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How Democracies Work

Ashutosh Kumar

Edited by Anastasia Piliavsky
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2014, pp. xiv 469, Rs. 895.00


For any observer of politics in South Asia, there is always a question waiting to be answered. What explains the enthusiastic participation of the electorates in the ‘new’ democracies/semi-democracies of South Asia (whenever they get an opportunity!) remains a puzzle for them. Why elections are such grand spectacles bringing a festive spirit among the masses is intriguing for an impressed westerner as she assesses the ground reality. While the percentage of voters coming to polling booth keeps diminishing in the ‘old’/ ‘established’ democracies of the West, they keep rising steadily in the South Asian states, even the one like Pakistan that is being derided/certified as ‘failed/rogue’ states. Significantly, the rise is among the ones who are economically and socially marginal as revealed in the case of India. This, even when the political regimes across the board in these states have failed miserably to fulfil any of the seductive promises made at the time of Independence like fulfilment of economic necessities and bringing a modicum of equality in society. Do these ‘eager’ unwashed masses become active citizens because they are enthused/ mobilized by factors like political ideology, electoral agenda, and political leadership, as understood usually in the case of the ‘old’ democracies? Or alternatively, is it because in the deeply hierarchical/unequal societies defined by asymmetry of power and status where they are condemned to live out their underprivileged life with little hope of fulfilment of any of the seductive promises held out periodically by the political parties since the days of decolonization, they see their vote as an affirmation of their mitigated sense of dignity/self-worth and a deeply felt aspiration to be recognized as a stakeholders, even if nominally. Or is it because, as the essays in the edited volume under review suggest, the voters acting as ‘clients’ vote for their ‘patron’ politicians in the ‘realistic’ hope of being the beneficiary of the direct and indirect transfer of public resources, more often than not belonging to their own ethnic category as the latter factor brings in  an additional ‘feel good’ factor?   Sifting through media reports about the way democracies work in South Asia, especially during the days of elections, it would seem that participation is all about the politics of patronage. The leading view that would emanate from the reportage would be very much like that ‘parties and politicians do not convince their electors with ideological ...

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