Threads of Raksha Bandhan: How Politicians Use Festivals to Boost Electoral Patronage

MLA Ram Kadam of Maharashtra uses festivals like Rakshabandhan to forge personal ties with his electorate, giving away both gifts and promises.

MLA Ram Kadam celebrating Rakshabandhan. Credit: Sarthak Bagchi

MLA Ram Kadam celebrating Rakshabandhan. Credit: Sarthak Bagchi

The job descriptions of elected politicians remain very ambiguous in most post-colonial societies. From legislative responsibilities, to law making tasks, to representing and addressing the concerns of their constituents, to everyday mediation and negotiations for groups of citizens with the state, an elected politician is expected to do it all. Add to that list jobs like school and hospital admissions, attending weddings and funerals and even paying condolence visits. Especially in a country like India, where any elected politician in an assembly or parliamentary constituency represents large populations, often of half to one million, these tasks can become daunting and demanding in terms of both time and money. While most of these ‘duties’ are completed with resources from the state, many of such ‘expected duties’ are often taken care of through the politician’s personal resources. It won’t be wrong to say that in many parts of the country, voters still see their elected politicians as their primary benefactor, guardian or simply put, ‘mai baap’.

This kind of ‘mai baap-ism’ often leads to the blurring of boundaries between something which is normatively a transactional exchange, like clientelism and something that is more personal. The general theories of clientelism and patronage attribute these hierarchical bonds of patronage and domination between a patron with resources and a client/voter with demands, to typical characteristics like poverty, income inequality, rural areas and urban slums. The scope for everyday mediation and negotiation with the state arises more in such areas, thereby making voters rely more on their elected politicians.

However, the increasing competitiveness in electoral politics, the growing agency of voters who bargain more as clients and proliferation of more patrons at every level of the state has forced politicians to think of innovative ways to forge and continue bonds of patronage with their constituents. Rakshabandhan, a festival which celebrates the sacred bond of protection between a brother and sister, provides one such opportunity for entrepreneurial politicians to improvise on their patronage skills.

MLA Ram Kadam is one such innovative politician. Representing the Ghatkopar west constituency in the eastern outgrowth of metropolitan Mumbai, Kadam is quite popular in his constituency as a generous leader and his ‘philanthropic’ exploits have often attracted their fair share of newsprint. The annual Raksha Bandhan event at his residence is more than just a festival between a brother and his sisters. Kadam arranges these events with a lot of euphoric extravagance in which several thousand women from his constituency tie rakhis on him and receive ‘gifts’ from him in return. Last year, his aides had bragged of about 40,000 women tying a rakhi on their dear MLA. The year before, the number of sisters was supposed to be around 20,000.

With the hope of witnessing this extravagant ‘philanthrophy’ first hand, I paid Kadam a visit on the day of Raksha Bandhan at his residence-cum-office. The house was decorated for this big social gathering and attention was paid to every detail. Sarees, rudraksha (holy beads) and gangajal for the Hindu sisters and dress materials for the Muslim sisters were neatly stacked in a room. Around 200 women were waiting to get a chance to meet their ‘brother’ in a huge hall next door. As Kadam entered the hall, all his bhaginis (sisters) stood up to pay their respect to their beloved ‘bhau’ or brother in Marathi.

Kadam started his address by directly coming to the point, “I know that not all of you have come to take a brother back home today. Some of you must have come for the sarees and other gifts being offered here.” This sharp point drew quite a few blushes from the women in the crowd and some women returned his gaze with a sheepish grin, as if charged ‘guilty’. “There is no reason to worry even if you do so,” continued Kadam. “Irrespective of what intention you have come here with, you all will return from here with a brother. This saree or dress material here means nothing in front of the bond that we will be forming today. You must always keep in mind that your brother is always happy to help you” he declared to a volley of cheers and applause from the gathering, which grew in numbers, as the event progressed.

As the MLA continued to educate the crowd about the deep values that a bond of ‘bhau-bhagini’ (brother and sister) holds since time immemorial, it became very clear as to how easily he projects the occasion as a pious family function with members of an extended family, rather than a gift exchange ceremony between a patron and his clients (both existing clients as well as potential future clients). Although the sarees and the dress materials marked as gifts for all the bhaginis continued to occupy an important place in the background of both the hall and the ceremony, the entire centre stage quickly shifted to the importance (and perhaps advantages) of having the MLA as a brother. He announced in an authoritative tone, “You do not have to fear anyone now, from now on you know that you all are sisters of MLA Ram Kadam. Go and share this fact with pride to anyone who comes to bother you. Let me see, who dares to bother my bhaginis from now on.”

Kadam addressing his 'sisters' on Rakshabandhan.

Kadam addressing his ‘sisters’ on Rakshabandhan. Credit: Sarthak Bagchi

In the constituency of Ghatkopar West in Mumbai, where a large part of the electorate are slum dwellers and lower middle class residents, engaged with different arms of the state on a regular basis and routinely threatened by them, this announcement and the message underlying it, becomes a very important manner in which the candidate reassures his constituents, not only of continued political patronage but also of the security of personal bonds and family to the equation.

Kadam’s case is important in the context of electoral politics where personalities of candidates take precedence over party ideologies, and often personal ties with a candidate holds more value in terms of electoral support than ideological support. The manner in which MLA Ram Kadam has been able to create, facilitate and maintain personal bonds of patronage in the form of familial ties with a significant part of his constituents, is indeed remarkable. In heavily contested multi-cornered electoral fights (like the last assembly election in Maharashtra in October 2014), the logic of numbers dictate that this significant following often helps in determining who the winner is.

Kadam also takes pride in organising pilgrimage tours for the senior citizens in his constituency. These seven day trips consist of a pick up from Mumbai and a trip to famous holy sites like Varanasi, Sarnath, Triveni, Sangam (Allahabad) and back to Mumbai. The extensive train trips have inclusive vegetarian meals for all the people on board and have doctors assistance, apart from volunteers and local party workers who help the senior citizens. A rough estimate of the cost involved for the intricate logistics involved leads to several crores of rupees, which the MLA does not fund from his MLA LAD (Local Area Development fund). The very fact that the MLA has done something for these senior citizens makes him much more endearing. This undoubtedly also strengthens the personal bond between the MLA and these senior citizens, and their families as well. This makes him more of a beloved, dutiful son instead of just an elected representative.

Apart from these ‘innovative’ ways of reaching out to his constituents and this near perfect role-playing of a dutiful son and protective brother to them, the leader has very skillfully blurred the boundaries of functionality of a leader as a constitutional representative of people in the legislative assembly and a leader as a member of a family who provides for that family (the family here being the electorate at large).

Politicians in Mumbai are popular for such kind of ‘pilgrimage politics’, with another BJP MLA from the city, Mangal Prabhat Lodha, being one of the pioneers in patronage techniques. Be it Ganesh utsav mandals, dandiya-raas or dahi-handi festivals, politicians turn themselves out in huge banners and publicity materials organising such festivities all around the year. The organising mandals (local youth clubs) often thrive on the patronage of local politicians, who use their services during election campaigns for mobilising and consolidating voters. This has also led to a new form of vote buying which campaign managers call ‘mandal-bundle’ politics. This is essentially approaching mandals with bundles of notes to buy their electoral support. Elections timed around festivals see the potential income of these mandals spiralling upwards, like in the 2014 assembly elections.

These innovative patronage practices provide the moral legitimacy to such transactions and take client-patron based politics away from the realm of immorality and illegality. This also strengthens the voters’ bargaining power, as the assertive importance of the mandals point out. However, it also compromises on the constitutional duties of the elected politicians as lawmakers and administrators. While these practices might ensure more votes for the politicians, it need not necessarily ensure better service delivery for the constituency as a whole. Kadam, for instance won the last assembly election from his constituency with a thumping majority, despite having one of the most dismal records of presence in the previous assembly. He missed two years of Assembly due to a suspension. But that hardly affected his popularity in the constituency, as long as he had time to play the dutiful son and the protective brother. These innovations in patronage from politicians point towards an increasing need among the current scholarship to find new ways and perspectives of studying patronage politics in the developing world and capture the transformations taking place.

Sarthak Bagchi is a doctoral fellow at Leiden University Institute for Area Studies.