“..it is now indeed important to only see but to listen the voices of the common people ”.
PKJ: What is political ethnography? & Please define it with a special reference to election studies.
MP: Political ethnography is a way of looking at the unit level. Election study does large scale surveys where the individual does not matter since the individual is added up to thousands of other voters and opinion counts only when they are totaled up as different categories. So, here we don’t get to hear the real voice, what is that a ordinary voter thinks about the voting, thinks about the issues on which he or she is going to vote. A political ethnography does completely opposite of social surveys. It goes down to the field and therefore space becomes really very important Political ethnography enhances the significance of the place/space where you are going where as if you see the surveys, survey used to subdue to prominence of the place. Surveys compress the usefulness of the individualism and collective add them to fit it in a view of politics of profit and loss to answer any question. Just opposite of that the political ethnography tries to understand the individual’s viewpoint by analyzing the environment, the locality, the issues in which the individual is living and grappling with respectively. This approach tries to understand how an individual sees an election and how he thinks through the election he or she can change his or her life. This is political ethnography.
PKJ: You are explaining here a very important point and my this question is based on your very recent article published in journal Studies in Indian Politics where you have mentioned that the ‘place’ and ‘voice’ are the two main analytical tool to understand the political. Can you please elaborate more to guide the young researchers and the journalists how to interpret them?
MP: this question is indeed important. I think we need to understand that when we look at the idea of India, we call it a nation. Whereas the nation is actually not just a piece of geography which is marked by a boundary, it is also a local lives. How do you resurrect the local within the national. How do you look at a small place called Ichalkaranji within the nation of India? How do you call a small village named Rosera in Bihar within India? Now democracy especially the elctions are the time which resurrects this small places. Examples like Bellary, Chikmagalur, Chikmagalur is a place which has got back Indira Gandhi to power and it says ‘ek sherni saw languor, chikmagalur bhai chikmagalur’ (One tigress, hundreds monkeys, Its Chikmagalur) So it denotes how a place resurrects the person. So, election is a moment when the place becomes very important, it is that part of the year when you hear the name of the constituencies. And you realize that something local is happening in these places. Now political ethnography allows you to go to these places and see that what is it that is happening in Ichalkaranji that is different from Rosera and which is different from Bellary? Why is it Chikmagalur acting differently from all of India which wants to remove Indira Gandhi which is acting against emergency but Chikmagalur brings her back. So it is important to understand why place is important. Now in what way do we resurrect little pieces of geographical constituencies that we call assembly constituencies or within it, the villages within the larger picture of the nation that is the importance of place.
Now voices are equally important because survey methods are actually suppresses voce. By voice one can actually understand, like when you go and actually find a dalit woman saying ‘humra kucho na mille’ (We did not get anything). Here, she is trying to come and tell you a real story where aggregate figure of the government may be saying that schemes for the poor have worked so well that for example 78% of the beneficiary is getting benefited. But here is one ole dalit woman and perhaps most in need of the schemes and care of state, coming and telling you that she is not getting anything. It shows the schemes have not able to transgress to the poor and they are not getting the benefits which infact the raison d'être for the state to exist. Therefore, voice gets resurrected through political ethnography. Political ethnography is actually a method of seeing the politics, it is a method of hearing and more than that listening to the voices of the people. So, once you have done these two things, political ethnography allows you to analyze politics from people’s perspective. How is it that the people who are denied even the basics of life, the comforts of a capitalist development model, growth and nation oriented development model, how is it that those who have denied and those who indeed struggled for the freedom of this country, those who come periodically to elect the national representatives of this country, how they experience democracy never loosing faith in the Indian democracy even though the state , we the people have failed them.
PKJ: You are also advocating the interface between the quantitative and qualitative method. Can you elaborate more for the common man’s wisdom?
MP: The interface between qualitative and quantitative is always there. Quantitative is also a very important way to understand the reality. While in qualitative method you understand the small, you may not have a picture of overall trends and quantitative methods gives you an idea of what the issues are overall. It is important to understand the categories and quantitative methods allows you to do that. Quantitative methods also allows you to understand that while elections are the mainstream phenomenon, there is something called an out layer region the tail end of the distribution sample and those are the unexpected circumstances quantitative methods while bring out those cases, still it is not able to understand those trends very well. Political ethnography or case study method is a way of understanding those unexpected realities. Politics is made of both kind of things, first those which we consider certain and secondly those which we consider unexpected unanticipated realities and it is this which happen in elections where we say many often that we are surprised with the results. And, therefore if we play careful attention both to the quantitative and qualitative aspects we would almost understand the results are going to be surprising for us.
PKJ: Ma’am what are the main challenges and possibilities a political ethnographer faces while facing election studies?
MP: The biggest challenge is that you have to know the local language, local culture and you have to be accepted by the local people. Why should people part their most valuable information to u only because you came knocking at their door and you begun asking them how are you going to vote. People like to think about the issues that are important for their lives, people like to think about how they would act politically, they would not part with this information very simply, very easily. Therefore, for the interviewer or the researcher it is important to gain the confidence of the people that he or she is going to talk to. Surveyors need not have such caution because surveyor only asks yes or no questions. They are not even worried if there are some mistakes where they have large samples. They are able to distribute those mistakes over a large sample.
For the ethnographer, however, if they do not gain the confidence of the people they would not have the answers. They would not have the place. They would not have the voices. So, only being in place is not important, getting the voice is also important.
PKJ: Does public policy or developmental policy affect election outcome in India?
MP: It is becoming very important as everybody wants the quality of life to improve and the only way through which it can happen is the collective efforts and those collective efforts have to be made by the most important public institutions of India in the modern times and this institution is the state. And, to a extent it is not just the poor but every Indian today, significantly looks towards the state to be able to change their lives. In Delhi for example, how do you deal with pollution? I can not do anything in my house to clean it so that atmosphere outside can become so clean that everybody breaths fresh air or live in a non polluted atmosphere. This requires a collective effort which includes cleaning of air, cleaning of drains, roads are required. Even more than that provisions of good schools, hospitals, provision of electricity etc all these are the areas where the hope of the people in India is pinned towards the state which suppose to provide all these basic amenities.
In a democracy which is now 70-75 years old, it is now not acceptable that we do not have drains, toilets, proper sanitation, drinking water, electricity and we are going to have a world’s largest population of young one which door they are going to knock at if schools and colleges, training centers are not ready for our youth. Other than state, where else the people , the common Indian will look for providing development.
PKJ: In the past Bihar election, we have noticed the huge impact of women voters. The womaniya effect was significant there. Can we see any such impact of women voters in ths UP assembly election?
MP: We do not know yet, we need to be on field to understand but even more than that, one needs to understand that women are still the unexpected unit of the Indian politics. On the day of the election, you will find that women are coming out in large numbers and suddenly you will find political parties, politicians, election study people saying surprising so many women have come out. So women become a phenomena only after they have shown on the day of voting that they turn out in large numbers. So, for the women phenomena, the ethnographer as well as the quantitative researcher will have to wait until the day of the voting. Remember also, that to find out the voice of the women, women do not generally speak about the politics in the public sphere. You have to go to what is called the ghar-angana (courtyard of the house), you have to have an access to the inside part of the households to capture it. Women talk about politics only very quietly. Once they have done your khatirdaari, once chai-pani has been given and you may be about to leave their house and then a small signal of politics will come from the women member and it will only come towards the end. So, in a sense women have turned politics in India into an asthetic part their lives. They do not talk about it with violence. Remember, political violence is the domain of men and the domestic arena and the private sphere where women are internalizing the electoral politics.
PKJ: Thank you for your fruitful and really engaging insights and thank you once again for wishing IESAI a prospective journey ahead.
Dr. Manisha Priyam is working as an Associate Professor in National University of Education Planning and Administration.
Dr. Pankaj Kumar Jha received his Doctorate from the Department of Political Science, University Of Delhi.
Devarati Roy Chowdhury is pursuing her Ph.D from the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi.