“You can’t buy a vote”: cash and community in a Mumbai election

by Lisa Björkman

Working Papers WP 13-01
January 2013
ISSN 2192-2357 (MMG Working Papers Print)

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The 2012 Mumbai Municipal Corporation elections were characterized by reportedly- unprecedented flows of cash – a phenomenon has been described in both popular and scholarly accounts as “vote buying.” Drawing on ethnographic research on cash exchanges during the run-up and aftermath of the election, the paper probes some of the presumptions embedded in concepts of “vote banking” and “vote buying,” thereby unsettling the theoretical and normative frameworks through which practices of popular politics in contemporary India have been outlined. The ethnographies reveal multiple logics operative in election-time cash flows; actors involved with moving money have divergent and sometimes conflicting aspirations, motivations and agendas, within which cash itself plays various roles simultaneously: firstly money is used – somewhat conventionally – as a medium of exchange , to pay for campaign-related expenses including employing a slew of temporary workers as hired crowds. Secondly, cash is productive and performative of enduring socioeconomic networks that infuse everyday life far beyond election day. Thirdly, cash is sign of other forms of present and future knowledge and authority, generating intense speculation and political realignments during the run-up to election day. The account that emerges suggests neither a heroic narrative of subaltern resistance to bourgeois capitalism, nor a dystopic scenario of mass exploitation in which forces of ‘marketization’ empty the act of voting of meaning. Rather, it is argued, electiontime cash inhabits a deeply-political landscape of contestation within which issues at the heart of Mumbai’s modernity – land use, infrastructural investment, and business prospects – are negotiated. 

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