February 11, 2012

Vote Banks

With assembly elections coming up, the newspapers are full of the jargon of India's electoral politics. 'Vote Bank' is one such phrase, which refers to a bloc of voters from a social group - a caste or community or religious minority, say - which can be counted on to back a specific party or candidate consistently. But who coined the term, and how did it come into use? This column by Ramachandra Guha in The Hindu traces the phrase back to a seminal 1955 essay by the sociologist M N Srinivas titled 'The Social System of a Mysore Village', quoting the paragraph where it first appeared.
The word “party” has become a Kannada word. Every administrator and politician speaks of “party politics” in villages, and even villagers are often heard saying, “There is too much ‘party’ in such and such a village”. The coming of elections gives fresh opportunities for the crystallization of parties around patrons. Each patron may be said to have a “vote bank” which he can place at the disposal of a provincial or national party for a consideration which is not mentioned but implied. The secret ballot helps to preserve the marginal affiliation of the marginal clients.
As Guha points out, the meaning of the phrase has shifted since then, referring not to patrons and their clients, but 'a collective political preference exercised by a particular interest group'. See also the entry in Wikipedia, which adds that the meaning of Srinivas' expression was first modified by F. G. Bailey, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, San Diego, in his 1959 book Politics and Social Change.

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