Book review: Mukulika Banerjee, Cultivating Democracy: Politics and Citizenship in Agrarian India

Published date01 June 2023
AuthorNirvan Pradhan
Date01 June 2023
Subject MatterBook Reviews
154 Book Reviews
Mukulika Banerjee, Cultivating Democracy: Politics and Citizenship in Agrarian India. Delhi: Oxford University
Press. 2022. 256pp., `995.
DOI: 10.1177/23210230231166178
In Cultivating Democracy, Makulika Banerjee unravels how citizens develop democratic values.
Constitutional institutions establish a democracy, but ‘active citizenship’ and a sense of responsibility
among people are essential to forming a society of equals. Banerjee emphasizes citizens’ actions in the
context of social gatherings. These social events—a scandal, a harvest, a sacrifice and an election occur
cyclically in agrarian India. Banerjee’s 15-year study in two West Bengal villages rethinks the relation-
ship between formal political democracy and the development of engaged citizenship. In doing so, it
captures the evolving social relations and common values shaping agrarian India’s political landscape.
The events of the book occur in the countryside of West Bengal. In West Bengal, the communist party
became the dominant political force in 1977, holding sway over resources and employment opportunities
in the region. Other scholars have focused on how land redistribution policies and wage hikes explain the
Left Front dominance. However, as electoral success increased, so did authoritarianism and a culture that
was hostile to democracy. Rural villages dominated by a single party were not conducive to the growth
of democracy. Banerjee takes forward the existing literature by uncovering the formation and cultivation
of democratic values in this undemocratic ‘party-society’. Despite the communist party having a
monopoly, participants slowly developed the capability to act creatively. This was crucial for cultivating
democratic values. The Left Front’s 34-year winning streak ended with such democratic awakenings.
Banerjee argues that the social imaginaries of agrarian life create values that support democratic
processes in India. She brings the focus back to the Indian village that has recently been ignored. The
traditional representation of the village as backward and oppressive have elements of truth and fallacy,
but recent developments have brought about new transformations. In today’s society, access to state
resources is determined by politics rather than only one’s caste, jati or labour. How has this impacted the
ability of individuals to engage in political expression? In Cultivating Democracy, Banerjee explains
how people forge new political imaginations. The principles of democratic values upheld in rural India
come from participating in social activities that promote democracy, even in situations where the
surrounding environment may not be democratic.
A vital contribution of the book is that examining major political transformations, such as the downfall
of the communist party after 34 years, through micro-lens, such as in a village, can lead to a deeper
understanding of the change. By examining how a scandal was resolved involving a local comrade, it
became possible to identify political behaviour in participants. They created a scope for political action
by creating alliances across classes and castes. When villagers lacking political skills of negotiation and
dissent found ways to resist dominant players collectively, it revealed reserves of political creativity.
Banerjee skilfully demonstrates the development of the political astuteness of participants who formed
linkages across kinship, communities and political affiliations. In doing so, they displayed the
development of political values. Such actions cultivated the qualities necessary for active citizenship,
laying the foundation for future political actions.
Land and agriculture centred around the paddy harvest continue to play a significant role in the lives of
villagers. Before the land reforms, sharecroppers suffered low wages and earned a minimum share of the
harvest. Daily life was beset with hunger, precarious employment and humiliation. This book argues that
since sharecroppers were given a more secure tenancy, greater crop shares and higher wages, landowners
were forced to put their physical labour into agriculture to keep agriculture sustainable. Banerjee’s argument
that agriculture became a collaboration between sharecroppers and landowners is well-received. Since the
nature of work became less a matter of caste and class identities and more about planning, expertise and

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