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The Imagined Debate between Pollsters and Ethnographers

The Grassroots of Democracy: Field Studies of Indian Elections edited by A M Shah;

The Imagined Debate between Pollsters and Ethnographers

Suhas Palshikar

his edited volume of essays, written on the basis of field studies of elections done during the late 1960s and early 1970s, could not have come at a more opportune time. Since the mid1990s, the nature of party competition has undergone enormous changes; the ideological context has changed; and on top of it, elections took place in rapid succession. All these factors generated much more public and academic interest in elections than ever. Both the public and the scho lars are now looking at elections with renewed interest. Many new issues have occupied central place in analyses of electoral politics. Scholars are now more concerned with coalition politics, changing nature of party competition, upsurge of public interest and participation in election-related activity, and above all, the rise of the state as the main theatre of political competition. Alongside this develop ment, the business of election- related surveys has thrived and somewhat matured in the last decade. That, however, has not satisfied the sceptics who think that election surveys are an act of methodo logical voodoo. Unfortunately, the debate over the value of surveys has not been very intensive among Indian acade mics. Many love to hate the survey while some are happy to stop at merely the superficial use of survey data.

This volume on field studies on Indian elections makes it possible to continue this inadequate debate. It opens with a veiled criticism of the survey method and closes with an epilogue by one of the more famous contemporary practitioners of the survey method making a strong plea for methodological openness and dialogue.

Field Studies of Elections

In 1967, and later on in 1971, the faculty and scholars of the department of sociology at the Delhi University undertook the study of elections. Under the initiative and

book review

The Grassroots of Democracy: Field Studies of Indian Elections edited by A M Shah; Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2007; pp 380, , Rs 695, hardbound.

leadership of M N Srinivas and A M Shah, a large number of studies took place and some of these were published in various journals including the EPW. Some remained unpublished. This book brings all these studies together. Most scholars participating in this project belong to the discipline of sociology and the work relies on the field study method. We do not have many accounts or good chronicles of Indian elections except for newspaper accounts. Therefore, reading the essays almost four decades later today, one gets some sense of the process of elections, the interplay of various factors and the relation (or lack of it) between local choices and the overall outcome. This was the time when the electronic media had very little role in political communication; this was also the time when suddenly elections became much more exciting and competitive than in the first two decades of independence. Therefore, this book presents us with valuable material on the period of crucial importance for India’s democratic politics.

The studies cover 15 different localities and what is even more valuable is the fact that for four of these, studies for both 1967 and 1971 are presented here. These localities represent the rural and theurban; they also present reports from the small villages and constituency level reports. The scope of each study varies: selection of candidates, the campaign, factionalism, the overall electoral process, villagers’ choice of supporting this or that candidate, and many such factors find a place in the narratives based on intensive field study. Each author was conversant with the locality since the authors were already studying these localities. This acquaintance helped them both in getting reliable information from the residents and relating the various developments to the overall pattern of social relations in that locality.

Variations in Field Studies

The studies presented in this volume vary in their scope and the application of the field study method. A majority of the studies is concerned with a small locality, a village or a ‘basti’ in the town. But some studies expand the scope of the idea of field study and cover larger territories like small towns or assembly constituency (Sansi town – UP; or assembly constituencies like Shirdi, Rudauli, and so on). As a result of this, the method, though it could be broadly called field study, has to adapt to the territorial scope of the “field”. The face-to-face interactions, the researcher’s observations of the interplay of local rivalries and networks of interests, play a less important role and the researcher’s understanding of the larger context becomes more relevant. One has to take into account the socio-political history of the constituency in order to understand the political dynamics unfolding during election times. Thus, the studies by Baviskar or Imtiaz Ahmad are more in the nature of qualitative reports on the overall process in and at the constituency level. For instance, Baviskar’s essay tells us to take note of the factions existing in Shirdi constituency, situating the assembly contest in the background of intra-Congress factional politics.

It is necessary that this tradition of “in-depth” constituency level studies is revived for a better understanding of the electoral process. Study of elections is often caught in the crossfire between the proponents of quantitative studies and the supporters of field study. Understanding of political process could benefit if we focused more on study of the constituencies. It is true that the constituency is not exactly a locale that would attract a social anthropologist or sociologist; but the artificial locale of the constituency allows us to make sense of the play of power politics. In contrast to villages or small localities, the constituency is a more complex social

October 27, 2007 Economic & Political Weekly


reality also because the social fabric is more diverse and plural. This forces the so-called traditional social identities and loyalties to adapt to competitive politics. This also forces the diverse social groups to interact on a pragmatic and democratic footing, leaving behind their traditional social statuses. Most of all, any student of politics would like to know how the aspirations for political power are defined and realised. Elections and the political geography of elections produce the constituency as a crucial theatre of this political drama. Therefore the constituency level study (at assembly level) would certainly enrich our understanding of politics.

The other way in which some studies in this volume present a variation of the scope of field study method is the use of quantitative data. Many of the scholars have taken recourse to reporting the aggregate data on elections from their respective constituencies. The attempt is to relate the local context to the overall outcome. Moreover, authors have taken advantage of the then prevailing practice of the Election Commission (EC) to release booth level data. They have given information about votes polled by various candidates in the village or locality they have studied. This has further strengthened the possibility of combining quantitative and qualitative sets of information. Khadija Gupta (Sansi town study), Veena Dua (south Jullundur study), Ramswamy (Singnallur study), Sanwal and Sanwal (Kumaon study), Baviskar (Shirdi study) and Imtiaz Ahmad (Rudauli study), have given booth-wise and/or constituency level data to relate their observations to the outcome of the election. Later, the EC discontinued the practice of retaining and allowing access to booth level data. However, now it is possible again to take a look at this data to understand the election process at the local level.

Quick Surveys

Besides booth level and constituency level data, some studies in this volume have even succumbed to the temptation of doing a quick sample survey. Gupta (pp 76-90) and Mittal (pp 118-28) adop ted some variations of the opinion study through what they call “surveys”. While their study shows some disregard for the survey method, and hence cannot be of much use

Economic & Political Weekly October 27, 2007

to the reader, they however indicate how innovations could be introduced in the survey method and how the survey findings can be used to collate and interpret local level processes. In fact what they have done is to use the quantitative method for ascertaining the views and preferences of a focused group. However, both these studies fail to follow any sampling framework or a well formulated or structured questionnaire. This limitation renders their surveys mostly non-usable. But in embryonic form, their efforts pose the challenge as to whether a methodological hybrid is tenable and useful. In other words, we shall repeatedly come back to this same question while reading this book: how to integrate the methods and insights of field study and survey research.

The Missing Story

In a sense, one can look at this book as comprising some 18 stories from different places in India. These places are from different parts of the country – though concentrated in the north, the south and the north-east are also present in these stories. Moreover, these are not so much as stories of elections, but stories of those localities, towns, bastis, or villages. In some stories, the local people, the ordinary voters, come out as lively characters, in some others, the emphasis is on the local leaders, the aspirants for power, their rivalries, the interweaving of their ambitions and the larger political processes obtaining outside the locality. The question though, is, does any “Story” emerge from these many stories? Having had the advantage of a peep into so many localities, what do we know about elections in the late 1960s or early 1970s? What does the editor say about elections and their relation to the social processes in general? Or is it incorrect to expect such generalisation from field studies?

After reading very engaging and sometimes very involved narratives of different localities, one is left with a sense of bewilderment. Yogendra Yadav has also expressed much the same sentiment in the opening line of his epilogue: “Interesting answers, but what exactly was the question?” (p 345). This bewilderment is for two reasons. Firstly, one does not find any cogent argument and comes across simple narrations; secondly, the “observations” of the scholars are at variance with each other in many cases. In themselves, the stories are of course rich in information and potent with insights. But neither do the authors try to relate them to the overall process nor does the editor attempt to weave an argument based on them. Most disconcerting is the total absence of the overall atmosphere obtaining in India at that time; both 1967 and 1971 were elections of an epochal kind in Indian politics. But the studies only marginally refer to this and then go back to business as usual. So, either our impression about these times must be wrong or the scholars must have chosen to underplay the overall political scenario lest that steals the glamour of the field!

Burden on Political Science

The time, when these studies were undertaken and originally published, was also the time when political science in India was overburdened with making sense of the democratic process. Far too much emphasis was placed on the national as the terrain at which politics unfolded. The local was seen only as an extension of and sometimes an inconvenient variation of the national. Studying Indian politics meant studying this national level dynamics and not the esoteric details at state level [Kothari 1970: 122]. The rise of Indira Gandhi and the bitterness of the competition between her and her detractors further lent weight to this understanding of politics. On the one hand, the Congress Party was busy defining or redefining a master cleavage in Indian politics, the discipline of political science too, was busy in deciphering this master cleavage through a similar macro-level framework. The project by Srinivas and Shah was conceived at this juncture. The outcome of that project could have been a striking contrast to this overemphasis in the field of political science.

This was also the time when attempts were being made in political science to under stand state level processes, but political science did not have any parti cular method for studying the political process at the state level. But it appears that this project by Srinivas and Shah was not interested in this cross-discipline concern. So, we missed a valuable opportunity of


evolving a method that could be used and comprehended by collea gues across the two disciplines.

It is all the more disappointing that A M Shah’s introduction to this volume does not tell us much about the project that was originally undertaken: did it intend to intellectually respond to the overemphasis on the national level? Was it aware of the emerging field of the study of state politics? Did it have an overarching framework of enquiry? What specific instructions were given to the individual scholars? Was there any common minimum agenda of investigation or was there just an emphasis on what Shah calls “intensive field study”? It is surprising that the introduction does not touch upon most of these questions. This leaves a huge gap in the intellectual history of study of Indian politics by a distinguished group of sociologists.

Where Is the ‘Political’?

Perhaps, what A M Shah cloaks as the methodological disputation is in fact a question also of what one is looking for. Here is a set of essays that engages with the study of elections, written by a group of scholars who have the skill needed to undertake competent field studies. And here is the institutional leadership in the person of M N Srinivas binding the group to produce a research project. It is unlikely that there is no research question behind the study (or so one should imagine); it is more likely that the research question is not about elections. Election is the moment at which the study takes place. But the study intends to explore something different. So, three things are happening here: in the first place, our know ledge universes are often so insular that many sociologists and anthropologists would not have any sense of the political. There are traces of this in this book. Many scholars are not sure about what exactly they are searching. So, there is a tendency to look at election process only at the surface level and miss the political question altogether. Secondly, one suspects that for many of the scholars working on this project, politics is not a very healthy activity. They are gingerly handling politics and are overconcerned about the “success and failures” of democracy in India. Very few essays in this volume (M S A Rao, Baviskar, Ahmad) show a robust respect for the political activity. Thirdly, and more substantively, the studies undertaken here are often not addressing the political question, nor are they interested in the unfolding of politics. A careful reading suggests that most studies primarily address the question of how the “traditional” social structure affects outcome in democratic politics.

The essay by M S A Rao shows how different results can be obtained from the field study method if the researcher is alive to politics; if the researcher is investigating politics. Rao introduces the reader to the overall context of politics in Delhi and then turns to the specific constituency he is studying – outer Delhi. He then gives a brief account of the candidates in the constituency and the factional politics in Yadavpur. In his discussion of the campaign, Rao underscores the skills of the political workers to find “arguments and counter-arguments to convince the electorate” (p 245). He also points how and when “national issues became meaningful to the electorate or when they were brought within the perspective of specific local issues” (ibid). In other words, his essay is explicitly searching the political rather than being overburdened merely by the sociology of the locality.

More contemporarily, we come across a study that clearly situates the ethnographic material within the search of the political. This study could be a contrast to the non-political approach implicit in the project in which this volume has originated. Mukulika Banerjee, in her continuing study of a village in West Bengal, tries to locate the ordinary act of voting in the broader context of expression of power [Banerjee 2007]. In a lively account of how elections – and by implication democratic politics – have shaped popular imagination, Banerjee situates the festival of elections in the context of social inequalities and asymmetries of power. In contrast, the introduction by Shah to the volume under review is replete with somewhat flawed assumptions about democratic politics and its practice in India. Three things stand out in Shah’s assessment of the democratic experiment: in the first place, he seems to be inclined towards a formalist understanding of politics that leads him to believe that an individual – as an individual – makes a rational choice in deciding to vote for this or that candidate. This is an essentially a-political view of the entire process of election and it is not borne out even by the material in this volume itself. Secondly, Shah (and perhaps many other contributors to this volume) are concerned with providing clinching evidence of the salience of the “primordial” in shaping politics. There is no recognition of the two-way process obtaining in the relationship between so-called primordial and the so-called rational-modern. Perhaps that is why the introduction asserts that vote is a cultural product (p 25). Thirdly, Shah finds the overall debate about the success of democracy in India “superficial” and “empirically unverifiable”. This is because these debates do not take into consideration the level below the constituency (Shah, though, does not explain what, then, is the lesson of the constituency studies included in this volume!).

Influence of Supra-Local

“Politics” would of course occur at the local level, the village or the locality, but the system of elections and the party system also have an impact on the question of which level of politics becomes salient. There is, all through the electoral experience of India, a lively interplay of these different levels. The volume under review also throws up some evidence how as early as 1967 the supra-local was influencing the local; or for that matter, how the idea of the “local” was getting redefined in terms of a larger locale rather than merely a community or locality or village. To go back to Mukulika Banerjee’s study once again, the festivity and the sacredness associated with the elections are not the products of processes specific to the village under study; rather, they are the products of larger processes obtaining at state level and perhaps beyond. This


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October 27, 2007 Economic & Political Weekly


relatedness gives local choices a meaning and significance in the overall context.

Dispute or Dialogue?

It is ironical that in spite of the wealth of data contained in the essays, the book seeks to highlight not the significance of that data but an old debate over methodology. The issue is – can reality be grasped through one particular methodology only or is methodology a tool to be adopted as per the question we are asking? Shah comes out forcefully to argue that “constituency level studies do not help us understand this (voting behaviour) sufficiently” (p 25). As we noted above, right in the 1960s, the national and state level factors were entering into the local imaginations. Some studies in the 1990s have once again brought to notice this complex interplay of the local and non-local arguing that various factors have ensured the greater salience of the non-local factors over the local [Mohapatra-Bhattacharya 1996, Srivastava 1996 and Singh 1996]. Or, we could say that the idea of the local is expanding to incorporate larger territory. This is not only due to the fact that there are assembly constituencies, but also the various administrative units and development units happen to be the block or the taluk, the political parties have been able to establish networks that are capable of mobilising the larger unit, political communication is not confined to the locality alone and villages themselves are expanding in size. Side by side, the so-called primordial factors have become operative more at the level of taluk and the district. But the main point is: why should the unit of study be a matter of dispute?

A close reading of the introduction shows that the real dispute is not over the unit of study. It is over the advantages of the field study compared to the survey method. This book will have served an important purpose if this argument is debated. In spite of the recent upsurge in the studies based on the survey method, a lot of misunderstanding prevails about the strengths and weaknesses of the survey method. As someone who has been associated with the surveys done by the Lokniti network over the last decade and more, this reviewer feels it necessary to plead guilty in some respects. It is true that the academic writings

Economic & Political Weekly October 27, 2007

emanating from survey research have not gone much beyond profiling of the voters of various parties. A creative use of the survey data for understanding the formation of political attitudes is still awaited. This will require both a skilful framing of the survey schedules and distancing from mere “voting” as an isolated act. But these are inadequacies emerging from intellectual lethargy rather than the shortcomings of survey method.

It is essential that the researcher seeks to tease out the meaning of popular attitudes and opinions over a period of time and relates these to the political choice of voting for this or that party. Surveys in the 1990s have also brought forward the fickleness of political loyalties and the impact of coalitions on voter choices. This has not been adequately analysed. Thirdly, survey research seldom situates the act of voting within the larger and multiple processes. The 1990s have shown that economy, caste and gender are inextricably interlinked in their impact on group behaviour and choices. Some efforts have been made to explain how state level factors mediate the national issues producing different results in different parts of the country [Yadav 2004]. Similarly, the teasing out of the intricacies of caste and gender has also been initiated [Deshpande 2004].

Lack of Dialogue

Besides, any modest survey researcher will (and should) concede that field study and surveys need not have a competitive relation, but a complimentary one. Again, this has been the position of the largest and longest existing network of political scientists in India, the Lokniti network. The main inadequacy, then, is a lack of dialogue between the two methods and a process of learning for each other’s strengths. A questioning of the methodologies and protocols of each of these by the other can only alert and enrich the results. Yogendra Yadav’s epilogue to this volume sets out to prepare the ground for this, but stops a bit too short of the logical direction it should take. It may not be a bad idea to initiate “field studies” in localities that are also covered by the surveys; it is also useful that both address some common questions about explorations into the reasoning or logic behind the choice of vote; it would help if both set out to investigate into the attitudes to various issues and find out the world view of the voters.

This does not mean that it is easy to have a dialogue across the methodo logical orthodoxies. While it is true that most students of elections would find it hard to grapple with data that does not have statistics and tables, the field studies would abhor quantification. As Shah says in the opening paragraph of his introduction, the “sociological” method uses “minimal quantification”! But this extreme aversion to quantitative data apart, there are some issues about the field studies that need to be debated as a precondition of the dialogue across methodologies.

Ethno graphic studies many times choose to keep the locale anonymous. From Srinivas to Jayraman in this volume to Banerjee mentioned above, this practice is follo wed. Given the open and public character of studies of democratic politics, perhaps a political anthropologist would have to deviate from this practice (and even among sociologists, many do mention the locality studied).

The ethnographer’s choice of the locale of study would always leave the political scientist askance. What criteria are followed for choosing the locale? In this volume, the criterion was previous acquaintance of the scholars (in most cases). It is not convincing a criterion to study politics and elections; but more than that, this begs the question: what was the criterion originally in selecting those sites? For the ethnographic study of politics, does one adopt the criterion of ordinariness or peculiarity? If it is the latter, then the findings would certainly be different from the average political situation.

If one is pursuing the study of politics through ethno graphy, what tools are available to pinpoint the mediating factors that link the micro-level communities to the larger units of region and nation? Are local factors always to be identified as “primordial”? This volume often does that and even after a gap of three decades, the editor does not modify this understanding of factors like caste, kinship and local groupism.

As observed earlier, this volume and many studies here seem to have an implicit understanding that Indian society was and is a traditional society interfacing modern political forms. As such, the traditional


and the primordial affect the outcomes of the democratic political competition. This approach deflects attention from the essentially political nature assumed by local, regional and state level factors like family, caste clusters and regional-linguistic identities. These are some of the concerns of the political scientist regarding the intricacies of field study.

to take place, these issues need to be addressed. The publication of the book would benefit the study of elections if it occasioned this task of defining the inter secting spaces between these two methodologies.



Deshpande, Rajeshwari (2004): ‘How Gendered Was Women’s Participation in Election 2004’? Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XXXIX, No 51, pp 5431-36.

Kothari, Rajni (1970): Politics in India, Little Brown, Boston.

Mohapatra, Bishnu and Dwaipayan Bhattacharya (1996): ‘Tribal-Dalit Conflict – Phulbani’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XXXI, 2 & 3, Nos 13-20, January, pp 160-64.

Singh, V B (1996): ‘Grassroots Political Process – Atraulia’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XXXI, Nos 2 and 3, January 13-20, pp 121-28.

Srivastava, R K (1996): ‘Sectional Politics in an Urban Constituency’, Economic and Political Weekly, pp 111-20.

Yadav, Yogendra (2004): ‘The Elusive Mandate of 2004’, It is unfortunate that this volume does Banerjee, Mukulika (2007): ‘Sacred Elections’, Economic

and Political Weekly, Vol XLII, No 17, April 28, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XXXIX, No 51, not address any of these. But for a dialo gue pp 1156-62. pp 5383-98.

October 27, 2007 Economic & Political Weekly

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