Talking to the State

A review of Paromita Sanyal’s and Vijayendra Rao’s Oral Democracy: Deliberation in Indian Village Assemblies

Drawing on transcripts from India’s gram sabhas (deliberative village meetings), Oral Democracy offers a groundbreaking new look at the working of local democracy and the power of citizen voice. The account is at once optimistic—highlighting the enormous potential of deliberative institutions, and cautious—noting great variation in the quality of the gram sabha. The book raises all-important questions about the role of the state in shaping citizen participation, and about the relationship between deliberative, electoral, and other participatory institutions. It is required reading for any and all interested in the health of democracy in India and beyond.

Participatory and deliberative institutions have broad global appeal and have received great attention in both scholarly and policy circles, as potential correctives to the limits of electoral democracy. India, home to the gram sabha—the “largest deliberative institution in human history” (Sanyal and Rao: 1), has long been a forerunner, both in its design and implementation of deliberative institutions and in the scholarship that has emerged to reflect on these efforts.

Within this well-studied arena, Paromita Sanyal’s and Vijayendra Rao’s Oral Democracy offers a new and in many ways groundbreaking view of deliberative democracy, its potential and also its limits. Through the recording, transcription, and close reading of the proceedings of close to 300 gram sabhas (village meetings), they offer the reader a front-row seat: we hear, in citizens’ own words, their appeals and complaints, their demands, anger, and supplication. We hear officials variously appease, dismiss, admonish, redirect, and—importantly—sometimes directly respond to citizens’ claims of both a personal and a public nature. These transcripts are the heart of book, and are afforded ample space: we are privy to long exchanges and dialogues that are seldom reproduced in such rich detail.

From the transcripts, Sanyal and Rao develop a theory of oral democracy, emphasizing talk-based forms of participation and governance—the “spoken, uttered-by-mouth nature of political engagement” (p. 178). The aim of the book, they clearly state, is not to investigate the links between voice and material outcomes (whether and how officials act after the gram sabha, who gets what slices of the pie, and so on). While these material questions are of paramount importance (and are the subject of many other studies—including some drawn from the same collection of villages studied in Oral Democracy), Sanyal and Rao direct our attention differently: citizen voice—the very act of speaking up—they argue, is a democratic outcome in and of itself. Exercising voice in the gram sabha builds citizenship capabilities, they assert, in no small part due to the gram sabha’s temporary “equalizing” effect as citizens of different backgrounds meet the state on nominally equal footing. As importantly, the forms of talk (what is talked about, and how it is talked about) also matter: the very nature of local democracy hinges on whether the content of citizens’ speech is public spirited, agonistic, personal, or combinations thereof; as well as on whether the nature of their speech is “passive” (petitioning the state), “deliberative” (discursively engaging the state), or “invigilatory” (monitoring the state).

Oral Democracy is, overall, an optimistic account. The theory largely centers on the potential—rather than the limits—of the gram sabha, as illustrated by transcripts drawn from the highest functioning settings under “mature” panchayat systems where the state has made considerable efforts to support and invest in local governance. But the account is also a complex and nuanced one, revealing high levels of variation in the regularity, the attendance, and the content of the gram sabhas across states with different histories of and commitments to decentralization, as well as within states in settings with different levels of literacy.

This complexity pushes back in important ways against binary depictions of citizen-state relations—most notably against Chatterjee’s (2004) distinction between “political” society, where citizens are governed by the state and dependent on political connections, and “civil” society as a more open (but elite dominated) participatory sphere. The gram sabha is at once an arena of governmentality, for example as people are counted and classified as “below poverty line,” and an arena in which officials can be held to account by citizens—in particular, by poorer and lower castes citizens who, in associated work by Rao and co-authors (Besley et al. 2005), have been shown to attend in greater numbers. The gram sabha thus sits awkwardly between political and civil society, defying classification. Similarly, the varied realities of the gram sabha shows local rural life to be neither the hopeful “village republics” imagined by Gandhi nor the “sinks of localism” and “dens of ignorance” inveighed upon by Ambedkar.

In attempting to account for variation in the robustness of the gram sabha—some of which, they conclude are not even minimally “deliberative” but instead are “empty governance rituals” (p. 73)—Sanyal and Rao focus on two key variables: the intervention of the state, and levels of literacy. A central finding is that deliberative democracy is possible in settings without high literacy. To be clear, the authors strongly assert that literacy is critical: with increased formal literacy, citizens’ political literacy (ability to understand government proceedings and performance) increases. This though, is a qualified finding: where the state underinvests in or acts to undermine local governance, even high levels of literacy cannot pump life into the gram sabha. Where the state invests heavily in decentralization, local officials can play an active role in “schooling” villagers in the art of deliberative democracy, even where literacy levels are low. Literacy, in other words, has an important amplifying effect—but it is that state that matters most in investing (or not) in the gram sabha.

What, then, is the role of the state, and how does it shape the local proceedings of the gram sabha? To illuminate this question, Sanyal and Rao draw on a natural experiment design, sampling districts on either side of borders drawn in the 1956 reorganization of state lines, and which therefore have similar administrative histories, caste structures, and geographies. Within these matched pairs of districts, they then select villages that speak the same language—a marker of common culture and social structure. Observable differences across these matched villages, the authors argue, thus reflect differences in state policy, post 1956. The states—Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala—are then classified as having “high, “medium,” or “low” capacity panchayat systemsreferring to the decentralization mandated in 1993 by the Indian constitution that has been variably implemented by the states. These differences in panchayat capacity are signaled by the depth of the state’s engagement with panchayat reforms, the degree of financial devolution to the panchayats, the regularity of panchayat elections, and the “participatory” nature of the gram sabha. Given these different levels of state commitment, Sanyal and Rao argue, the gram sabha is differently realized.

The core insight here—that states give shape to citizens’ interests and influence the nature of their participation—is a critical one that resonates broadly with literature on policy feedback loops (for example, Campbell 2012; MacLean 2011). And yet, the mechanisms through which state policy and actors (which encompass anyone from high-level district officials, to appointed village bureaucrats, to elected panchayat members) influence citizenship behavior remain somewhat murky—and are largely beyond the scope of the research in Oral Democracy. Sanyal and Rao point to important potential channels: transparency and information provision, for example, or attempts by officials to “teach” deliberative practices to gram sabha attendees. These, though, are indicative of something deeper but harder to specify and explain: namely, the state’s commitment to decentralization writ large, and to deliberative practices in particular within the larger system of local governance.

In Rajasthan in north India, for example, there is a similarly long history of decentralization and local panchayats have been invigorated by an influx of new resources—much as Sanyal and Rao describe in the south. And yet, despite the strengthening of panchayat system, Rajasthan’s gram sabhas remain relatively weak. In research in more than 100 villages of Rajasthan over the span of close to two years, I did not witness a single gram sabha (and attempted to attend several that were scheduled on paper, but which never materialized). Citizens, moreover, rarely referenced the gram sabha in their accounts of claim-making—although they spoke frequently of the gram panchayat (Kruks-Wisner 2018). The question of precisely how “the state” (operating at various levels) creates a set of incentives and inculcates a political culture conducive to deliberation is thus a critical area for further research. There is, in particular, an opportunity to engage with complementary literature on why India’s states have decentralized so differently (e.g. Bohlken 2016, Chaudhuri 2006).

Related questions emerge about the gram sabha in relation to the broader system of local governance in which it is embedded. Sanyal and Rao treat the deliberative nature of the gram sabha as a complement to the “exit” that is exercised through the choice of elections (p. 175). The nature of this relationship between deliberative and electoral democracy is ripe for further investigation. Sanyal and Rao suggest that the temporarily “equalizing” nature of the gram sabha, in which marginalized citizens exercise voice as equals to richer or higher caste members, is due in large part to vote-bank politics (p. 29). Politicians know that gram sabha participants are likely voters, and so are eager to create spaces for their voices; citizens, for their part, show up and speak up, in part because they know politicians are listening. Does the deliberative success of the gram sabha (premised on this “equality”) thus hinge on caste-based or other forms of “ethnic” patronage? Is electoral clientelism a condition for deliberative democracy in unequal settings? How, moreover, might the timing of elections (local or national), alter the incentives of officials to invest in the gram sabha? Will officials be more likely to perform deliberation—and allow citizens to do the same—closer to election time? Will certain voices matter more in the gram sabha, given different electoral calculations?

A final set of questions concern how talk-based and performance-centered citizen-state engagement evolves over time. We are left wondering: what happens after the gram sabha, not just in terms of the responses of officials (which Sanyal and Rao rightly partition as a different outcome for a different set of studies) but also in terms of ongoing citizenship practice? Sanyal and Rao argue that “even if positive resolution is not immediately forthcoming, voice to a large extent has been equalized” (p. 34). But for how long can this dynamic be maintained? If participation in the gram sabha raises citizens’ expectations (as result of promises or appeasement by officials, or by increasing one’s sense of political efficacy), what happens if those expectations are not met? Is there a tipping point where the motivating experiences of voice are outweighed by disillusionment? Here, as Sanyal and Rao would likely remind us, the state comes back in: a gram sabha can only serve as a “training camp for democracy” (p. 62) if it in fact delivers good governance.

Oral Democracy is essential reading for anyone interested in the health of India’s democracy, and in local democracy more generally. Perhaps most importantly, Sanyal and Rao take seriously the notion that we should listen to the voices of the poor. Oral Democracy delivers pages of un-doctored, undiluted accounts from the gram sabhas. These voices tell a mixed story—one full of hope but also of unfulfilled institutional promise. Sanyal and Rao conclude stating that they are optimistic: there is a “potentially constructive democratic role of the state in fostering civic and political consciousness among the least well-off, most oppressed citizens.” (p. 185, emphasis added). This rests, though, upon a dual premise of state capacity and state commitment. 

Works Cited:

Besley, Timothy, Rohini Pande, and Vijayendra Rao. 2005. Participatory democracy in action:

Survey evidence from South India. Journal of the European Economic Association, 3(2–3): 648–657.

Bohlken, A. T. (2016). Democratization from Above: The Logic of Local Democracy in the

Developing World. Cambridge University Press.

Campbell, A. L. (2012). Policy makes mass politics. Annual Review of Political Science, 15, 333-351.

Chatterjee, P. (2004). The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of

the World. Columbia University Press.

Chaudhuri, S. (2006). “What Difference Does a Constitutional Amendment Make? The

1994 Panchayati Raj Act and the Attempt to Revitalize Rural Local Government in India.” In P. Bardhan & D. Mookherjee (Eds.), Decentralization and Local Governance in Developing Countries. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kruks-Wisner, G. (2018). Claiming the State: Active Citizenship and Social Welfare in Rural

India. Cambridge University Press.

MacLean, L. M. (2011). State retrenchment and the exercise of citizenship In Africa. Comparative

Political Studies, 44(9), 1238-1266.

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Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner is an Assistant Professor of Politics and Global Studies at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on citizen-state relations, local governance, and social welfare provision.

Visit Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner’s website here.

Visit Paromita Sanyal’s and Vijayendra Rao’s websites.

Oral Democracy is available open access here.