Patronage as Politics in South Asia; Religious Practice and Democracy in India

In This Review

Patronage as Politics in South Asia
Edited by Anastasia Piliavsky
Cambridge University Press, 2014
484 pp. $120.00
Religious Practice and Democracy in India
By Pradeep K. Chhibber
Cambridge University Press, 2014
218 pp. $90.00

Given India’s deep divisions along caste, class, regional, and religious lines, the stability of the country’s democracy is puzzling. Piliavsky’s contributors, most of whom are anthropologists, offer fresh insights into the ways in which religious feasts, patronage handouts, and petty bureaucratic favors both support and undermine the state. Their essays, of varying quality, push back against the conventional interpretation of patronage as a merely instrumental form of exchange, revealing it as a performance of social values, in which patrons demonstrate their generosity and clients prove their loyalty. But generosity requires resources, so another game is surely going on underneath such displays, as the patron turns votes into power and power into patronage. The public admires such behavior when it appears to be a form of benevolence and considers patronage democratic when it appears to support accountability—but revile it as corrupt when its instrumental purposes emerge too starkly. Still, as long as common norms legitimate patronage, voters will continue to elect corrupt politicians.

Another source of solidarity between politicians and their publics is the Indian practice of coming together to worship in common spaces. Chhibber uses survey data to show that Indians are intensely religious, with strong majorities reporting that they engage frequently in collective prayers, rituals, and festivals. Although the four major religious communities—Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and Christian—do not mix much, each group’s worship practices bring together people from different castes and classes. The surveys show that believers who participate more in these ceremonies identify more strongly with the country’s political leadership and tend to believe that the parties they vote for represent their interests; they are also less likely to vote for members of their own caste. This does not prevent parties such as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party from relying on religious prejudice as an electoral strategy. Nor does Chhibber claim that the parties do a good job of representing citizens’ interests. Indeed, his argument implies the reverse: Indians’ intense religiosity supports the legitimacy of a political system that often performs poorly.

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