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Managing Political Space : party practices and marginalised people’s agency in the governance of rural West Bengal. Glyn Williams, S Nandigama , D Chakrabarty , D Bhattacharyya BV Thampi and D Narayana Embedding Poor People’s Voices in Local Governance (An ESRC-DFID funded project)

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Managing Political Space : party practices and marginalised people’s agency in the governance of rural West Bengal

Glyn Williams, S Nandigama, D Chakrabarty, D Bhattacharyya BV Thampi and D Narayana

Embedding Poor People’s Voices in Local Governance

(An ESRC-DFID funded project)

Email: [email protected]


Governance political society and the poor
Governance, Political Society and the Poor

A move away from ‘good governance’ debates:

  • From formal to informal structures of power

  • From a state-focused perspective to thinking about the implications for (and strategies of) the marginalised.

    Starting points for understanding:

  • Blom Hansen and multiple/fractured authority

  • Chatterjee and ‘the politics of the governed’


Blom Hansen: parallel forms of authority – the formal state, the ‘big man’, and the community

To control the government, the state and the powers of legislation are important dimensions of the exercise of power in India. These forms of authority are also easily subverted and negotiated, and can be challenged in multiple ways because their efficacy depends on the informal sovereigns depicted earlier.

(Blom Hansen, 2005: 191)


Chatterjee: the politics of the governed as a productive space for negotiation

[T]he actual transactions over the everyday distribution of rights and entitlements lead over time to substantial redefinitions of property and law within the actually existing modern state. The paralegal, then, despite its ambiguous and supplementary status in relation to the legal, is not some pathological condition of retarded modernity, but rather part of the very process of the historical constitution of modernity in most of the world.

(Chatterjee, 2004: 75)


Governance political society and the poor1
Governance, Political Society and the Poor

For both authors, informality:

  • is a vital part of actually experienced forms of governance

  • has its own structures of legitimacy

    Implications of informality for the poor:

  • locking the poor within patronage relationships?

  • a space for the de facto renegotiation of rights?


West bengal political society or party society
West Bengal – political society or party society?

West Bengal’s exceptional political history:

  • The ascendancy of the Left

  • Land reform

  • Decentralised governance.

    Understanding the LFG’s longevity:

  • The panchayats new site of brokerage

  • The CPI(M) as provider of ‘discipline and development’

  • Current challenges – a loss of moral authority?


The CPI(M)’s dominance of party society:

“It can act like a family for the socially marginalised women giving them access to social justice. It can make use of the traditional family as a ground of mobilization. Again, the party can endorse selective distribution of benefits in some contexts. It can allow an underbelly of petty corruption and crude mechanisms of coercion.”

(Dasgupta, 2009: 80)


Rural governance key questions
Rural Governance: key questions

Empirical Questions:

  • How is political authority established and exercised?

  • How do poor people express their agency within West Bengal’s party-politicised public space?

    Wider Questions:

  • How should we understand political society?

  • What are the implications for intentional programmes of governance reform?


Our west bengal study areas
Our West Bengal study areas…

The study areas:

  • Dubrajpur Block, Birbhum

  • Mayureswar 1 Block, Birbhum

    Core contrasts:

  • Party political composition

  • Agriculture and economy


Exercising power controlling political space
Exercising Power: Controlling Political Space

Patronage and resource distribution:

  • Dubrajpur – the CPI(M)’s as ‘universal patron’

  • Mayreswar I – agrarian-based patronage

    Authority, Mediation and Violence:

  • Dubrajpur – hegemony and mediation

  • Mayreswar I – competition and open violence

    Surveillance and the Control of Public Space:

  • Dubrajpur – all public activity as visible to the CPI(M)


“…last term another party [i.e. the CPI(M)] favoured a part of the [panchayat’s] population who supported it for being in beneficiary lists, through active exclusion of non-supporters. This time around, the opposite is happening. The ruling alliance will take care of the other half that was excluded last time around from the beneficiary lists… all is well for everyone.”

(Senior bureaucrat, Mayureswar-I Block office: interview 10/11/09).


Exercising power controlling political space1
Exercising Power: Controlling Political Space part of the [

Patronage and resource distribution:

  • Dubrajpur – the CPI(M)’s as ‘universal patron’

  • Mayreswar I – agrarian-based patronage

    Authority, Mediation and Violence:

  • Dubrajpur – hegemony and mediation

  • Mayreswar I – competition and open violence

    Surveillance and the Control of Public Space:

  • Dubrajpur – all public activity as visible to the CPI(M)


“The present leaders do not feel the need to come and meet the local people, rather the common people are supposed to approach them for help. The party leaders are no longer interested to stand by the side of the people like in earlier times and often make false promises to the people. The common people are tired and fed up with the false promises.”

(interviewee: Dubrajpur, 26/03/09)


Exercising power controlling political space2
Exercising Power: Controlling Political Space the local people, rather the common people are supposed to approach them for help. The party leaders are no longer interested to stand by the side of the people like in earlier times and often make false promises to the people. The common people are tired and fed up with the false promises.”

Patronage and resource distribution:

  • Dubrajpur – the CPI(M)’s as ‘universal patron’

  • Mayreswar I – agrarian-based patronage

    Authority, Mediation and Violence:

  • Dubrajpur – hegemony and mediation

  • Mayreswar I – competition and open violence

    Surveillance and the Control of Public Space:

  • Dubrajpur – all public activity as visible to the CPI(M)


The space for poor people s agency
The Space for Poor People’s Agency the local people, rather the common people are supposed to approach them for help. The party leaders are no longer interested to stand by the side of the people like in earlier times and often make false promises to the people. The common people are tired and fed up with the false promises.”

Dubrajpur:

  • Agency expressed through the party – via strategies to access key party representatives

    Mayreswar I:

  • A greater degree of choice - ‘floating voters’ able to reinvent their political allegiances


Authority and Agency in the Case Study the local people, rather the common people are supposed to approach them for help. The party leaders are no longer interested to stand by the side of the people like in earlier times and often make false promises to the people. The common people are tired and fed up with the false promises.”Panchayats…


Wider questions
Wider Questions: the local people, rather the common people are supposed to approach them for help. The party leaders are no longer interested to stand by the side of the people like in earlier times and often make false promises to the people. The common people are tired and fed up with the false promises.”

Understanding party society – Chatterjee or Blom Hansen?

  • Evidence for ‘the politics of the governed’ - but not all struggles are directed at state resources

  • Official governance practices still symbiotically linked with informal authority

    Implications for governance reform:

  • Reforming formal governance is only part of the picture

  • Poor people’s agency does not equate to ‘emancipation’

  • Reform processes must understand the informal


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