The role of the family continues to hold a powerful place in Indian politics – at the village level as well as in the Gram Panchayat elections. But on closer inspection the extent of this role, and the interaction with political parties are a product of the agrarian context and the process of transition in the economy, argues Soundarya Iyer (India Observatory LSE).
It is often said among sociologists and social anthropologists that the Indian village is a microcosm of the nation. What occurs in the village can tell us something about the country as a whole. With national elections weeks away could the Gram Panchayat (village council) elections provide a window to the 17th Lok Sabha elections? Recently published scholarship from Uttar Pradesh argues that dynastic politics in India is not just a phenomenon of national politics, rather the familial hold on politics runs all the way through to the village level. Scholarly work on occupational mobility shows in most occupations children follow the footsteps of their parents, but the probability of being a politician given the father is one is significantly higher than any other elite profession. While dynastic politics has been often treated as a remnant of tradition, the recent book Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics by Kanchan Chandra shows that it is in fact a product of modern institutions such as the state or party.
In May 2015, as part of field work for my doctoral dissertation on rural transformation in Karnataka, I followed the campaigns for the Gram Panchayat elections in three villages. Having surveyed a total of 800 households and interviewed several local government officials and individuals the previous years, I was returning to the villages in Gulbarga, Ramanagara and Dakshina Kannada districts. I took the opportunity to follow several candidates’ campaigns to understand the workings of the Gram Panchayat elections in different regions of Karnataka with different socio-historical and economic trajectories.
Commentators of Indian elections have long argued that the Gram Panchayat elections have a different character to national elections. Political parties contest in the Zilla Panchayat (District council) and Taluk Panchayat (Town council) elections, but the Gram Panchayat elections in most Indian states are not supposed to be conducted along party lines to prevent polarization and animosity among villagers. This however isn’t the case in practice, and while the symbols of national political parties aren’t used in the Gram Panchayat elections, political parties are very much entrenched in Gram Panchayat politics, at least in Karnataka. How did this work? A woman candidate in coastal Karnataka said, “you have to tell people which party one is standing from – Congress or BJP, some ask, some people know. Once a symbol is allotted then you have to tell people the symbol”.
Photo: Campaign pamphlet for 2015 Gram Panchayat elections, Karnataka. Translation: Gram Panchayat Election – 2015; Village name – Ward no. 1; Ballot paper sample; Ballot paper sample; 4) Name and photo of candidate – symbol with description (cup and saucer); a note requesting voters for their valuable support; Date and time of voting. Credit: Soundarya Iyer)
In a village in Gulbarga district I found a striking continuity of several Lingayat (a prominent caste in Northern Karnataka) families in local politics. Gulbarga, a district in semi-arid Northern Karnataka was once a part of the erstwhile princely state of Hyderabad. Male members from two Lingayat families in the village had fought for freedom during the independence movement against the state of Hyderabad when the Nizam refused to join either India or Pakistan.
There had been military action by the Indian state against the armed militia called the Razakars from the largest Muslim political party in Hyderabad in 1948. At this time, young men from villages in the Hyderabad state, of which Gulbarga was a part, participated in support of the Indian state. This resulted in a high level of violence all over Hyderabad and in the village a young Lingayat leader was shot dead. The other leader survived. Both their families were active in local politics in 2015.
The family of the young slain freedom fighter continued to stay in the village, and successive generations were elected into the Gram Panchayat on several occasions in the last 25 years. The living freedom fighter moved from the village to Gulbarga town and went on to become a Member of Legislative Assembly while his family tree diversified into Taluk and Zilla Panchayats. Scholars have noted that heredity is not the only dimension of dynastic politics in Karnataka, it is this ability to diversify. In fact, in the village there were three members from a single family contesting the election from three different wards. The village had a large landless population that provided labour for harvesting of rainfed crops such as pigeon pea supplemented by circular migration for construction work in cities. Since migration was prominent among the landless, this did not impact the dominance of dynastic families in local politics.
Districts in southern Karnataka have benefited from large and medium irrigation projects on the river Cauvery and its tributaries since the beginning of the 20th century. This has subsequently led to a shift towards the cultivation of the water intensive crop of sugarcane, alongside sericulture in the village in Ramanagara district, resulting in village-introversion (the preference for agriculture over migration for other work).
With a growing agrarian crisis, young and educated Dalits from the village migrate into Bangalore, and Lambanis (a Scheduled Caste in Karnataka) from North Karnataka migrate into the village for sugarcane harvesting. I found most of the dominant caste Vokkaligas, a traditional agrarian caste continuing to reside in the village, and marrying across hamlets of the same village, or neighbouring villages. As the Indian social anthropologist, MN Srinivas coined the term ‘dominant caste’ to refer to the caste that was numerically, economically and ritually superior, the Vokkaliga caste in villages in southern Karnataka, as shown in one of my earlier papers, have a unique form of dominance with nearly 60-80 percent of the population belonging to the Vokkaliga caste. Unsurprisingly, this dominance had a significant impact on the Gram Panchayat elections. For example I witnessed an election campaign where family members joined the candidate in tens to campaign for votes in the ward.
Coastal Karnataka, where my third field site is located, was one of the most literate and urbanised regions of Karnataka with a history of elite migration of Gauda Saraswat Brahmins for Udupi Hotels in Bombay and more recent migration of Brahmins, Bunts, Catholics and Muslims to the Gulf. What became apparent to me here is when migration occurs at the upper end of society, family no longer remains the central organising factor in local politics, instead political parties and movements take the upper hand.
A female candidate told me that the political party was the most important aspect to politics in the village, referring to inactive members who continued to win due to the support from political parties. She said “Even if a dog is put in the position supported by a party, he or she will win.” I also found that most families of Gauda Saraswat Brahmins (traditionally traders) and Bunts (the agrarian landowning caste in the region) in the village had close relatives in distant places. The relative prosperity in the village is a result of the shift from paddy cultivation to commercial plantations of areca nut and rubber. This also meant that poor villagers could be paid a daily wage to campaign on behalf of better off candidates. While family labour formed the bulk of campaigning manpower in the southern Karnataka village, hired labour for Gram panchayat election campaigns were a feature in the coastal Karnataka village.
What were the promises made by candidates while campaigning?
In all the three villages, basic development such as roads, sanitation and drinking water supply were promised to voters. In the dryland village in Gulbarga district, an additional issue on the mandate was urbanisation. With repeated cycles of circular migration of labourers bringing skills in construction into the village, this village had developed a new hamlet along the intersection of two highways, about two kilometres from the main settlement. The villagers demanded taluk (town) status for the village, hoping that it would spur construction of government offices and further economic activity. ‘Rasta roko’ strikes (Road obstructions) were being organised by candidates to generate political pressure. In 2018, the neighbouring village that was larger was declared a Taluk.
As the national elections approach, stories from India’s villages will inevitably be raised in political arguments and used to give signs of national trends. While many differences remain, one element of politics remains: the role of family. To what extent however, and how the institution of the family interacts with political parties, are dependent on the agrarian context and the process of transition in the economy.
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Soundarya Iyer is the Sir Ratan Tata Visiting Fellow at the India Observatory at LSE. She completed her PhD from the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore in 2017. Her research interests include migration, urbanisation and land reforms in rural India. She tweets @soniyer.