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Missing the point altogether

Sunday 25 July 2004, by VENKATESHWAR RAO Jr*Parsa

Political scientists from American universities display a certain naivete in terms of concept formulation and in the faith they place in responses from interlocutors. And they have also a certain fondness for laying in place the political algorithm of their arguments through pseudo-rigorous matrices.

Kanchan Chandra from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) follows the tradition sincerely, and the results are not always insightful, and it appears that the same results could have been obtained through a more intuitive, impressionist analysis. The rigorous empirical framework does not seem to yield accurate description of the social reality. That is why, Chandra’s study of the rise and success of Bahujan Samaj Party is disappointing in many ways.

Why Ethnic Parties Succeed

Kanchan Chandra

New Delhi: Cambridge University press, 2004

pp 345, Rs 350

He tries to refine the known idea of a dominant state, which can dole out jobs and livelihood to the vulnerable sections, and how this leads to “patronage democracy”. He points out correctly that “patronage democracy” is to be found mostly in Asia and Africa - he cites India, Nigeria, Senegal and Zambia - as examples. And he states the corollary: in a patronage democracy, public sector provides more jobs than the private sector. And here he collates the interesting figures for employment provided in India by the public and private sectors. But what is missing in the neat model is the fact that both the public and private sector that fall into the organised sector of the economy account for just 12 per cent of the economy.

While looking at the success of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh, and its failure in Punjab and Karnataka, he notices that the moving force behind it is the upwardly mobile office-seeking Scheduled Caste elites.

In his effort to be as empirical as possible, Chandra refuses to ask any normative question, which would serve as a critique of “patronage democracy” and “ethnic parties”. He does not ask whether “patronage democracy” is an inevitable given in a historical situation, whether there are ways of replacing it with a more meaningful and efficient mode of democracy. He does not ask whether ethnic identities melt away in a market economy, and whether the “ethnic parties” are empowering the groups they claim to represent, or is it a mere strategy on the part of the elites in this group to corner political and social opportunities as his evidence seems to imply. The all-important question Chandra never asks is: can the historically oppressed Dalits ever break out of the stranglehold of caste by clinging to their own caste identity?

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