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THE VIOLENCE OF DEVELOPMENT: The Politics of Identity, Gender and Social Inequalities in India edited by Karin Kapadia. Kali for Women, New Delhi, 2002.

THIS edited volume of essays critically examines the ‘contemporary situation of women in India’ and locates the inquiry at the intersection of the ‘cultural, social, political, and economic domains.’ The essays, originally conceived as individual research papers, were commissioned by the Policy Research Review and the Innovation Section of the Gender Board of the World Bank in 1999. They have benefited in coming together in a single volume for a wider audience – specialist and layperson alike.

The overview posits a few overlapping themes that weave together the collection, namely the structural violence implicit in the development enterprise and how it is experienced by women at particular intersections of caste, class, gender and community identity. It expresses a growing dissatisfaction with the ‘mainstreamed’ macro-indicators of women’s empowerment, those relating to access to education, paid employment and fertility decline. Despite the advertised gains for women, Kapadia states that a closer look reveals a contrary picture, what she describes as the ‘current paradox of the steady socio-cultural devaluation of women in a context of economic growth.’

A related theme guiding the essays is thus the tension between the principle of formal equality and its implementation within the context of deeply embedded social inequalities as evident in Indian society. Hence, the overview suggests an expanded understanding of ‘violence’, going beyond overt forms of coercion to include and engender the everyday kinds of violence that are produced by interlinked structures of domination and subordination and which subvert people’s chances of survival. Yet another concern is the urgency to articulate an alternative feminist politics that can make sense of and reflect upon women’s position/experiences in a society riven by the larger politics of caste, class, gender, community and region without being held hostage to the same. Instances of women’s mobilisation against sectarian violence, in claiming political identities for collective empowerment, and building partnerships across struggles – all constitute the proverbial silver lining and provide hope for the future.

The individual authors adopt a wide range of analytical viewpoints and topical foci to document and explore the persistent and the growing inequality between men and women across social groups. The methodology too is eclectic, some authors basing their study on secondary data while others on primary research, using an effective combination of quantitative and qualitative research tools to explore the relevant issues at multiple levels – nation, state, or region. The first set of essays explore the persistence of deteriorating sex ratios and dowry practice and more significantly its recent emergence as a pan Indian and caste phenomena (as opposed to being specific to the northern states and an upper caste practice). According to Banerjee, the gap between the social endowments of women and the needs of the new economy continues to define women’s beleaguered position in the labour market, engendering a context where violence against women is normalised and accepted as part of the status quo.

Similarly, Swaminathan explores the empty promise of ‘gender-blind development’ from the standpoint of scheduled caste women in Tamil Nadu, a state that ranks among the top few in terms of conventional economic, social and demographic indicators. She documents the growing marginalisation of dalit women and the increasing dependence of households, especially children and the elderly, on their labour for survival, arguing that it is ‘distress’ (as opposed to the touted ‘agency’ and ‘autonomy’) that underlies women’s work participation rates in the informal sector and the much documented fertility decline of the state.

Kapadia interrogates the relationship between gender, caste, and class in Tamil Nadu through the analytical lens of an emergent modernity, which she claims is both complex and paradoxical. According to her, class-based status is steadily emerging as the ‘central diacritic of translocal modernity’ within the contemporary context of India’s globalizing economy and has important implications for gender and caste relations in India, particularly in the southern states. Her essay explores the emerging role of dowry in transforming inter/intra-caste relations as an important marker of social and class mobility, and as a signifier of increasing discrimination against women in a society that has traditionally favoured isogamous marriages, bride price, and more egalitarian norms of conduct between men and women.

The second set of essays address the issue of gender and violence in its specificity as well as the growing sectarian violence that has accompanied the rise of right wing politics in India. Sharma, focusing on slum women in Bombay and their responses to the communal rioting of 1992-93, avoids a reductive class-based analysis in defining women’s engagement with sectarian clashes – all poor women oppose communal violence. She views women’s responses as a function of the ‘social cohesion’ that had developed in the various locations, more often than not a direct consequence of long term organising by women and the poor on various locally relevant issues.

Butalia’s essay provides an analytical review of the women’s movement and its shifting terms of engagement with the issue of violence, the state, and the accompanying demystification of the category of ‘Indian woman’. She writes that the rise of communal politics and right wing nationalism has challenged the consensus of ‘sisterhood’ and the category of women as perennial ‘victims’, and further brought to fore the contested nature of gender, nationalism and the state. According to Butalia, there is a particular urgency to address the latter and using the example of Kashmir, indicates that it is the ambivalence of nationalism that often deters activists from actively interrogating the issue of Kashmir and the violence faced by Kashmiri women.

Srivastava’s essay on the macro and micro realities of violence against rural women in Uttar Pradesh provides an empirical exploration of domestic violence, the neglect of Muslim women by the women’s movement in the state (despite the considerable numbers), the particularly degrading aspects of violence lived by dalit women, and the complicity of the state – either as the perpetrators or as conspirators. She emphasises the imbrication of caste, class, and community identity in framing women’s experiences of violence and, unlike other contributors, is not too optimistic about the possibilities of forging a consensus among women that can always rise above the stranglehold exercised by divisive identity politics.

The subsequent essays focus on political representation of women, a sphere that seems to have been the most impermeable to the articulation of gender concerns until the recent passage of the 73rd and 74th amendments granting women ‘reserved seats’ in rural and urban local governments. Narayanan argues that the legislation is necessary but not sufficient to ensure women’s effective participation in local governance. She documents and analyses the enabling role played by the state sponsored Mahila Samakhya (MS) in Karnataka in the last decade via its multiple strategies – of unleashing a holistic process of women’s collective empowerment in general, empowering elected women representatives (EWR), strengthening the wider political roles of (dalit) sangha women as citizens, and forging linkages at different levels with the panchayati raj institutions (PRIs). The essay, at one level a celebration of women’s activism and mobilisation, is also a reflective analysis of the competing nature of women’s practical and strategic interests as well as the conflicting and overlapping identities of dalit women in evolving new gendered subjectivities of women.

Niranjana and Mayaram’s articles on women and PRIs, in Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan respectively, provide a stark contrast to the positive energy of the Karnataka experience. The absence of any catalysing organisation in the case of Andhra Pradesh and the inability of the state sponsored Women’s Development Programme (WDP) in Rajasthan to build upon its earlier achievements has meant that the impact of the amendments has rarely been substantive. Women, especially dalit women who have attempted to venture out in the political arena have met with intense masculine and upper caste resistance, often marked by violence, although, Mayaram insistently and rightly interjects that one cannot uncritically favour an automatic correspondence between being a ‘woman’ and engaging in ‘politics of honesty and integrity’.

Anandhi’s study on Tamil Nadu adopts the analytic of ‘public and private patriarchy’ to highlight the various social tensions that constrain the promise implicit in the PRIs for women. These include women’s economic dependency and patriarchal control within the family structures, which often reduce women to dejure positions of leadership. When women do occupy positions of leadership, their effectiveness is further curtailed by restrictions imposed on their mobility as well as their own internalised notions of respectability; or by non-cooperation by the upper caste male members of the panchayat and the local bureaucracy, the latter being most severe for dalit women. Anandhi’s interrogation of the ‘patriarchal’ nature of the state and bureaucracy also raises important questions regarding the limitations and possibilities of state-sponsored interventions, like the MS programme documented by Narayanan, in enabling a social transformation.

Samita Sen’s concluding essay revisits the Indian women’s movement to interrogate the historical imperatives that frame it with a view to move beyond the current impasse. Sen opines that ‘currently the woman’s movement is deeply cleaved, and especially so over the issues of the Uniform Civil Code and the move to reserve seats for women in Parliament.’ Sen’s provocative account too isolates the contested relationship between women, state, and nationalism and transformation of women as objects as well as subjects of state policies as the defining theme to understand the movement’s priorities, its solidarity, and its schisms. While acknowledging the multiple identities of women and the impossibility of talking about ‘a’ women’s movement, Sen also asserts that the promise of the ‘possibility of secular political collectives to which women can belong, not by ascription, but by voluntary participation’ is the only way forward beyond the current impasse.

The link between economic development and status of women may have been reduced to an aphorism in the field of international development. However, this volume tells us that the precise nature of relationship still remains open for theoretical and empirical interrogation. Avoiding accounts of unmitigated gloom as well as a naïve belief in the linear progression towards gender equality, this volume has undoubtedly contributed to the debate by putting forth a nuanced analysis of the seeming intractability of gender inequality in India amidst market driven economic growth. Overall the individual essays are well researched and analytically written and as such provide a valuable addition to our knowledge base of the ‘contemporary situation of women in India.’

The strength of the volume lies in its ability to mesh its diverse theoretical concerns with rich empirical data from all across India, with special emphasis on Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. Given the immense and varied sweep of the different essays, Kapadia’s overview is laudable in its ability to weave together the diversity of empirical data to put forth a cohesive argument. However, it stops short of addressing the thematic (dis)engagements between the different theoretical/analytical frameworks adopted by the individual authors, leaving the reader with a pastiche of frameworks to make sense of. Nevertheless, the volume is an important contribution to the women and development literature and policy-makers, development planners and practitioners, bureaucrats, academic researchers and activists alike will do well to heed to the questions raised and insights on offer here.

Aarti Saihjee


STATE POLITICS AND PANCHAYATS IN INDIA by Buddhadeb Ghosh and Girish Kumar. Manohar and Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi, 2003.

THE growing literature on panchayats in India largely contains descriptive narrations some of which happen to be repetitive. But this book breaks new ground. It is a pioneering attempt to analyse causes of why constitutionally mandated panchayats succeeded in some states and failed in others. The degree of success is not the same, even in states where it thrived. There is no attempt, however, to present a simplistic unilinear sequence of causality. The authors through diligent study, assiduous research and commendable analytical skill try to unravel the mystery of power sharing or power cornering by various segments of society in different states subsequent to the 73rd and 74th constitution amendments which ordained a ‘third stratum’ of governance below the state.

What is remarkable about the book is the rigid conceptual framework under which the study was conducted. The authors sought to answer the question ‘Why what happened did actually happen in that manner’ (p. 14). It is an audacious task because in doing so the authors had to tell the truth, often the unpalatable truth, which they have done with scholastic objectivity and surgical incisiveness. The reasons for Y.B. Chavan’s prompt acceptance of Balwantrai Mehta’s recommendations in 1960 in Maharashtra were quite different from Jyoti Basu’s urge to constitute three-tier panchayats in West Bengal in 1978. Both were astute political persons trying to establish an institutional structure below the state which would support and sustain them in power for a long time. While Chavan wanted to create ‘opportunity structures’ to accommodate the ‘political aspirations of the rising rural elites belonging to the dominant caste cluster of Maratha-Kunbi’ (p. 18), Jyoti Basu, theoretically a staunch believer in (democratic) centralism, promptly created in 1978 a three-tier panchayat system to dig roots in the rural areas of West Bengal where the left parties’ hold was initially tenuous and to diffuse state power among numerous panchayat bodies to checkmate any central move to dislodge the Left Front from power. Though both of them ushered in a strong panchayat system in two different time frames, their motivation, reasoning and circumstances were quite distinct and dissimilar.

Jawaharlal Nehru was a great protagonist of panchayati raj. Yet a Congress government in Bihar consistently refused to implement the recommendations of the Balwantrai Mehta committee during Nehru’s life time and later on did nothing to implement either the Asoka Mehta committee recommendations or even the constitutional mandate of establishing panchayats till the other day. Bihar continues to wallow, with supreme unconcern, in the murky quagmire of casteism, clannism and localism, irrespective of what happens in the rest of the country.

The book contains a scintillating introduction presenting in summary form the findings of the four case studies of Maharashtra, Gujarat, West Bengal and Bihar, which form the other four chapters and a concluding chapter. It has a good bibliography that would be helpful to any student of panchayats for further follow up study.

I have no intention of summarising the findings of the book. That would deny the reader the taste of the delectable and rich fare that awaits him. I would like to make a couple of points about the general methodology adopted by the authors in analysing factors favouring or disfavouring panchayats in a particular state. In the three case studies relating to Maharashtra, Gujarat and Bihar the authors depended heavily on the classical Indian sociological mode of explaining basic socio-political variables through caste-clan factors. In a stage of social and political regression that the country is passing through currently, harking us backward towards fundamentalism, caste undoubtedly is becoming a significant issue. But in this process one cannot ignore the class phenomenon altogether. There are large areas of caste-class overlap, where one can, perhaps, use one for the other.

But ascendancy of a particular class and its attempt to monopolise power at different tiers of governance to the exclusion of others to maximize class gain cannot be overlooked. The Maratha-Kunbi cluster in Maharashtra or the rich Patidar farmers in Gujarat, indicate that an economically dominant class would endeavour and succeed in capturing power both in panchayats and the state. In some places they would do so by sharing and in other cases by cornering, as in the case of Bihar. In West Bengal the urban petty bourgeoisie, which formed the backbone of the Left Front, wanted an alliance with the middle and upper peasantry in rural areas to remain in power. The panchayat was the political and institutional tool to forge this alliance. And this coalition proved so successful that the Left Front could win six successive general elections.

The case studies provide tales of labyrinthine complexity and maze of caste-clan-biradari issues which have been shaping and directing politics of several states for the last five decades. It is a serious discourse on the evolution of the Indian state, which is still in its formative stage. It is empirical and rational and embodies the best traditions of social science. Both absorbing and sometimes provocative, it is a must read for all who care about the fate and future of panchayats in India.

D. Bandyopadhyay


PRISONERS OF THE NUCLEAR DREAM edited by M.V. Ramana and C. Rammanohar Reddy. Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2003.

Prisoners of the Nuclear Dream edited by M.V. Ramana and C. Rammanohar Reddy is perhaps the most comprehensive and persuasive work to have emerged in recent times on the nuclearisation of South Asia, following the Pokharan and Chagai tests of 1998.

An explicit critique of nuclear weapons and its logical corollary, the programme of nuclearisation adopted by India as also Pakistan, this book lays bare the claims by the powers that be that nuclear weapons and the process of weaponisation provide ‘security and stability’. Rather, the nuclear tests of 1998 have had the effect of increasing manifold the insecurities plaguing the nation, as exemplified by the incursions of 1999 in Kargil.

The most remarkable aspect of this book, which is divided into four sections, lies in its selection of essays by eminent scholars, academicians and scientists who examine the impact of this process of nuclearisation and thereby challenge the ongoing attempt by the state to create a consensus about the quest and irrational objectives associated with nuclear weapons.

In the first section titled Issues of Strategy and Foreign Relations, Kanti Bajpai argues that India’s decision to pursue nuclear weapons as a consequence of China’s decision to go nuclear was misguided as it led to the emergence of a nuclear Pakistan, further reinforcing India’s decision to intensify its nuclear programme. By clearly evaluating the Pakistan-China relationship, Bajpai highlights the need for a common strategy with Pakistan in arriving at a decision to do away with nuclear weapons. Shocking as it may seem, neither India nor Pakistan had, at the time of testing their nuclear weapons, an effective command and control mechanism, an issue examined by Admiral Ramdas. His essay evaluates and highlights the need for a national security planning mechanism and brings out the inadequacies of the draft Indian nuclear doctrine. In his essay on managing nuclear weapons in South Asia, Ejaz Haider calls for the linking of Pakistan’s offer of a ‘no war pact’ with India’s offer of a ‘no first use’. The essay by Ye Zhengjia, while elaborating on China’s reaction to the India tests, also highlights the quick rapprochement that followed, with high profile visits by dignitaries which have more or less restored the parity in relations, although a lot remains to be done.

In the second section titled Issues of Science and Ethics, Zia Mian details the workings of a command and control system were it to be in place given the experiences of countries with nuclear weapons who are none the wiser despite decades of handling weapons and the procedures to manage them. He examines the role of delivery platforms and the available hardware with India and Pakistan (an expensive venture), and the callousness involved in the subcontinental version of an arms race despite having perhaps some of the worst social indicators of human development. The wisdom of possessing nuclear weapons and the rationale behind their deployment has always been a ‘grey area’ as it flouts all possible norms and ethics that civilized societies take pride in.

Amartya Sen addresses the ethical and moral questions associated with nukes, highlighting the immorality of designing and manufacturing such weapons that, whether used or not, have the potential of killing hundreds of thousands. Amulya Reddy, in interpreting the harnessing of science and technology to develop weapons of mass destruction, critically evaluates the role of the scientific establishment that, for all practical purposes, appears as the most hawkish amongst all segments of the decision-making class. M.V. Ramana details the mobilizing of the elite by the scientific establishment and the creation of lobbies powerful enough to shape a nuclear and missile policy. Siddharth Mallavarapu interprets the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice that in 1996 ruled that the ‘threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law…’ and analyses the implications of the ruling as also the various aspects that precede the ruling.

In the third section, Issues of Militarisation, Politics and Economics of Nuclear Weapons, the dangers of a nationalism gone berserk are brought out in two finely argued essays by Krishna Ananth and Srirupa Roy. While Srirupa Roy bases her argument on the emergence of a post-colonial state that emphasizes nation building through monumental projects such as the acquiring of a ‘nuclear status’, Krishna Ananth traces the decision to go nuclear to the rhetoric of the Sangh Parivar that has consistently called for nuclearisation under the catch phrase of ‘constructing Indian nationalism’. While the true costs of the nuclearisation programme initiated by the Indian state may never be known, Rammanohar Reddy breaks down the financial costs of India going nuclear and estimates that it would cost around Rs 80,000 crore over a decade – all of it to the detriment of social spending that would otherwise have benefited large sections of the society. Jean Dreze too establishes the links between growing militarism and the decline in social indicators. The process of nuclearisation pauperises and constricts future growth by curtailing schemes and programmes that otherwise would have been diverted towards welfare.

In the last section, Issues of Environment and Health, the consequences of a nuclear programme initiated by an irresponsible state and the impact it has on the lives of the people is succinctly brought out by Surendra Gadekar and M.V. Ramana. The last essay of the book by Thomas George details the horrific after-effects of a nuclear explosion and the levels of radiation on human beings.

As a tract that powerfully challenges India’s decision to go nuclear, Prisoners of the Nuclear Dream is a highly recommended book richly deserving the attention of students, academicians and the powers that be, who in their infinite wisdom have thrust our country into a race where there are no winners, only sinners!

Raviprasad Narayanan


PARTIES AND PARTY POLITICS IN INDIA edited by Zoya Hasan. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002.

AT the time of decolonisation and even during the early years of independence, questions were raised by India experts, mostly westerners, about the future of democracy in India, seen as lacking the basic ingredients responsible for the success of democracy as per western liberal thinking. Low levels of literacy, lack of industrialization, the presence of enormous ethnic-cultural diversities, an absence of democratic experience were all considered detrimental for the Nehruvian agenda of democracy building. After more than half a century, however, students of Indian politics tend to agree that barring the brief interlude of the Emergency, Indian democracy has not only survived but has done better, particularly when compared to other post-colonial ‘new’ democracies.

In her introduction, Zoya Hasan refers to the broadening and deepening of the representative character of democracy, albeit in its procedural form, as a signifier of the success of Indian democracy. She draws attention to a significant change taking place in the terrain of democratic politics that is embedded in the process of social change. The democratic upsurge is evidenced in the form of change in the size, composition and the self-definition of the voters ‘with new social groups entering the ambit of the political system.’ Moreover, the electorate seems to have much broader choices with the emergence of the new political parties.

On the flip side, however, there are disquieting signs like the endemic multiplication in the number of political parties leading to a fractionalized political space, the rise of regional parties and caste/community-based parties that threaten to unleash sectarian politics of obscurantism, and an overall decline in terms of ideology, organization and political morality. One also increasingly witnesses maladies like corrupt politics, lack of performance, disorder and instability being perpetrated by the parties in a ‘transforming India’. ‘In short, political parties wilfully pursue their own narrow political interests at the expense of the greater common good.’

However, can we imagine the success of post-colonial Indian democracy, even in its procedural if not substantive form, in the absence of political parties’ organization and mobilization? The answer is a resounding no. It is no surprise that an understanding of the distinctive features of the party system go a long way in comprehending the complexity of the Indian polity.

The book makes an attempt to capture the evolving nature of the party system in India by incorporating some seminal essays written over the last three crucial decades by noted theorists of Indian politics. The book is theme-wise divided into five sections. The first takes up ‘the dominance and decline of the Congress’ comprising the articles by Rajni Kothari, Pradeep K. Chibber and John R. Petrocick, and Anthony Heath and Yogendra Yadav. Writing about the Congress that dominated Indian politics in the first four decades of independence, they provide useful insights about its ideology, strategy and nature of the social base. Kothari, in his now celebrated essay on the ‘Congress system’ essentially profiles ‘an Indian model of democratization’ under a unique ‘one party dominance system’. He argues that the Congress system representing a social coalition, ideological centrist politics and a political culture based on pluralism, tolerance, bargaining and accommodation provided, among other things, ‘a comprehensive mechanism of change… a system of conflict articulation and resolution… and a system of communications between society and politics.’ Chibber and Petrocick present an alternative picture by arguing that the ‘decentralization of the party system and the Congress’ support base was state-specific and determined by distinct social constellations in the regions.’

Kochanek analyses the institutional changes introduced by Indira Gandhi to create a centralized ‘new Congress’. Giving a detailed account of the measures taken by Indira Gandhi between 1967 to 1976, he refers to her personalized politics of nomination in the party institutions and her efforts to ensure further centralization of the federal polity, subordination of the President as well as cabinet to the prime minister contributing to the collapse of power bases in the states. Based on the National Election Survey data of the 1990s conducted by Lokniti/CSDS, Heath and Yadav argue that there has been a distinct shift in the social base of the Congress in the aftermath of the rise of parties such as BJP and BSP. The Congress from being a ‘catch all’ party commanding the support of a rainbow social coalition, has been ‘reduced to merely picking up the residual constituencies which other parties had not mobilized.’

That the second section of the book which revolves around the ‘rise and growth of Hindu nationalist politics’ begins with B.D. Graham’s paper on the historical growth of Hindu nationalism comes as no surprise as it has been at the centre of major transformation in the party system. While Graham presents an overview of the evolving nature of the organization and leadership of the Jan Sangh in the ’50s and ’60s, Christophe Jaffrelot analyses the nature of the development of a solid network of cadres supplemented by a strategy of ‘ethnomobilization’ to produce a mass following for the BJP. Oliver Heath covers the journey of the BJP from being a localized party with a restricted political presence into a major party with a mass base in post-mandir India. More significantly, he analyses the effect of its expansion on its traditional social base. In a similar vein, the rise and growth of Shiv Sena – a metropolitan based turned regional party, representing ultra-rightist Hindutva – receives attention in an article jointly written by Mary Katzenstein, Uday Mehta and Usha Thakkar.

‘Radical politics and left parties’ forms the third section of the book. Javeed Alam, while taking an historical look at the formative phase of the Communist Party, asks why ‘a sense of being besieged, together with rearguard actions, predominates the politics of the left today.’ He attributes it to the ‘fad’ of the communist parties with ‘the position of the bourgeoisie and its characterization’ that ‘did not allow them to intervene in the day to day manoeuvres of the Indian state to subsume society within itself.’ Amrita Basu’s essay records the evolution of parliamentary communism in West Bengal with reference to the larger debates about communist strategies in a democratic system.

The interlinkage between ‘social diversity and party politics’ constitute the core theme of the fourth section that includes the essays by Jyotirindra Das Gupta, Zoya Hasan and Narendra Subramanian. Das Gupta analyses the ‘reorganization and redirection’ in Indian party politics that took place during the post-Emergency Janata phase. His paper enables us to understand the significance of the issues of ethnicity and other axes of social cleavage that have increasingly played a significant role in the transformation of party politics. Zoya Hasan attempts to understand the ‘new lower caste politics’ with special reference to UP, as ‘new’ parties like the BSP take recourse to caste driven political mobilization to alter the power structure. Subramanian’s paper refers to the strategy and the ethnic populist politics of the Dravidian parties from the DK to DMK and ADMK. Based on his study of the course of the Dravidian parties’ movement, the author argues that organizational pluralism can impel ethnic and populist forces towards promoting stability, the social pluralism resulting into an increased level of representation of emergent groups within a democratic system.

The fifth and the final section discuses issues of political competition and transformation of the party system. James Manor presents a saga of the decline of Congress and its impact over the nature of party systems in India while covering the period from Nehruvian India to the Rajiv era. Sridharan expresses his concern about shrinking democratic space due to an increased fractionalization of party politics. The relationship between India’s parliamentary federalism, the party system, and coalition politics in the aftermath of the federalization of the Indian politics is well analyzed by Balveer Arora.

Thinking of transformation in the nature of party politics in a comparative mode one finds that the West has been witness to ‘a crisis of party politics’ in terms of both party membership and partisanship, reflected in partisan dealignment. There is also evidence of what has been called ‘antipolitics’, the rise of new political movements as well as organizations showing marked antipathy towards conventional centres of power and opposition to established parties of government. The unprecedented rise in the ‘new’ social movements confirms the same phenomenon.

A reading of these papers, however, makes it abundantly clear that notwithstanding the ‘inadequacies’ of political parties in responding to the aspirations of the electorate celebrating the ‘second democratic upsurge’ or ‘the erosion of institutional edifice of democracy’, political parties in India continue to play a significant role in averting the pitfalls of ‘non-party, plebiscitary democracy, and strong executive leadership grounded in populism’ that has been the bane of ‘new’ democracies and is now increasingly evidenced even in, as current happenings reveal, the ‘lead nation’, the USA.

Ashutosh Kumar


VISHWA HINDU PARISHAD AND INDIAN POLITICS by Manjari Katju. Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2003.

ANY perception that Indians, or at least the Hindu communities, might have of themselves as a peaceful, non-violent, tolerant and accommodating people today stands discredited. In no small measure this is due to the diatribes we are daily subjected to by the likes of a Pravin Togadia or Acharya Dharmendra. Ever since the mobilisations around the Ram janmabhoomi – the rath yatra, demolition of the Babri Masjid, the riots that followed, and more recently Gujarat – it is ‘leaders’ like the above who have come to occupy centre-stage in Hindu public consciousness.

It was not always so. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which together with the Bajrang Dal so defines the militant face of Hinduism, started off on a different note. Few today remember that the initial constitution of the VHP, way back in the mid ’60s, involved venerable figures like Swami Chinmayananda, K.M. Munshi, even the evergreen Vedantist (and now Congress MP) Karan Singh. And though its organizational beginnings can be traced to a strategic decision by the RSS, in particular its then sarsanghchalak, Guru Golwalkar, some care was taken to demarcate the broad agenda of Hindu social reform and resurgence from what is now recognised as political Hindutva.

True that even in those early years, Hindu leaders (and possibly communities) were imbued with an unease about the decline of Hindu values and culture. The fallouts of both Partition and the Nehruvian policies of secularism were seen as inimical to a resurgence of Hinduism. Conversions, particularly in the sensitive North East, aroused apprehension, more so because of the decision to carve out a separate state of Nagaland. Equally, Hindu opinion was hostile to the idea of a Sikh dominated Punjab. Nevertheless, the early conclaves of the VHP clearly set themselves a cultural, not political agenda. Above all, the gathering was keen to project an identity distinct from the RSS, not surprising given the odium attached to the organisation after the assassination of the Mahatma.

Sceptics might today argue that all this was a mere sham, that the current VHP is only a logical extension of its beginnings and that all its favourite hobby-horses can be traced back. Possibly, but then possibly not. Not all preoccupations with matters of faith and religious identity turn communal. That is a matter of political engagement. One could as easily argue that the unmindful neglect of such concerns, if not derision towards matters of faith (in particular Hindu), left the field wide open for different practitioners to forward restrictive and revanchist formulations as community objectives. If so, a virulent VHP is as much a reflection of the weakness of secular politics as it is of the drive and persistence of actors whose politics we decry.

Manjari Katju’s narrative, an outgrowth of her doctoral dissertation, marks an important beginning in an otherwise relatively unexplored terrain. Barring Eva Hellman’s Upsalla University dissertation, and H.K. Vyas’ 1983 mimeo for the CPI, it possibly is the first book length study of an organisation that so impinges on our political consciousness. If only for this reason, it deserves to be widely read.

There are, of course, other reasons. Manjari’s grandfather, Shiv Nath Katju, was an early member and subsequently president of the VHP in the late ’80s. This no doubt aided her access to a wide range of activists and office-bearers of the organisation whose views helped develop a more coherent and nuanced understanding of the VHPs ideology, in particular its transformation from a loose federation of Hindu reformers and religious leaders to a fighting arm of militant Hindutva closely aligned with both the RSS and the BJP. It also helps us understand how distinctly unspiritual leaders like Togadia acquired prominence.

Not surprisingly, much of Manjari Katju’s narrative centres around the Ram janmabhoomi controversy, how the earlier spark lit by the Meenakshipuram conversions were flamed by the agitation over the Ayodhya temple/mosque. Clearly, far more than the earlier mobilisations around the banning of cow slaughter, or even countering conversions of dalits and tribals to Christianity or Islam, it is the Ram agitation that both brought ‘saints’ into politics and gave a militant and exclusivist edge to Hindu nationalism.

The interesting division of labour between the VHP, Bajrang Dal and the different mahila groupings under the overall guidance of the RSS and the BJP presents a fascinating (and frightening) example of how issues and non-issues can be welded together both for securing political power and setting social agendas. Equally interesting is the attempt to bring together myriad Hindu sects and panths and other Indic religionists (Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs) into a common fold against the designated ‘others’ – followers of Islam and Christianity. Above all, as Manjari argues, a ‘successful’ targeting of the ‘other’ helps paper over internal divisions and divert attention from sorely needed social reform.

Ironically, it is this externalising of energies that may well spell the death knell of the VHP/RSS project. The effort to incorporate dalits and lower OBCs is facing strong resistance from the Bahujan Samaj Party. Despite trying to accommodate Ambedkar as an icon, the movement has not tasted much success. Its strategy might work better in the central tribal belts because the adivasis have faced both social and economic neglect for long. But even here, the VHP has been forced to adopt the strategy of its bete noire, the Church, in opening schools and hospitals to attract the tribals. And engaging in violence against Church functionaries is already proving counter-productive. Also, the VHP has no effective argument against the charge that the organisation is itself engaging in reconversion (shuddhi) despite targeting the Church for doing the same.

Where this book is not very helpful is in understanding the future of the VHP and its brand of religious politics. In some measure, attention has already shifted away from the Ram temple. Equally, the VHPs anti-Church programme has only earned it odium. Of course, targeting Muslims, Pakistan and terrorism has an ever available audience. But given the VHPs dependance on the BJP for providing a congenial atmosphere, and the BJPs need to not be overly identified with divisive and hate polities, there is no necessary stability in this course.

Another avenue, somewhat inadequately explored, relates to the VHPs overseas activities. Many analysts have argued that the quantum leap in the VHP mobilisation and visibility owes disproportionately to its funding by overseas Hindus, particularly in the West. However, even here events like Gujarat do not generate sympathy. Overplaying radical Hindu nationalism with its decisive edge against Islam and Christianity is unlikely to be tolerated for too long. Possibly, if the VHP wants to consolidate its overseas clientele, it may need to revisit the earlier Chinmayananda strategy, of keeping Indian (Hindu) culture and roots alive in the expatriate communities. Soft cultural belonging goes further than militant nationalism.

But above all, what this book lacks is political-sociological information on membership, funding sources as also the corporate management strategy needed to keep the enterprise alive. A focus on the ideological and ideational parameters, though helpful, can only be a starting point of investigation into this mobilisational venture.

Harsh Sethi


DALIT ASSERTION AND THE UNFINISHED DEMOCRATIC REVOLUTION: The Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh by Sudha Pai. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2002.

INDIA’S SILENT REVOLUTION: The Rise of the Low Castes in North Indian Politics by Christophe Jaffrelot. Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2003.

NOT too long back, a study of Indian politics meant examining the Indian National Congress, not surprising since for the first two decades after independence the two were seen to be co-terminous. Of course there were a few whose excitements lay with the Communist Party, but even they admitted, albeit reluctantly, that the main current belonged to the Congress.

The picture of the ‘Congress system’, a term popularized by Rajni Kothari, started displaying fractures almost as the term came into popular usage. Processes which became apparent after the death of Nehru – the rise of intermediate caste/peasant parties, the steady consolidation of regional forces – may have taken a few years to unravel. But combined with the loss of élan in the Congress and its steady organizational centralism, the crises became recurrent. And, in the previous decade, with the politics of Mandal and Mandir occupying centrestage, it was soon apparent that the heyday of Congress, or even one party dominance, was behind us.

Thus, what we have seen in recent years is an increasing interest in either the politics of religious symbolism and identity epitomized by the Sangh Parivar and its offshoots (communalism) or the politics of social justice (izzat, equality, retributory justice) exemplified best in the assertion of the ‘backward classes’. Both these tendencies and formations have, however, to contend with an increasingly aggressive force (that of dalits) best represented by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

The rapidity with which the BSP has stormed into public consciousness, in particular the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, has surprised analysts. After all, in no region do dalits constitute a substantial bloc, and in any case, they are divided not only socially and ritually, but in terms of party loyalties. Even more, till the mid ’80s, they were not perceived as expressing or even having the potential of articulating an independent politics. That myth is now shattered.

Christophe Jaffrelot’s dense monograph, close to 500 pages, presents the most systematic data on the rise of the ‘low castes’ – both the OBCs and dalits in Indian politics. His thesis is structured around a range of propositions, all dependant on the role that caste/jati identity plays in different spheres. Having accepted the centrality of caste stratification he shows how, despite assertions by the lower orders for equality (Jyotiba Phule, Shahu Maharaj and Ambedkar in Maharashtra and the non-Brahmin movement in the states of the South), the Congress as the dominant party through much of the 20th century practiced a conservative politics in which despite some play for social reform there was active opposition to and disarticulation of any autonomous identity politics of the lower orders.

He is thus extremely critical of Gandhi, his acceptance of varnashrama dharma even while completely rejecting untouchability, the emphasis on caste as an occupational division of labour and, above all, his focus on an organicist village within a Hindu frame. The ‘defeat’ of Ambedkar and the forging of the Poona Pact (1932) is presented as a major defeat for the dalits. Jaffrelot argues that this strain of accommodating dalits, but in a subordinate position, through a skilful manipulation of quotas (reservation) and sanskritisation (encouraging reform while accepting the terms dictated by the upper castes), continued under successive Congress regimes.

A large part of the monograph examines why the assertion of the lower castes was more successful and came earlier in the West and the South rather than the North Indian Gangetic plains. This he attributes to the successful ethnicisation of caste in the South (not just non Brahmin but a Dravid identity against a specified ‘other’) which helped forge a larger coalition. In the North, given the social geography of castes (a term used more by Sudha Pai), we faced a situation of both greater numbers of the upper castes alongside intense, graded stratification in all other social strata. Thus, unlike in the South and the West, it was more difficult to isolate a smaller segment as the enemy. Further, the Gandhian impulse in the Congress contributed both to keeping dalits within the fold and tempering down radical tendencies.

A final part of his thesis deals with the intermeshing of social identity and quota politics, best represented by the socialists, and peasant politics articulated by the intermediate castes. Successful anti-Congress politics has demanded a coalition of these two tendencies and understandings of politics. However, the conflict between the intermediate land owning castes, the upper strata of the OBCs and the dalits, mainly poor and assetless labour, remains sharp. Possibly this is why we see so many splits in the anti-Congress formations – each articulating the interests of its base. And why it becomes so easy to break their coalitions.

Jaffrelot substantiates his thesis by providing hitherto unavailable details on the caste composition of different parties, both their legislative and organizational wings, in different states across time. It thus becomes clear that whatever the rhetoric, in reality most parties kept out both the dalits and the lower OBCs. Places where the BSP now appears to be consolidating, or where OBC politics is determinant, owe a lot to the aggressive politics of quotas by different socialist formations. And both the fragility and volatility of lower caste politics are explained by the relative absence of caste based social movements as in the South.

Jaffrelot, however, remains hopeful about the BSP, including its strain of opportunist politics. Not only has Mayawati managed to become chief minister of UP thrice, her electoral base shows little sign of fragmenting. It is this fact that has forced both the Congress and the BJP to engage in social engineering because the BSP holds the trump cards in the electoral arena of India’s largest state. Whether it is Digvijay Singh’s ‘dalit agenda’ in Madhya Pradesh, or the BJPs alliances with the BSP and accommodating Ambedkar in its pantheon of greats, Jaffrelot remains convinced that the battle for social equality has been finally joined in the North, ushering in a silent revolution.

Sudha Pai’s monograph does not have the same sweep. Nevertheless, her study of the BSP (its ideology, organisational history, and electoral strategies) helps us understand the specific contours of this social formation. There is much in common between her and Jaffrelot’s analysis of why dalit assertion took longer to express itself in the North. In addition to the social geography of castes and sanskritisation, she highlights the role of the land structure and the growth of an educated and economically independent strata among the dalits as key factors.

The BSP has built upon the earlier work done by the scheduled caste federations, BAMCEF – a union of SC employees, and the DS4 (the first coalitional attempt between dalits, OBCs and minorities). The BSP first started as an election spoiler party – unable to win on its own but capable of ensuring that its opponents lost. Its subsequent opportunistic coalitions, use of state power to aggressively promote a dalit cause (Ambedkar villages, increasing dalit representation in the power structure, directing development funds to dalit villages, loans for dalit enterprise) and playing a politics of identity symbolism is what has got it so far.

Nevertheless, Pai is less enthusiastic about both the democratic and ‘social revolution’ credentials of the BSP, as her case study of Meerut makes apparent. She argues that the string of opportunistic alliances combined with the centralization of power in the party may stymie any further growth of the organization. She emphasizes the difference between a party/movement in opposition and the use of state power to enhance space and increase the ability of the lower castes in their struggle for equality.

Unpacking and democratising entrenched social structures is a long haul task. One problem, possibly with the BSP and similar political formations of the lower castes, is that they are (understandably) in a hurry. Having tried various avenues for upward mobility (social reform, skill upgradation, use of quotas/reservation in education/jobs/politics, construction of a separate identity through ethnicisation, promotion of dalit icons) the leadership now feels that the capture and differential use of state power alone can enhance their social project. This may well be an error and trap everyone into a backlash conflict.

Any politics which seeks to advance an exclusivist cause by harping on retributory justice can only engender greater hate. This is why the ideologues of the BSP, as also scholars like Christophe Jaffrelot, need to re-examine their appraisal of Gandhi.

Nevertheless, both monographs constitute a valuable addition to our limited knowledge of a new trend in our politics.

Harsh Sethi