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The Cunning of Politics: Democracy, Duplicity, and the Art of Elections with Michael Collins

Bush House, Strand Campus, London

28 Nov
kings India institute seminar series
Part of King's India Institute Seminar Series

Speaker: Michael Collins

In popular imagination elections are centered on the act and outcome of suffrage. The ceremonial, or carnivalesque, aspects of election campaigns are placed under the microscope. Votes are tallied and trends analyzed as pundits distill election results into plausible narratives said to reveal ‘the pulse of the nation’, often laden with clichés about ‘popular mandates’ and the ‘people’s verdict.’

But, such accounts convey only a partial view of an election campaign, which is equally a contest of skill, finesse, charisma, and outright skullduggery. The election campaign is replete with shrewd party operatives and wily booth agents angling to gain any advantage, circumventing election law and, just as often, capitalizing on its lapses. Campaign strategies require constant innovation and entail a steep learning curve for new aspirants vying to enter the ‘corridors of power’. One of India’s most prominent and radical Dalit (ex-untouchable) parties, the Liberation Panthers (VCK) of Tamil Nadu, is a case in point.

This paper draws on campaign ethnography and interviews with VCK candidates and party workers to elucidate how these first-generation politicians regard and navigate electoral competition, casting new light on the complex sociality and campaign strategies constitutive of democratic politics in modern India. 

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Michael Collins is a post doctorate researcher at the University of Göttingen, Centre for Modern Indian Studies. His research bridges the disciplines of history, anthropology, and political science to engage with theories of democracy, representation, and political practice in modern South Asia. His most recent work provides an ethnographic study of how election finance norms affect the democratic participation and political representation of social minorities in modern India. 

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