Vakil and Dharmik forms of patronage

David Gilmartin [North Carolina State University], The paradox of patronage and the people's sovereignty, Chapter 5 of Anastasia Piliavsky, Ed., Patronage as Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, CUP, 2014, pp.125–153.

(125) At the most basic level, relations of patronage are characterised by what may be called 'unequal reciprocal exchange', a phrase that captures its internal paradox. On one level, patrons' relations with their followers are legitimised by reciprocity, and the equality which it implies, suggesting that patrons and clients occupy a shared moral world. On another level, inequality lies at patronage's very heart: the patron's authority depends on access to status and power which transcends that of his followers.

Patronage is thus defined by a never-ending negotiation, not only between patrons and clients, but also between the paradoxical principles on which it is based. The good patron is continuously steering between the dangers of two opposing poles of action, one of which threatens his efficacy and the other his legitimacy. On the one hand, the success of a patron depends on his connections to networks of resources and power. To deliver practically for his clients, he must command the flows of resources connected to such networks. On the other hand, if a patron is to act in the name of his clients, he must maintain a claim to moral independence from these networks, a claim central to the establishment of a reputation as a protector of his /126/ client-community. His position thus involves continuous negotiations on multiple levels. An effective patron is enmeshed in a world of perpetual calculation of costs and benefits, even as he projects an image of moral transcendence over the strategic connections and calculations on which his position relies.

Forms of patronage have varied vastly over space and time. This chapter focuses on the nature of patronage as it operated in mid- 20th-century elections in India, when elections first became the foundation of India's political order. Patronage remained central to India's politics and to the flow of resources in its society, but the new rules of electoral democracy and the idea of 'the people's sovereignty' crystallised the inner tensions of patronage in new ways. This chapter looks to electoral law to examine the relation between patronage and Indian democracy and the paradoxes internal to both.

Patrons and politics

The immediate background to this story is the earlier history of patronage in British colonial rule in India. Something of the ongoing tension in the operation of patronage in British India, particularly in relation to politics, is captured by C. A. Bayly's (1983) comparative account of north Indian patrons in the late 19th century. Bayly underscores the different types of strategies pursued by different kinds of patrons, contrasting the Muslim patrons of the qasbas of Rohilkhand and Awadh with the Hindu bankers of the middle Gangetic basin. Yet Bayly also emphasises the common tensions these patrons faced, as both groups balanced (though in somewhat different ways) two contrasting forms of patronly connections, which were both central to patronly efficacy and reputation. These were forms shaped by what Bayly characterises as 'vakil' and 'dharmik' relations.

Vakil relations structured networks through which patrons managed resource flows. Vakils were agents through whom patrons negotiated their interests in a range of arenas extending upward towards the state and the courts; downward towards networks of clients, whose support was critical to their positions; and outwards towards the market and newly emerging spheres of public debate. The effectiveness of these networks of agents and connections determined the patrons' ability to situate themselves at the centre of the resource flows that determined their patronly standing and /127/ efficacy. Yet Bayly juxtaposes these relationships with the equally important 'dharmik' relations maintained by patrons with cultural and religious institutions. (I use the term 'dharmik relation' to include all forms of religious and community patronage, whether Hindu or otherwise.) In the case of Hindu bankers, for example, this involved the benevolent support not only of Brahmins, temples and other religious institutions but also of public, community activities and performances like Ram Lila (the annual re-enactment of the Ramayana story), new cultural and literary organisations (such as the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan) and new religio-political movements (like Cow-protection) (Bayly 1973). Such support underscored the image of patrons as selfless protectors of their client-communities.

In certain ways, these two forms of patronage were mutually reinforcing, as both were critical to the deeply intertwined material and cultural acquisition of status and wealth that was central to the workings of patronage. In that sense, both can be analysed in terms of networks, connections and strategic calculations. But, as Bayly's analysis suggests, there is another crucial sense in which these forms of patronage operated in sharply opposing and even contradictory idioms. However much dharmik patronage may have been related to the instrumental acquisition of status, it was not usually justified in terms of self-interested calculation and the protection of material interest. Quite to the contrary, it was almost invariably cast in terms of selflessness and disinterested benevolence. The effectiveness of patrons thus depended on their ability to place themselves at the centre of resource flows, even as they presented themselves publicly as selfless supporters of 'their people'.

Bayly, Chris A. 1973. 'Patrons and Politics in Northern India.' Modern Asian Studies 7(3):349–388.

Bayly, Chris A. 1983. Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1770–1870. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.