Why Religion and Democracy Make Not So Strange Bedfellows


A review of Pradeep Chibber's Religious Practice and Democracy in India

In Religious Practice and Democracy in India, Pradeep K. Chhibber advances an argument that may seem, at first blush, to be quite controversial: those who engage in the frequent practice of religion consistently believe that the Indian political system is more representative of citizens’ interests than those who engage in less religious practice. After all, Hindu-Muslim riots, beef lynchings, and anti-conversion bills are probably what immediately come to mind for many people when thinking about religion and politics in India. But, early in the book (which was written along with Sandeep Shastri), Chhibber carefully explains what he means by religious practice and why it matters. Very quickly, skeptics are likely to concede that the argument is very plausible indeed.

Chhibber focuses on how the practice of religion—not religious identity or theology—shape citizens’ perceptions of politics and, in particular, whether they view parties and elected officials as representing constituents’ interests and whether they believe that their votes have an effect on how the country is governed. In short, practitioners of religion, especially those who participate in its more social aspects, such as visiting places of worship or attending religious gatherings and festivals, have far rosier views of democracy in India than those who do not engage in religious practice or whose practice is largely limited to solitary acts of prayer.

Why might this be the case? Chhibber argues that religious spaces in India are relatively free of hierarchy. Chhibber is careful to couch this argument in relative terms, quickly acknowledging that religious practice is hardly free from hierarchy in India. But, in the context of an exceptionally stratified society, he argues that religious spaces are typically ones where “hierarchies that normally characterize Indian society are temporarily suspended” (2). When practicing religion, citizens rub shoulders with those with whom they may share little in common and engage with their fellow citizens in activities in which they share common goals and experiences. Moreover, Indian politicians, who seldom shy away from religious practice, engage in similar activities. These practices common to politicians and citizens alike minimize the social distance between the represented and the representative, without which “[s]ympathetic alignment between the voters and their representative is difficult” (19). Consequently, those who engage in frequent religious practice develop more positive views of democracy’s representativeness.

One of the most impressive features of the book is its extensive use of public opinion data. Over many decades, political scientists have developed a rich set of tools for understanding public opinion. Unfortunately, these tools have rarely been deployed to study India. Research on India seldom makes use of public opinion data at all, let alone multiple sources. The book relies on ten surveys, dating back as far the late 1980s and early 1990s, ensuring that its conclusions are not the product of a particular time period or place within India. The book’s rich data and equally rich exploration of that data provide readers with a much-needed window not only into how Indians engage with religion but also how they view politics. Perhaps one of the timeliest facts that Chhibber highlights is the widespread and enduring practice of religion among India’s citizens. Though perhaps unsurprising, this finding is particularly relevant for ongoing discussions about the BJP’s rise. As Chhibber has elsewhere and much earlier argued, in a country where religious practice is widespread and persistent over time, explanations for the BJP’s ups and downs over time “cannot rest solely on the assertion that the BJP mobilizes only the religious” (Chhibber 1997: 639). Importantly, the insights found throughout the book should find a wide audience, as the book largely eschews complex statistical analyses in favor of far more readily accessible and straightforward presentations of data. The intuitive presentations of data essentially convey the same points as more sophisticated analyses would, but with the benefit of making the book accessible to a far wider audience.

In addition to its admirable and unusually wide-ranging use of data, Religious Practice and Democracy in India is also a work of remarkable breadth. The book’s title undersells its true scope. Whereas Chapters 1, 2, 6, and 7 deal largely with religious practice, religious practice is far less central to Chapters 3, 4, and 5. Rather, these chapters explore other potential sources of political representation—caste (Chapter 3), civil society (Chapter 4), and political institutions, such as the state and political parties (Chapter 5). These chapters not only show that the association between religious practice and feelings of being represented persist even after taking these alternative explanations into account; they also demonstrate the failure of caste (and caste associations), NGOs, and political parties to represent Indian voters as they should or as they are sometimes theorized to do.

These chapters constitute important contributions in their own right, detailing how caste and NGOs matter for political life and how the Indian state and most of its political parties fail Indian voters. Because of the book’s religious framing, some important insights may not get the attention they deserve. For example, in Chapter 3 Chhibber emphasizes that far from being a kind of “interest group politics,” caste remains a form of domination. And, whereas, mega-caste categories—such as OBC—carry little relevance to most citizens, more highly localized jatis are often of limited importance in politics, given their numerically small size. Instead, Chhibber perceptively points out that we should expect caste to matter differently (and more) for members of numerically dominant castes than for others. Additionally, Chapter 5 characterizes India as a “capricious state” (pp. 115-123)—an idea also developed in research with Amit Ahuja that merits wide use not only in the literature on India but also in comparative politics more broadly.

In the book’s conclusion, Chhibber nicely weaves together these many strands, leaving readers with a broad and thought-provoking, yet highly accessible, discussion of representation in India. Though anyone would benefit from reading this chapter, its brief yet perceptive tour of representation in India make it ideal reading for undergraduates. Chhibber’s conclusion also emphasizes the need to focus greater scholarly attention on religious practice, as opposed to other aspects of religion. Indeed, in its attention to the day-to-day practice of religion, Religious Practice and Democracy in India currently represents a somewhat solitary contribution to the study of religion and politics in India, a field dominated by studies of Hindu nationalism and religion chauvinism and violence. Hopefully, Religious Practice and Democracy in India will not remain lonely for long. Chhibber’s book suggests innumerable avenues for future research. I focus on just three.

First, a natural question that emerges from Religious Practice and Democracy in India is just how far Chhibber’s argument extends. Empirically, the book focuses primarily on two attitudes, one about beliefs about who parties represent (if anyone) and the other about political efficacy. Already, these two questions tap somewhat different attitudes, suggesting that religious practice is not necessarily associated with only a narrow set of attitudes or beliefs. Yet, Chhibber also shows that religious practice does not predict levels of trust in various political and state institutions. Those who practice religion are no more trusting of national, state, or local government, the police, or the judiciary than those who do not (pp. 54-57). This finding emerges out of Chhibber’s effort to rule out the possibility that religious practice is simply a proxy for trust. But, the finding is itself quite interesting. One might reasonably expect that frequenting relatively less hierarchical social settings and forming sympathetic ties with politicians would ultimately lead to greater levels of trust. The fact that religious practice does not make citizens more trusting suggests an important area of future research into the kinds of political attitudes that religious practices does and does not influence.

Second, the book raises fascinating questions for those interested in political psychology. Although Chhibber shows that those who do and do not practice religion are similar in terms of a range of political behaviours, such as turning out to vote or participation in election-related activities (pp. 53-54), those who frequently practice religion likely vary in important ways from those who do not, namely in terms of underlying personality traits that lead some people to engage in religion’s more social aspects, others to engage in religious practice in largely solitary endeavors, and yet others to not engage at all. Characteristics such as extroversion or optimism or varying levels of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation may help us understand why some people engage in religious practice and also perceive their political systems more favorably as compared to those for whom religious practice is not a central part of life.

Third, in examining whether caste, civil society, or parties can provide citizens with meaningful representation in India, Chhibber often considers the ways in which identities, organizations, or institutions might actually offer meaningful representation. In contrast, the crux of Chhibber’s argument is that religion practice affects perceptions of representation. What exactly leads people to these perceptions? One interesting avenue for future research would be to unpack what underlies these feelings of being represented. Is it purely the presence of identic ties to fellow citizens and politicians? Or, do regular practitioners of religion perceive the same events differently from those who do not practice religion? A mountain of evidence from the United States shows that Republicans and Democrats have very different perceptions of the same phenomena—such as the health of the economy or the presence of racial or gender-based discrimination. Might we find that, in India, religious practice shapes perceptions of one’s political context? For instance, do frequent practitioners of religion view the performance of their state government or their local panchayat or nagar palika differently than those who do not engage in religious practice? Or, might it even be that those who avidly practice religion are, in some sense, actually better represented. In a country where politicians frequently engage in religious practice themselves, are those who frequently engage in the more social aspects of religion better represented descriptively than those Indians whose religious practice is confined to prayer alone or (the small number) who do not engage in religious practice at all?

Religious Practice and Democracy in India is an engaging, wide-ranging, and thought- provoking book. It seeks to change the conversation about religion and politics in India from one in which religion is purely a source of division to one in which we also consider the quotidian  ways in which people experience and practice religion and contemplate the salutary effects that these social, relatively egalitarian experiences can have on politics.

Adam Ziegfeld is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Temple University. His research focuses on political parties and electoral behavior in India. His book, Why Regional Parties? Clientelism, Elites, and the Indian Party Systems, explains the extraordinary success of regional parties in India.

Purchase the book on Amazon here

Visit Pradeep Chibber's profile here

Visit Adam Ziegfeld's website here