Book Review: Anastasia Piliavsky (ed.), Patronage as Politics in South Asia

Published date01 December 2016
Date01 December 2016
AuthorRahul Verma
Subject MatterBook Reviews
254 Book Reviews
Anastasia Piliavsky (ed.), Patronage as Politics in South Asia. Delhi: Cambridge University Press. 2014.
485 pages. `895.
DOI: 10.1177/2321023016665668
Indian elections, in many news accounts, feature the distribution of cash, liquor and other gifts to ‘buy’
voters. This has led to the classification of Indian democracy as a patronage democracy and the Indian
state as a patron indulging in clientelistic activities. It has been portrayed as if ‘the parties and politicians
do not convince their electors with ideological platforms. They buy votes with short-term benefits.
Endemic poverty and governmental dysfunction obliterate free, reasoned and responsible judgments and
drive people to exchange their votes for bureaucratic favours’ (p. 3). There is an implicit quid-pro-quo
assumption in such scholarly formulations that have viewed voters and politicians as operating a system
of exchange—votes being bartered for few goodies.
Piliavsky and her collaborators make a sincere effort to challenge this too simplistic notion of ‘patron-
age’ and ‘clientelism’ in South Asian democracies. John Dunn in a rather sarcastic tone in his foreword
to the volume suggests that there is a strong tendency among scholars to rationalize every departure
from the ‘systematically egalitarian western societies’. Thus, they see patronage as a residual element, a
pre-modern stage of democratic development, in non-Western countries. The scholarship, in Piliavsky’s
words, seems to have declared that rampant patronage and corruption in these countries represent an
ominous sign of state failure. She vociferously contests this declaration and argues that rather than a site
of failure, South Asia is one of the busiest laboratories of political modernity. Patronage, according to
this volume, is not antithetical to democratic culture; rather, it forms the foundational basis of everyday
politics in the subcontinent.
Piliavsky gathers an impressive collection of scholars to confront the paradox of democratic deepen-
ing along with pervasiveness of corrupt practices, such as prevalence of patronage and clientelism in
South Asian politics. In 16 essays, the contributors to this volume, 11 anthropologists along with few
historians and political scientists, use a wide range of cultural and historical perspectives to offer fresh
insights into the ways in which patronage both undermines and adds vibrancy to democratic politics not
just in South Asia but perhaps in other parts of the world too. Piliavsky, in her introduction, lays the
groundwork by providing an insightful survey of literature, lamenting that patronage as a topic seems to
have fallen off the radar among anthropologists, and discusses the limits of instrumentalist depiction of
patronage politics.
The first of three sections of the book—‘The Idea of Patronage in South Asia’—contains four essays
dealing with the evolution of the idea of patron–client relationship and the personalities who act as
patrons, whom Mattison Mines in his essay refers to as ‘big men’. Mattison Mines and Diane Mines
provide evidence from Chennai and Madurai, respectively. Seyfort Ruegg and Sumit Guha in their
essays take us into deep history, with Reugg talking about patron–client relationship among medieval
Tibetan monks and Guha about making up of East India Company state in western Maharashtra.
The second section, ‘Democracy as Patronage’, has seven essays that explore the emergence and
persistence of patron–client relations in the field of electoral politics. While David Gilmartin’s essay
largely focuses on pre-independence politics, other essays discuss much more recent phenomena. This
section provides evidence from rural Rajasthan (Anastasia Piliavsky), Mumbai (Lisa Björkman), urban
Gujarat (Ward Berenschot), rural Andhra Pradesh (Pamela Price with Dusi Srinivas), Lucknow district,
Uttar Pradesh (Beatrice Jauregui) and rural Orissa (Steven Wilkinson).
The third section, ‘Prospects and Disappointments’, deals with South Asia as a whole. Lucia Michelutti
draws upon her fascinating research from north India; Arild Engelsen Rudd talks about ‘political bullies’
or mastans in Bangladesh; Nicolas Martin’s chapter explores the dominance of landlords in Pakistan;

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