Electing the Ruling Party and the Opposition: Voter Deliberations from Sangam Vihar, Delhi, Lok Sabha Elections 2014

Date01 June 2015
Published date01 June 2015
Subject MatterIndia’s 2014 Elections
India’s 2014 Elections
Electing the Ruling Party and the
Opposition: Voter Deliberations
from Sangam Vihar, Delhi,
Lok Sabha Elections 2014
Manisha Priyam1
On the basis of an electoral ethnography done in an urban periphery of Delhi, this article presents
an interpretive account of Indian national elections 2014. At a time when sovereignty travels to a
locality—in this case an unauthorized settlement known as Sangam Vihar—how do people deliberate
on the act of voting? Sangam Vihar also faces severe segregation and restrictions on access to services
such as water on account of its illegality and it’s being ‘off’ the city’s authorized master plan. In a locality
such as this, how do its marginal citizens act in context-bound ways? What do they make of the larger
national phenomena, such as the national elections, as it plays out in their neighbourhood? Listening
to people’s responses on issues they consider important as they are about to make their decision, fol-
lowing political rallies and meetings and interviewing political actors, the author put together voices
in three ‘arenas’ or sites of democracy. These arenas are more of a heuristic device and help at once
aggregate what the author hears. They help the author to present an idea of democracy, where citizens
assert their differences to create a plural public sphere.
Delhi elections, electoral ethnography, Indian elections, majoritarianism, marginal citizen, plural demo-
cracy, public sphere, political ethnography, political participation, urban periphery, voter deliberation
The arguments in this article seek to posit an interpretive account of national elections in 2014 held to
constitute India’s Parliament—the ‘Lok Sabha’. While social science research engages extensively with
elections in India—its priority remains the understanding of large-scale outcomes, aggregating voter
preferences and using categorical variables of caste and class.2 This article differs in that it is not simply
1 National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi.
2 In an exhaustive review of literature of the methods used to study Indian elections, Tawa Lama-Rewal (2009) rightly concluded
that there has been too much focus so far on the mechanics and not the substance of Indian elections. She calls for the adoption of
a variety of methods for the study of this complex social and political phenomenon.
Corresponding author:
Manisha Priyam, Associate Professor, National University of Educational Planning and Administration, NCERT
Campus, Aurobindo Marg, New Delhi, 110016.
E-mail: priyam.manisha@gmail.com
Studies in Indian Politics
3(1) 94–110
© 2015 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2321023015575227
Priyam 95
about votes—it goes ‘local’—to Delhi’s ‘urban periphery’3 of Sangam Vihar—and highlights the
contextual rootedness of political action while understanding the making of the larger phenomena—
the Indian national elections. Using ethnographic methods, it builds a direct gaze towards politics
on the ground, looking at what the practitioners of politics are doing, how political parties are reaching
out to the electorate and how political meetings are conducted, but most importantly, how people
deliberate on the act of voting. As Fearon puts it, the question is ‘What good reasons might a group of
people have for discussing matters before making a decision. . .’ (1998, p. 44). Besides, in a democracy,
electoral time is considered special, when sovereignty moves to locality and people discuss their issues
and engage in thinking about how to constitute their new rulers in a meaningful way. Scholarship on
Indian elections has noted the significance of this special time—Hauser and Singer called it a ‘democratic
rite’, when the entire society ‘moves in and out of ritual time’ (2001, pp. 289, 292). Banerjee (2007)
modified somewhat this ‘election-as-ritual approach’ yet affirms the significance of this time as one that
is unique in its ‘sacred expression of citizenship’, a moment when the country’s poor can affirm their
self-worth and self-respect and assert their power and equality (p. 1561). Gilmartin (2009) too noted that
elections represent something different, a ‘critical moment when the normal flows of power are
dramatically reversed’ (p. 248). Scholarship has also focused on the extraordinary participation of
the poor and the ordinary in Indian elections (Ahuja & Chibber, 2012; Banerjee, 2007, 2014). It is the
political deliberations of ordinary human agents in this special time that remains the focus of this article,
in positing a meaningful account of why people vote the way they do.
Hereafter, the arguments of this article are organized in five sections: In the first, I outline the signifi-
cance of the 2013 state election in Delhi—although a detour from the main discourse about national elec-
tions, it is important to describe these, as the 2013 state elections were historic in enthroning a new political
party in the city —the Aam Admi Party (literally, ‘the Common Man Party’). The next section outlines the
methodological approach followed—of political ethnography, combined with a description of the field
site—that is, Sangam Vihar in South Delhi. The third section highlights deliberations from within the
selected field site—from three political arenas in one of the main streets in Sangam Vihar. These sites were
discovered on repeated visits as ‘lumpy nodules’, where opinion of particular caste or religious groups
could be heard in sharp relief. They do not exist as demarcated physical sites as such, except in the case of
the Valmikis—these latter stay segregated within this urban periphery. Therefore, they serve largely as
heuristics to highlight the voices of particular social groups—of the Jats, Muslims and the Valmikis. The
next two sections (four and five) analyze by comparison deliberations across the three arenas and on how
people compare their actions across electoral time. In this case, a cross-sectional analysis of time and scale
can be seen as an element of political thinking. In conclusion, the author argues about the political rational-
ity and creativity of India’s poorest voters as they deliberate to create a plural public sphere.
Delhi State Elections as the Context to National Elections
Based on ethnographic fieldwork done in Delhi’s Sangam Vihar, an urban periphery consisting mainly
of the migrant poor and located in close proximity with the city’s posh and rich ‘South Delhi’ area, the
fieldwork spans two electoral cycles—for the Delhi state assembly elections held in November 2013 and
then again the national or Lok Sabha elections held in April 2014, but the arguments of this article
are mainly scoped on the latter, that is, the national elections. The capital city of India, Delhi, was given
the status of a ‘State’ of the Indian federal system in 1992. Since then elections have been held every
3 I borrow the term ‘urban periphery’ from James Holston (2008), who uses this term to designate settlements of the labouring poor
in Sao Paolo. It receives further analysis later in section two.

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