obviously a very different election; a lot of people were talking about it as an election that changed India. The first question is: Do you think that you would revise or reconsider any of your findings in light of the 2014 election results?

The second question is related to the fact that the state that consistently has the lowest turnout for national elections is Jammu and Kashmir. The states with the highest turnout are the states of the Northeast. Do you think there might be a different reality of Indian elections for people in those states? Would you need to put an ethnographer team there and do a study? Based on your own impressions, how expansive are these findings from the 2009 study that became Why India Votes?

MB: The reasons that we found for voter enthusiasm or engagement to my mind are not election-specific. The short answer is I can’t see the reasons changing from election to election. What I can see is that certain elections, when they have an especially high buzz as the 2014 [elections] did, more people vote. It’s like the Obama effect in the US. There was a higher turnout then than ever before. It’s in the air so much; it’s always in the air when there’s an election in India, but there was an extraordinary amount of money spent on media images and the overwhelming presence of the election meant that it’s likely that more people are going to vote.

I think the Jammu and Kashmir and Northeast contrast is a very interesting one to think about. I will obviously add the proviso that it’s always good to do more research to find out whether this is true or not, but on the basis of what we found in 2009 that makes perfect sense. That’s exactly the kind of interaction I want between ethnography and surveys. Now if you tell me that the survey data shows this, I will try to use my insight from ethnographic work to explain it, with the proviso that we do more ethnographic work now that we know this finding.

So much of people’s desire to engage is about being counted as a citizen of the country. Of being counted, basically. It’s a sense of selfhood. It is an ethical action. It is about themselves, not about the corrupt politician. And therefore it is a moment in which they are able to express the sense of belonging, and desire to belong, and desire to be part of the polity in very concrete terms.

The Northeast is so horridly absent from the national imagination at most times that I can see why anyone living there would want to use this opportunity to say, “We also exist.” This is not dissimilar to this man in the Sunderbands — I think I quoted him in Why India Votes or it’s in the previous paper, “Sacred Election” — where he was literally in the last village before the Bangladesh border. And he said to me — in ‘99, this was — he said, “Look at where I live. I’m surrounded by water. I’m on the edge of this country. Over there is Bangladesh. If I don’t use this moment to register my presence, I’m going to be totally forgotten.” So the very fact that we now know that Northeast voters vote in large numbers makes us remember to count them. In a sense, it’s a vindication of their agenda.

How that plays out in Jammu and Kashmir, I don’t know. There have been J&K elections where voter turnout has been very high; in others, it’s been low. Jammu and Kashmir anyway is a difficult one to explain. And in that case, partly because the relationship to the Indian state is so radically different at every election — depending on what’s happening with the army, where we are with the talks — that it’s constantly shifting, unlike in the rest of the country where there is a certain stable relationship of neglect or occasional interest that we can take for granted. So I would put J&K aside precisely for that reason, because of the bearing nature of the presence, the ham-fisted nature of the state, how much people are willing to place their hope in being part of the Indian democratic polity. All of these things change from election to election.

But the rest of them — when you go back to the 2009 study — we have a very good balance of North and [South]. We have a very good balance of East and West. We have a good balance of rural and urban. I don’t see those reasons changing from one election to the other. What I just said about voting being the exemplary act of citizenship where you are allowed to register your name. Voting because of peer pressure, because of the indelible ink where it’s really uncool and inconvenient not to have voted — you get pestered so much by questions.

Voting because the experience of the polling station — and I can’t underscore this enough — I have now, since we did this research, been talking to so many people. Every Indianist I talk to I pose this question to: can you think of any other example of a public moment in Indian life which is comparable to the polling station queue? Anything else where you get a genuine mix of class, a genuine max of caste, gender, poor and rich? It is random. And it is orderly. Nothing, absolutely nothing, in the country even remotely comes to that.

And it’s funny; just the morning I was on the London Underground coming into work, and partly because you never stop being an anthropologist there was nowhere to sit. I was standing near the door. I just looked around the six or seven people around me, and I had this wonderful, “Gosh, I love living in London” moment. Because there was an Eastern European guy with paint on his trousers and dirt under his fingernails — he was clearly a builder — who takes out a smartphone, takes out his headphones, wrestling with his roll out tobacco pouch, he gets his headphones out, pulls out his smartphone, listens to music; he’s leaning against the door. There’s a woman in a barber jacket, immaculately made up, a city worker. There’s a student next to her. And then next to her there’s an Indian woman. The social mixing that you get — and the London Underground is not cheap — this kind of mixing simply doesn’t happen in India, even in that partial way. The polling station is the only one. And I’m not surprised that everywhere in the country people talked about this. And especially the poorer, the lower castes, the marginalized; they mentioned this much more.

I saw it in Bandra, in Bombay. I happened to be there on the day of elections in 2014, and I went to various polling stations across the suburbs in Bombay. And in Bandra where I was staying you could see this. There was literally a guy with a gold Rollex watch next to a man without shoes. Everybody understands this is India with all its contradictions, but it’s almost as if those contradictions are made visible on that one day. And it is orderly and everybody is treated equally. Now this is a big deal. And I don’t think our social scientists — if you don’t spend enough time outside your offices, not just traveling to India to conferences and training researchers but actually getting out into where there is no sanitation and where people have one set of clothes and where they don’t have any security of existence, those kinds of situations. This is a big deal. They are treated with respect. They are humanized for that day.

So that’s why I spent a whole chapter in the book talking about the culture of the polling station. That’s where an anthropological frame really helps because it’s only anthropologists who are able to break down every element of a ritual or of a space and reap the meaning in it. Not in some anal academic way but through the lens of the people there who are often thinking it but not articulating it. It’s the engagement of my questioning and being with them and chatting with them in the evening, or chatting with them seven days latter, or chatting with them at the next election — that kind of longitudinal, in-depth engagement that ethnographic work brings — is the one that brings out why it is meaningful for them.

Initially, when I ask people in my village, they say, “I like voting.” “Why do you like voting?” “Oh, it’s nice. I like it.” That’s all you get if you ask people questions. But after six or seven years of being in and out of that village and spending several months at a time sometimes, you begin to see why it is meaningful. And you can’t understand that meaning by confining it to their understanding of politics. I don’t know whether you read “Sacred Elections,” but do you remember the story of the sari?

SS: I don’t.

MB: This is a good shorthand way to explain to you what I’m saying about the ethnographic method. The reason I even called it “Sacred Elections” — but people now misunderstand that. And if you can in your blog help me dispel this misunderstanding, I’d be so grateful. Because I used the word “sacred,” they think it’s religious. Whereas what I mean is that it’s sacrosanct. It’s inviolate. And the reason I arrived at this rather bizarrely is because the women in the village where I worked on the whole have two saris, and they have one good sari which they wear for special occasions. I had been there one year for Eid, for Qurbani, when they were sacrificing animals — it’s a mostly Muslim village — and they were all in those best saris. We talked about that. I was told my best sari was not good enough, I should have worn something else, etc. Next time I saw them wearing their best saris was a wedding. And the third time I saw them wearing their best saris was an election day.

That gives you a clue how people approach elections. And for the voter, election day is contiguous and similar and analogous to all other special festival days. You see that in their choice of sari. It’s a visible clue. And then you can begin to probe questions on why the hell it is so special. Yes, Eid I know is special. A wedding I know is special. Why is it elections are special? But you wouldn’t know it is that special unless you were there for all those different occasions. If I just kept going on election time, as journalists do and often political scientists do, then you’d never know it’s their best sari.

I had political scientists on my researchers’ team because I was so desperate for researchers and I couldn’t find enough people in India — young people, paid well, to go and spend one month somewhere without budging. People were simply not willing to do it. This is the state of our social sciences. We are internationally known, but when it comes to being in touch with what’s going on in India on the ground, nobody was willing. So it was really hard. But one of them was trained as a political scientist, fancied himself as a political philosophy kind of guy, and his take on what he was hearing was extraordinarily paternalistic. He said, “Oh, they think it is important. They think their role is really important. Because people are not educated, they don’t realize that really it doesn’t matter. One vote doesn’t really count.” Whereas if you put that to a side and listen to what people are saying, and really trying to understand what they are saying, and often realize that what they say is very different from what they actually do, you realize that when it comes to the doing it is invested in the whole range of meanings that we need to create the academic social science language to capture. And I think ethnography actually is the only way to do it.

SS: Are there any other similar studies for other countries?

MB: You know, I don’t know. I certainly haven’t seen comparative ethnography like this. Because what was discussed a lot, partly because of sexy American anthropological theorizing about multisited ethnography, and that was a very different thing where the same ethnographer — if you wanted to study a city — went to four or five key different kinds of spaces and tried to capture the city through that. So you went to a school, you went to a playground, you went to a church. This made-up model, I so far haven’t found a close comparison with it.

But, having said that, I would love, just on this question of why people vote, to see us doing studies like this elsewhere. Especially where there are democratic traditions that flourish where we worry about voter turnouts. I would love to do a study in Britain where I live, and I engage with British politics as deeply as I do with Indian politics. I’d like to see it done in the US, where so much is said in the name of voters. It’s happening in the US now. It happens in Britain. Every time an election comes round, the voter is spoken on behalf of.

Today, they said in New Hampshire, “Despite the gale and the wind and the snow, a lot of people are going to show up and vote.” My first question was why are they going to do this? Why are they feeling so invested in this? Is it only about outcomes? Or is it about, “Gosh, this might be a milestone election and I want to have been part of that story? I don’t want to be sitting at home if there is a really interesting moment in American democracy.” And the reasons will be different in different countries obviously. In India’s deeply socially unequal society, the chance of equality and respect and dignity — I think dignity is the key word here. Most of our population in India is robbed of its innate human dignity. Forget civil, social dignity. And the absence of civility in public life. But there might be very different reasons in Britain.

On West Bengal politics

SS: For your fieldwork, you spent time with [West Bengal chief minister] Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress. What are you expecting to happen in the elections that are coming up this year?

MB: I’ll go back to my village. I’ve found that rather bizarrely my village has been a rather good bellwether for what happens at the state level. I couldn’t manage to go back last year. But I will in May this year when the elections happen.

I know the BJP made a big push and failed miserably. I also know that quietly a lot of Trinamool work is getting done in West Bengal. Little changes which matter to people of electricity and roads and infrastructure and so on. Anyone who does anything to make the state better will be rewards. If Mamata has made even this much change [hold up her hand to show a little space between her thumb and forefinger], she will be rewarded for it because she is a stable option, as opposed to the squabbling Communists and the chauvinistic ascendant BJP, which simply doesn’t chime. They tried. Narendra Modi after all campaigned in West Bengal and in his wake there were riots. So that kind of division is there. Bengal after all higher than the national average Muslim population. That kind of divisive politics I’m not sure will get anywhere. Everybody I talk to who’d know seems to think Mamata’s going to win.

But I must say, since you mention my work, my interest in Mamata started when she first won her first Lok Sabha seats a month after forming Trinamool Congress in ‘99. I spent a month shadowing her. It was very interesting because I just thought, “Gosh, all these people voting for her… what do they see in her?” Again, I was interested in the voter. And I wanted to understand what was the source of her charisma and her authority. I just wanted to see her more closely. I got chastised by social scientists up and down the country, in India, abroad. “How can you take this woman seriously? She is completely without culture. She looks like a maidservant. She cannot be taken seriously.” I said, “I’m interested in the people who vote for her, not so much in her. I want to talk to the people who come to her rallies.”

In a sense, it’s been again a vindication of that populist pulling power that she clearly had always. She has an ability to identify with the common man and woman which is unparalleled in Bengal politics. It’s unparalleled. And Yogendra used to have a good line about this; we used to talk a lot when I first started my research about this. He said, “If you put Mamata next to [former West Bengal chief minister] Jyoti Basu and you didn’t know who they were, and asked, ‘Who do you think is the communist leader?’ People are likely to say Mamata.” I remember saying to him, “Yeah, but you’re working under the assumption that Communist leaders are always close to the ground, whereas as we’ve seen in Communist Russia and elsewhere, often that idea of the intelligensia vanguard elite leading the masses is so built in to the ideology of communism that as a people’s leader, yes, it’s Mamata. But that’s not synonymous with communism as we know.” There’s lots of fantastic CPI [Communist Party of India] leaders who are much more ascetic and simple and austere in a way that Indian communism has thrown up repeatedly that kind of example. But Mamata’s fight was exactly with that elite political establishment. The parallels with [Delhi chief minister Arvind] Kejriwal were evident.

That paranoia and that intolerance of dissent that all these guys have — whether it is Mamata, whether it is Kejriwal, whether it is Jayalalithaa, whether it is Mayawati, and Narendra Modi of course par excellence — it is an intolerance of democratic dissent which is common to them.

So I don’t know, but it looks like there might be an erosion of her vote share, but I can’t see an alternative formation winning the election. Don’t forget that it’s not 2011 we should be comparing it to so much as 2013, when they had the panchayat elections. That was the last time I was there during elections. People were telling me that they thought 2013 was the proper consolidation of power. They said, “You’ve got to win the state elections. Then a national election is coming up. But really, unless you win the panchayats, you can’t make any changes.” So it is really her record between 2013 and 2016 that she’s going to be judged for. Because people think that unless you have the panchayats, you can’t actually do anything on the ground because the budgets are devolved to panchayats. It’s because she won the panchayat elections so convincingly in 2013 that that’s what she’s going to be judged by.

But already between 2011 and 2013, the moment you got out of Calcutta and stopped reading English newspapers… In 2013, I was being warned by people in Delhi and Calcutta saying, “Don’t go to West Bengal. Don’t go to your research village. There’s so much violence going on.” It was like there was a civil war on. And you went out there and yes, there’d been incidents of violence, and we normalize these incidents of violence. But those apart people were actually quite chuffed with how things were progressing. So it didn’t surprise me at all when she won the election because people felt that they could see changes that were better.

Part of the challenge of studying Indian politics is also to get beyond the headlines. Because headlines are being produced by people who, especially in English, simply don’t have the sense of what’s going on.

SS: Thank you very much.


2 thoughts on “Mukulika Banerjee on anthropology’s insights into politics, why India votes, and the upcoming West Bengal elections

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