Archive for December, 2015

Patronage as Politics in South Asia

Patronage as Politics in South Asia by Anastasia Piliavsky (ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 469pp., £75.00 (h/b), ISBN 9781107056084

Anastasia Piliavsky’s Patronage as Politics in South Asia, which grew out of a colloquium held in 2011 at Kings College, Cambridge, investigates the nature and importance of patronage in the socio-historical context of South Asia. Piliavsky asks: is patronage necessarily a bad thing? What are the ways in which patronage is understood and exercised in South Asia? Most importantly, what is the relationship between patronage and democracy? Does patronage undermine or complement the functioning of democratic political order? Drawing on theoretical literature from political science and anthropology and extensive ethnographic fieldwork in South Asia, the essays in this volume argue that patronage is not necessarily always a bad thing as it is often characterised in the Western political imagination; in the South Asian context, it is an inherently plural concept, which has a contingent relationship with democracy.

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Piliavsky’s comprehensive introduction provides an extensive review of the literature on patronage politics around the world and sets the tone for the book. The sixteen essays by eminent scholars are organised under three sections: the idea of patronage, democracy as patronage, and prospects and perils of patronage. The first section looks at the nature of the patron-client relationship in South Asia. The essays in this section demonstrate how wealthy patrons use their wealth to establish religious and educational institutions to influence the lives of their clients and structure their sense of history and belonging. In the second section, the authors examine how patronage influences electoral decisions and vote bank politics. They show that patronage is not merely an instrument of exchange; it is rather a system of relationship in which patrons are expected to show their munificence through gifts, feasts, developmental provisions and bureaucratic help, and the clients reciprocate with their loyalty.

The final section discusses the perils of patronage and shows how clients (i.e. voters, migrants and subaltern masses) are trapped in a cycle of chronic bondage due to criminalised political ecologies and ineffective legislation. The essays conclude that in South Asia „“patronage” does not apply to a narrowly defined set of political relations; it encompasses the fundamental principle of social life far beyond the political‟ (p.29). „Political patronage is an expression of the broad moral sense that shapes the ways in which people relate across social levels and contexts. The essence of this moral formulation is the idea that in South Asia differences of rank do not prevent relations, but promote intimacy between parties in distinct and complementary roles‟ (pp.29-30).

Broadly, the book provides an excellent comparative ethnographic account of patronage politics in South Asia. The essays are empirically sound and theoretically sophisticated; they are also written in a lucid and coherent manner. Taken together, the essays will be immensely useful to students and scholars of anthropology, political science and South Asian Studies.

 

SARBESWAR SAHOO

Indian Institute of Technology Delhi

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© Forthcoming in Political Studies Review, Vol.14, No.3, August 2016.

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