Book Review:

Mukulika Banerjee, Why India Votes?, (Routlegde, 2014, pp.286, ₹595 pbk)


The book ‘Why India Votes?’ is based on an ethnographic study of the 2009 general assembly elections in India. The author, Mukulika Banerjee, is a professor of anthropology at London School of Economics and Political Science. The book is a study of the Indian electorate through simultaneous ethnographic research conducted at twelve different locations in the country. The author was supported by researchers who were familiar with the research sites and conducted the ethnographic study. The findings of all these researchers were later used by the author to answer the fundamental question why do people vote. The author also explores other related and complementary questions like what do elections mean for the electorate, what they think about the politicians, the election officers, the campaign, and their own role in it.

The book has been divided into six different sections, including introduction and conclusion. In the four chapters that form the bulk of the book, the author takes references from the ethnographic studies of fellow researchers to answer the research questions (discussed in detail below) that take one to the deeper question of the reason why someone would vote. The book starts by talking about the counter-intuitive results that one may find when one speaks to the 700 million[1] strong Indian electorate. Through the research findings, the book challenges the notion that disenchantment with the Indian political system will discourage the citizens from voting. In fact, as the book reveals, getting the finger inked on the polling day is a way for people to assert their citizenship.

While answering the first research question in Chapter 1, the author describes the vivid election campaigns that take place in different political settings throughout the country. The researchers at different locations chase the leaders, talk to the voters, and attend rallies, among other things to describe the atmosphere and the build-up to the election. The author discusses in detail the role of the party workers, the street-corner meetings, and the reaction of ordinary citizens to the different statements and ploys of political leaders.

Then, in Chapter 2, the book discusses the question of language. It is explained how new terms and meanings give shape to a political discourse. The author describes the way words from English merge into sentences from local languages and provides a distinct meaning. Even words from the local languages are brought in to give rise to new concepts. One example that is quoted throughout the book is dan. Dan is a Sanskrit word (and therefore common to many Indian languages) that means ‘gift’. It has an accompanying notion of ‘not wanting anything in return’. Usually used with the Hindu concepts like kanyadan (giving away the girl on marriage), shramdan (volunteering for labor), bhoodan (gifting land), politics in India often witnesses the term matdan (mat + dan, gift of vote). This leads one to believe that voting is not a means to achieve something rather it is an end in itself.

Further, in Chapter 3, the book examines the culture of the polling booth. The author tries to find if ‘there is anything special about the environment of the polling booth’ that could affect voters’ understanding of elections. She discusses how school buildings are converted into polling stations and electoral offices arrive from outside the state to maintain the decorum of elections. The role of officials is especially highlighted in the book, particularly in this chapter, to entrust the citizens that their vote makes a difference. Election Commission of India (ECI) is one of the few public institutions in the country that has earned remarkable respect from the people. The book explains in detail ECI’s work and shows how people have come about to feel that this is an institute working for them. From the ethnographic studies, the author has shown numerous interesting examples of individual lives on the day of polling.

Finally, the fundamental question ‘why India votes?’ finds a place in the detailed description in Chapter 4. Research from the preceding chapters is supported with excerpts from interactions with voters located in settings ranging from urban to rural to tribal across the country. As indicated by these excerpts, why India votes? is a question that is often not realized as a question. People would respond with the counter question ‘why should we not vote?’. Many see it as their moral duty to vote as many see it as their way to assert their free choice and equal say in the society. Of course, as is generally thought of, people also vote to get their work done, to ensure their person wins, to avoid the shame of not getting inked and much more.

Above all, voting creates the feeling of equality amongst people and connects them to the larger identity of a nation. It is a day when people are free to choose what they want to, and their choice depends on a variety of interesting factors as the book portrays. For anyone interested in Indian politics, and anyone interested in studying democracies in general, this book provides an in-depth analysis through ethnographic studies in the world’s largest democracy. As someone who looks at Indian politics closely, I believe this book is a must-read to realize that individual opinion is difficult to grasp and can often be counter-intuitive. Having volunteered to register people as new voters, the book raises another question for me – why do I want people to vote? The question is as interesting as the one answered here by Mukulika Banerjee.

[1] As quoted in the book, and as the figures were in 2009. Today this number is close to 814 million.