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The Vernacularisation of Democracy Politics, Caste and Religion in India

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Lucia Michelutti
Routledge (30 June 2008)

During the 1990s, Indian democracy witnessed an upsurge in the political participation of lower castes/communities and the emergence of political leaders from humble social backgrounds who presented themselves as promoters of social justice for underprivileged communities. This book is a vivid account of how Indian popular democracy works on the ground. Setting itself against conventional theories of democratisation, the book shows how the political upsurge of one of the most assertive and politically powerful communities in north India - the Yadavs - is situated within a wider process of the vernacularisation of democratic politics, referring to the ways in which values and practices of democracy become embedded in particular cultural and social practices, and in the process become entrenched in the consciousness of common people.

Drawing on a large body of archival research and combining ethnographic material with colonial and post-colonial history, the study shows how the analysis of local idioms of caste, kinship, kingship, popular religion, 'the past' and politics ('the vernacular') inform popular perceptions of the political world, and of how the democratic process, in turn shapes ideas and practices of 'the vernacular'. This line of enquiry provides a novel framework to understand the unique experience of Indian democracy as well as the rise of popular politics and its meaning in different parts of the world.

Scholars of comparative politics, development politics, religious studies, urban studies, anthropology and social history will find this book especially interesting.

Dr Lucia Michelutti is a research fellow at the Department of Anthropology, LSE.

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Reviews

'This is an important, highly original book, based on extensive field work on a particular caste in a north Indian town, that makes a very important contribution towards a new understanding of democratic politics and its meaning in contemporary ex-colonial states. It is a very welcome contribution in a new move away from traditional conceptions of "democracy". It also takes us far from conventional statements about corruption and criminality in Indian politics to examine how the system really works, how it has become "vernacularised," made meaningful and productive for the middle and lower class and caste groups in Indian society.'
Professor (Emeritus) Paul Brass, University of Washington, Seattle

'Michelutti's book is a valuable and well-grounded ethnographic exploration of the dynamic culture of popular democratic politics that pervades every aspect of social life in contemporary India. Drawing on fieldwork in a provincial city in North India. Michelutti tells the story of how a lower caste community, the Yadavs, became one of the most powerful political factors in the country. She explores in illuminating detail how caste myths, modern egalitarian ideology, reformed religious practices as well as kinship structures were mobilized by networks of political leaders and local intellectuals to make the Yadavs a powerful political constituency for social reform. This book will be essential reading for anyone interested in the rough and tumble of contemporary Indian society and politics. It is also a valuable addition to the growing literature on how democratic politics become embedded in local cultural practices, and in turn also transform everyday life in often surprising ways.'
Professor Thomas Blom Hansen, University of Amsterdam

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