The network that influences polls and politics

November 26, 2013 12:56 am | Updated 12:56 am IST

RIOT POLITICS — Hindu-Muslim Violence and the Indian State: Ward Berenschot; Rainlight, 7/16, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 495.

RIOT POLITICS — Hindu-Muslim Violence and the Indian State: Ward Berenschot; Rainlight, 7/16, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 495.

Towards the end of his book Ward Berenschot writes that riots provide politicians with an occasion to prove their usefulness to prospective voters and riots help politicians to unite the targeted group of voters. He gives the example of Shailesh Macwana whose active role in the Gujarat riots of 2002 helped him get a ticket to the state Assembly election which he won in a Congress constituency. Without the riots, the author says, he wouldn’t have been elected. He managed to unite the Vankars and Chamars, a scheduled caste community, who voted for the Hindutva party and, as a local Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader said, everybody was united against the Muslims. There are good reasons to read this intricate analysis of the complexity of local politics and how in a political arena, as the author says, communal violence is a powerful tool to weaken the mobilization capacity of the social divisions that competing politicians are targeting.

The book begins with understanding and outlining the role played by local politicians, goondas and fixers who help common people with problems that ideally the government should be dealing with and solving. These same grassroots level political or social workers come in handy at the time of riots. For instance, Macwana led mobs to attack Muslim houses but at the same time provided for the higher caste and Dalit communities who were affected by the rioting and curfew. Riots, the author says, can heighten the awareness of one dimension of one’s social identity. The real or imagined threat to life, the fear of being killed or of losing one’s property, can contribute like nothing else to strengthening of a social identity, and to the perception of enmity with another group. This could be true in so many places, specially Mumbai, where the Shiv Sena created threat perceptions and rose to power after the riots that followed the Babri Masjid demolition.

The book has detail and analysis and gives you a ringside view of why identity politics has become so lucrative for politicians. It also gives an insight into the complete failure of the state to deliver specially civic services, health care and justice and also the caving in of the bureaucracy to the politicians who transfer them at will. The small political worker then works magic for the people and that’s what signals his rise and usefulness.

Patterns of rioting

To understand the patterns of rioting and why violence erupts in some areas and not in others, the author says one has to look at local patterns of authority and the relation of these patterns of authority within neighbourhoods to the structure of patronage networks that provide access to the state. Local politicians’ willingness to spread rumours and instigate riots is shaped by the position of these leaders in the broader intermediary networks that offer access to the resources of the state. This is explained in some detail in the latter part of the book and it leads on to the concluding chapters which explain the riots systems and institutions and the exhaustive planning that goes into the violence.

The author lived in Ahmedabad three years after the 2002 riots in a chawl in Isanpur whose residents witnessed or took part in the rioting. His study aims to understand the capacity of riot networks to organise and instigate such gruesome acts of mass violence. It relates the outbursts of communal violence in Gujarat to the way political actors function as mediators between state institutions and citizens. It also aims to address the little insight into the actual mechanisms that underlie the mobilisation for, and the instigation of violence. It succeeds in establishing the often obvious connections and “how and why political leaders can tap into existing fears, hopes and drives of those who actually perpetrate violence.” It focuses on the formation of these riot networks and why the nature of politics in Gujarat rewards such manipulation of the political salience of religion. It also studies a locality where riots did not spread as a comparison.

Electoral gains

To begin with, the cooperation between various actors in the riot networks, the author says, stems from the financial and electoral benefits that can be derived from developing the capacity to facilitate the interaction between citizens and institutions; it stems from the daily necessity to get things done. Riot politics then becomes an integral part of a large game of capturing (state) resources and developing the capacity to facilitate the interaction between state institutions and citizens. The field work and interviews buttress all these propositions and give an insight into how local level ‘social’ work weaves into the political system and ultimately translates into electoral gains for the person who gains frightening power by helping people at a very ordinary level. The network of local intermediaries to the government and the involvement of chamchas, goondas and police forms a powerful rung which political parties can use during riots, as the book shows. The riot network become a substitute for a social fabric which can be manipulated by singling out people it can choose to help, and then, in return, use them when the time comes with assurances of legal aid and other forms of help.

Gujarat’s communal violence is also a product of its lopsided economic development of the last decades. The liberalisation of its economy, while proving a boon for Gujarat’s well educated middle class, has intensified efforts to reduce labour costs to the lowest possible levels, which has made poorer neighbourhoods more vulnerable to political manipulation, says the author. The book’s research blows the lid off Vibrant Gujarat and its scrutiny of how the right wing has come to acquire a stranglehold in the state with its nefarious riot institutions should be an eye opener ahead of Modi’s propulsion to the top job in the country.

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