Democracy beyond Elections: Citizen Claim-Making in Rural India

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Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner
Boston College

Date: February 13, 2014

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How do citizens of the world’s largest democracy make claims on the state? Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner will explore the processes through which rural citizens of India seek to secure public services from the state. Her research helps shed light on the understanding of distributive politics (who gets what from the state) and democratic practice (who participates and how). Drawing on fieldwork in the state of Rajasthan, she documents various claim-making practices. Socioeconomic status or caste category can not alone explain why different groups differ in how they make claims on the state. Kruks-Wisner argues, rather, that claim-making practice is shaped by the degree to which a person is exposed to people and settings across social and spatial cleavages. Expanded social and economic opportunities go together with the expanded knowledge necessary for citizen-state engagement, increasing both the likelihood and breadth of claim-making practice.

Speaker Bio

Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner

Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner is an assistant professor of political science at Boston College. Her research focuses on issues of political participation, local governance, and social welfare in developing countries, with an emphasis on South Asian and Indian politics. Her current book manuscript, Claiming the State: Citizens’ Mobility & Demand for Public Services in Rural India, asks whether and how marginalized citizens of the world’s largest democracy make claims on the state for essential public services. She earned her doctorate in Political Science and a Masters in International Development Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a B.A. in Sociology and Anthropology from Swarthmore College. Prior to joining BC, she was an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies at Harvard University.


Event Photos

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BC Political Science professor Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner at the Boisi Center

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Professor Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner and Erik Owens. (Photos by MTS photography)

Event Recap

On a snowy February day, BC political science professor Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner spoke about democracy in rural India to an engaged audience of students, professors, and community members at the Boisi Center. Kruks-Wisner focused her discussion on the fieldwork she had conducted in Rajasthan, India, where she performed 400 qualitative interviews and 2,210 surveys over a period of eighteen months. Through this research, she sought to ascertain how rural citizens feel about the state and how they make claims for basic public services like water and electricity.

Kruks-Wisner found that three-fourths of those interviewed and surveyed make claims, a figure that far surpassed what democratic theory predicts. Individuals make these claims through a plethora of avenues, including Gram Panchayat (local government), parties, bureaucracy, village associations, caste associations, NGOs, and prominent individuals. She found no statistical difference between classes or castes in the incidence of claim-making, but did find that gender was significant, as men are more likely to make claims than women and wealthy women are less likely to make claims than poor women.

To account for her findings, Kruks-Wisner theorized that exposure beyond one’s immediate community will broaden one’s access to avenues for claim-making, ability to make effective claims, and expectations of how a claim will be received. She determined that socio-spatial exposure is a key driver of claim-making incidence and repertoire. At the conclusion of her presentation, Kruks-Wisner posed a question for the audience to contemplate: is this high incidence of claim-making indicative of active citizens in a robust democracy or of active citizens facing a democratic deficit?

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Further Reading

Ahuja, Amit, and Pradeep Chhibber. “Why the Poor Vote in India: ‘If I Don’t Vote, I Am Dead to the State.’” Studies in Comparative International Development 47, no. 4 (December 1, 2012): 389–410.

An Indian Summary.” The Economist. Accessed January 20, 2014.

Biswas, Soutik. “Can Civil Society Win India’s Corruption Battle?” BBC, June 13, 2011, sec. South Asia.

Boo, Katherine. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. 1st edition. New York: Random House, 2012.

Corbridge, Stuart, and John Harriss. Reinventing India: Liberalization, Hindu Nationalism and Popular Democracy. Cambridge: Polity, 2000.

Dunning, Thad, and Janhavi Nilekani. “Ethnic Quotas and Political Mobilization: Caste, Parties, and Distribution in Indian Village Councils.” American Political Science Review 107, no. 1 (February 2013).

Guha, Ramachandra. India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. London: Harper Perennial, 2008.

Jha, Saumitra, Vijayendra Rao, and Michael Woolcock. “Governance in the Gullies: Democratic Responsiveness and Leadership in Delhi’s Slums.” Policy Research Working Papers (Septemeber 2005).

Kochanek, Stanley A., and Robert L. Hardgrave. India: Government and Politics in a Developing Nation. 7th ed. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2007.

Kohli, Atul. The Success of India’s Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Krishna, Anirudh. “Gaining Access to Public Services and the Democratic State in India: Institutions in the Middle.” Studies in Comparative International Development 46, no. 1 (March 1, 2011): 98–117.

Kruks-Wisner, Gabrielle. “Seeking the Local State: Gender, Caste, and the Pursuit of Public Services in Post-Tsunami India.” World Development 39, no. 7 (July 2011): 1143–1154.

Metcalf, Barbara D., and Thomas R. Metcalf. A Concise History of Modern India (Cambridge Concise Histories). 3rd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Thachil, Tariq. “Embedded Mobilization: Nonstate Service Provision as Electoral Strategy in India.” World Politics 63, no. 3 (2011): 434–469.

Tillin, Louise. “Questioning Borders:  Social Movements,  Political Parties and the Creation  of New States in India.” Pacific Affairs 84, no. 1 (March 2011): 67–87.

Törnquist, Olle, Neil Webster, and Kristian Stokke. Rethinking Popular Representation. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Yardley, Jim. “In Indian Slum, Misery, Work, Politics and Hope.” The New York Times, December 28, 2011, sec. World / Asia Pacific.

———. “India’s Middle Class Appears to Shed Political Apathy.” The New York Times, October 29, 2011, sec. World / Asia Pacific.

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