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Chapter II
Power and Dominance in Rural Social Structure:
Review of Theoretical and Empirical Issues
Decentralisation has emerged as one of the important political developments in India,
with varied aims and objectives. From a development perspective, it aspires to locate
people at the centre of the development process by making them actors of
development through increased participation. Decentralisation with affirmative action
policies also aims at ensuring social justice at the community level by improving the
status of weaker sections of the society like Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and
women. From a political perspective, it works towards the empowerment of people by
giving them a voice in the local decision-making process, to decide on matters which
are of concern to them. Decentralisation seeks to increase financial autonomy of the
local political institutions by giving them taxation powers (which Gram Panchayats
possess) as well as transferring funds directly to the Panchayats. With these varied
aims and objectives decentralisation is, thus, seen as an instrument of good
governance, which can enhance transparency, accountability and efficiency of
governance, while at the same time bringing power closer to the people.
Whether the objectives of decentralisation are social, economic, political, or a
combination of all, the premise upon which the whole process of decentralisation
revolves around is the notion of ‘power’. Decentralisation is obviously related to
power, since the single factor which is common to all the objectives of
decentralisation, is the effort to bring ‘power to the people’. In the context of rural
communities, decentralisation brings with it new power dynamics, which often affect
the already existing power dynamics of rural communities through making certain
changes, while at others it is assimilated within the already existing one. Political
decentralisation, which has devolved powers to local institutions of governance, has
also broadened the possibility of further power sharing by reserving seats for weaker
sections of society. This has also made it possible to create a new leadership at the
grassroots of rural areas, which has to face challenges from the already existing
leadership structure of the villages. It is this new kind of interaction between two
leadership structures which makes the rural politics more vibrant and more active. In
the process, both influence each other by accommodating the other in their ambit of
This interaction between the emerging power holders and the existing
structure of power in rural communities makes it essential to understand the very
notion of ‘power’, as it is distributed and exercised in rural societies. The present
chapter, therefore, attempts to understand the nature of power, its existence,
distribution and manifestation in the rural context. The dispersion of power in rural
communities obviously depends on certain bases or resources, having access to which
determines one’s ability to exercise power. A detailed discussion of some of these
resources was made, drawing insights from various relevant existing literature. Any
attempt to locate and contextualise power in the social structure of rural communities
requires a thorough understanding of the theoretical aspects of the concept. The
chapter, thus, begins with a theoretical discussion of power and then proceeds to
locate power in the social structure and organised rural political institutions.
Power – A Theoretical Discussion
Few problems in sociology are more complex than the problem of social power. As an
aspect of social relationship, it confers certain privileges to some and denies them to
others. Though different scholars define it differently, yet, the central question lies in
who holds the power and how it affects social outcomes. Power is often defined as an
ability to achieve desired outcomes, a capacity to produce effects, which essentially
emerge out of social relationships and social interactions. An individual or group does
not hold power in isolation, they hold it in relation to others.
Power is often confused with similar concepts such as ‘influence’, ‘coercion’,
‘authority’, and ‘domination’. Power is the capacity to make decisions, which are
binding upon others; influence on the other hand, is the ability to affect the content of
these decisions through external pressure. Influence may, therefore, involve several
mechanisms such as organised lobbying, rational persuasion and open intimidation
(Heywood, 1994: 79).
Coercion and authority are, in fact, two different manifestations of power.
Coercion is that form of power which is not regarded as legitimate by those subject to
it. It is often based on physical force. On the contrary, authority is that form of power
which is accepted as legitimate, right and just and therefore, obeyed on that basis.
The distinction between power and authority is central to the understanding of
the notion of power. Both are distinguished from one another as contrasting means
through which compliance or obedience is achieved. Persuasion, pressure, threats,
coercion or violence are some of the means through which compliance is brought
about in power. Authority on the other hand, is based upon a perceived ‘right to rule’
and brings about compliance through a moral obligation on the part of the ruled. Thus,
authority always has a moral character in it (Connolly, 1993; Heywood, 1994).
Notwithstanding the agreement by political philosophers on the moral character of
authority, there exists a dispute regarding the basis upon which authority rests.
Despite the fact that the notions of power and authority can be distinguished
analytically, the exercise of power and the exercise of authority often overlap.
Authority necessarily requires power in its operations and authority is also needed for
the exercise of power. For instance, political leadership involves a blend of authority
and power.
The concept of power has been widely discussed in contemporary social
science, yet, the insights from earlier theorizing have a significant bearing upon the
contemporary conceptions of power. The following sections, therefore, attempt to
analyse power as propounded by several social theorists.
Max Weber on Power
In Weber’s definition, power is ‘… the probability that one actor within a social
relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance,
regardless of the basis on which this probability rests’ (Weber, 1978: 53). Giddens
summarised Weber’s notion of power as ‘… the chance of a man or a number of men
to realise their own will in a communal action against the resistance of others who are
participating in the action’ (Giddens, in Cassell, 1993: 217). Such a definition leads to
a conception of power relations as inevitably involving incompatible and competing
interests, since what is stressed is the capacity of a party to realise its own aims, and
the criterion for gauging the ‘amount’ of power is the resistance which can be
Weber’s definition of power implies that those who hold power do so at the
expense of others. It suggests that there is a fixed amount of power and, therefore, if
some people hold power, others will not. This view is sometimes known as the ‘zerosum’ concept of power. Since the amount of power is constant, power is held by an
individual or group to the extent that it is not held by others. Weber’s definition also
implies that power holders will use power to further their own interests. Viewed in
this sense, power is used to further the sectional interest of power holders, which are
in conflict with the interests of those subject to that power. Power is, thus, used
mainly for exploitation and oppression of some by others.
By defining power in such a manner, Weber brings the notion of ‘domination’
into the understanding of power. He defines domination as ‘… the probability that
certain specific commands or all commands will be obeyed by a given group of
persons’ (1978: 212). Weber’s analysis of power is thus manifested in his typology of
legitimate domination, i.e. legal-rational, traditional and charismatic. In practice, these
three types can coexist in any situation, but it is likely that one or the other will
predominate. These three types of domination are not power in itself, rather they are
the basis from which power can be derived (Weber, 1978: 215). The Weberian claim
of such legitimate domination rests on a belief in the legality of an impersonal legal
order, or in the sanctity of inherited traditions, or upon the devotion to charismatic
In the case of legal-rational domination, obedience is owed to the legally
established impersonal order. In the case of traditional domination, obedience is owed
to the person who occupies the position that is sanctioned and bound by tradition. In
the case of charismatic domination, it is the leader who is obeyed by virtue of
personal trust in him and his revelation, his heroism or his exemplary qualities so far
as they fall within the scope of the individuals’ belief in his charisma (1978: 215–16).
Weber describes these three pure types of legitimate domination as ‘authority’.
Legal rational authority, Weber suggested, functions through the existence of a
body of clearly defined rules; and authority is entirely attached to the office and its
formal powers. It arises out of respect for the rule of law, in the sense that power is
legally defined, emphasising that those who exercise power do so in a framework of
law. Legal rational authority is the characteristic of the large scale, bureaucratic
organisation that had come to dominate modern society. By attaching it to an office
rather than a person, bureaucratic authority is less likely to be abused or give rise to
injustice (Weber, 1978: 217–22).
Authority in traditional societies, Weber suggested, was based on respect for
long established customs and traditions. Traditional authority was considered as
legitimate since it ‘always existed’ and obeyed by all. Such a type of authority
operates through a hierarchical system, which allocates a particular status to each
person within the society. This status, however, is constrained by concrete rules, fixed
and unquestioned customs, which do not require any justification as they reflected the
way things have always been. The instances of traditional authority are found
amongst tribes or small groups, in the form of ‘patriarchalism’, i.e. the domination of
the father within the family; or ‘gerontocracy’ – the rule of the aged (Weber, 1978:
Unlike the traditional form of authority, charismatic authority is not based on a
person’s status or social position, but on his or her personal qualities and capability to
make a direct and personal appeal to others. In some cases, political leadership is
constructed on the basis of charismatic authority. Contrary to conventional thinking
that the basis of charismatic authority is always a natural gift, Heywood indicates that
such charisma can also be manufactured. Political leaders often do this either by
cultivating their media image and sharpening their oratorical skills, or by
orchestrating their personality through a propaganda machine (Heywood, 1994: 91).
Since this kind of authority rests upon personality, it is not confined by any rules or
procedures and may, for that matter, create a gamut of ‘total power’, and thereby,
demands from its followers not only willing obedience but also discipleship and even
The major difference between these three types of authority is that while in the
case of charismatic and traditional authority power is derived from personal qualities
and tradition respectively; in legal-rational type, the power comes from the legally
established impersonal positions of the power holder. In this case a person holds
power only because he is in that position and his power stems from that position.
Here, power is supported by a legal base and those who abuse power can be punished
by law.
Talcott Parsons on Power
In contrast to Weber’s conception of power, where power is regarded as a scarce
resource and mutually exclusive, to the extent that one party enjoys power at the cost
of the other, Parsons’ view of power can be treated as a ‘non-zero sum game’ where,
both sides may gain in the power relation.
Parsons proposed that power can be seen as being ‘generated’ by a social
system, much in the same way as wealth is generated in the productive organisation of
an economy. The parallels which Parsons draws between the two are based on the
supposition that each has a similar role in two of the four ‘functional sub-systems’ of
society, which Parsons had distinguished in his previous work9. Power has a parallel
function in the polity (goal-attainment sub-system) to that of money in the economy
(adaptive sub-system). Power is conceived as a ‘circulating medium’ in the same
sense, ‘generated’ within the political sub-system as money is generated in the
economy, and also forming an ‘output’ to the three other functional subsystems of
society. Power is defined, therefore, as ‘…a generalised capacity to serve the
performance of binding obligations by units in a system of collective organisation
when the obligations are legitimised with reference to their bearing on collective
goals’ (Parsons, 1963: 237). By ‘binding obligations’ Parsons means the conditions in
which both the power exerciser and those upon whom power is exercised are
legitimately allowed to do so. All power involves a certain ‘mandate’, which gives
power holders certain rights and imposes on them certain obligations towards those
who are subject to their power (Giddens in Cassell, 1993).
Parsons in 1951 developed the AGIL Model, which represents Adaptation, Goal Attainment,
Integration and Latent Pattern Maintenance, in 'The Social System', Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc,
New York.
For Parsons, Power is thus, directly derivative of authority. And authority is
institutionalised legitimation, which underlies power, and is defined as ‘… the
institutionalisation of the right of the leaders to expect support from the members of
the collectivity’ (Parsons, 1960: 181). By defining power in terms of ‘binding
obligations’, Parsons invokes legitimation in power. Therefore, for him, there is no
such thing as ‘illegitimate power’. As Parsons expresses it, ‘… the threat of coercive
measures, or of compulsion, without legitimation or justification, should not properly
be called the use of power at all, but is the limiting case where power, losing its
symbolic character, merges into an intrinsic instrumentality of securing compliance
with wishes, rather than obligations’ (1963: 232–62).
The use of power is one among several different ways in which one party may
secure the compliance of another, to a desired course of action. The other ways of
obtaining compliance should not be regarded as forms of power. The possession and
use of power should not be identified with the use of force. In Parsons' view, force
must be seen as only one means among several modes of obtaining compliance. Force
can be used in any stable political systems only as a last resort when other sanctions
have proved ineffective.
The power of a group which has to constantly resort to the use of force to
secure compliance is usually weak and insecure. A party may wield considerable
power while at the same time have few coercive sanctions with which to enforce its
commands if they are questioned by subordinates. And this is possible if the powerholding party enjoys a broad mandate to take authoritative decisions, i.e. if those over
whom the power is exercised agree to subject themselves to that power. The use of
power entails both parties in a power relation to achieve certain objectives of their
interests. Thus, power systems need not always require the coercive subordination of
the desires or interests of one party by the other. Nor does the use of power also
inevitably include ‘oppression’ or ‘exploitation’.
As Parsons recognises, this kind of power is necessarily legitimate, and so he
makes legitimacy almost the basis of his definition of power. He, thus, rejects the
frequently held conception that authority is a ‘form’ of power or is ‘legitimate power’.
To regard authority as a type of power leads to a neglect of its principal characteristic:
namely, that it concerns the right of a party to make binding prescriptions. Authority
refers to the legitimate position of an individual or group, and is therefore, properly
regarded as a basis of power. It is, for Parsons, the only basis for power, rather than a
kind of power (Giddens in Cassell, 1993).
Robert Dahl on Power
Dahl’s (1957) definition of power implies that (individual) A has power over
(individual) B to the extent that A can get B to do something, which B would not
otherwise do. This is the most frequently cited definition of the concept, which
embodies a specific view of the nature of power, the social location of power, and the
effects of the exercise of power. According to this view power is defined entirely in
terms of its effect and can be any kind of capacity, which produces these effects.
Secondly, power is an attribute of individuals and is exercised in their relationship
with other individuals. Finally, by attributing it only to individuals and identifying it
as that which secures compliance, power is equated with domination or ‘power over’,
and the effects of its exercise become, almost by definition, exploitative and
unproductive. Here is the ‘Zero-sum conception’ of power, according to which the
person with power gains only to the extent that others lose, and no overall benefit or
advantage can accrue from the exercise of power (Barnes, 1993: 198).
Dahl’s conceptualisation of power, which is treated as a ‘pluralistic’ view of
power, is contested with another conceptualisation of power known as the ‘elitist’
view of power. Pluralists like Dahl (1957) are not interested in the source of power or
where it resides as argued by elitists, rather they are interested in the exercise of
power. Power to them means participation in decision-making and can be analysed
only after careful examination of a series of concrete decisions (Bachrach and Baratz,
1962: 948). On the other hand, elite theorists, such as Mills (1956) and Hunter (1953)
argue that power is concentrated in the hands of elites. Mills (1956), for example,
maintained that America was ruled by the ‘power elite’ consisting of the most
influential figures in business, government and the military. The elite theorists argued
that the exercise of power by elites is not responsible, that is, that they are not
accountable to the people (Hindess, 1996: 3). Dahl’s (1958) critique of Mills’ ‘ruling
elite model’ suggested that elites are not the actual holders of power, instead they
have high potential for control. But this high potential for control does not confirm
them with power to actually have control. For instance ‘if the military leaders of a
country and their subordinates agreed that it was desirable, they could most assuredly
establish a military dictatorship of the most overt sort, but they have not set up such a
dictatorship…’ (Dahl, 1958: 465). Thus the actual exercise of power can only be seen
when decisions are taken.
Power as Dominance and/or Authority: Summarising Weber, Parsons
and Dahl
The above discussion of the concept of power through the writings of Weber, Parsons
and Dahl may lead one to conclude that the understanding of power can broadly be
through two categories. For Weber and Dahl power is equated with ‘domination’ or
‘coercion’. This domination may or may not be legitimate. Here, power is regarded as
a simple capacity to produce outcomes by changing actions or behaviours of others,
despite resistance. And this outcome is necessarily achieved either through
domination or by coercion. Parsons, however, limits the scope of power to authority.
Though authority is not in itself power, he regards authority as the only basis upon
which power rests. In other words, power can only be derived from authority.
By equating power with domination, Weber and Dahl see power as emanating
from ‘above’. Performing certain actions to realize one’s own will/interest and/or
taking some decisions that are to be obeyed by others are some of the overt
manifestations of power. Such an exercise of power always takes into consideration
the interests of the persons who hold power. They are the actors who, in fact, are
benefited from power relations, while those upon whom power is exercised are
always marginalised. On the other hand, the Parsonian understanding of power takes
into consideration both the power holders as well as those upon whom power is held.
Power in this context becomes an instrument to realise the broader goal of society to
achieve outcomes, beneficial for all. Realisation of individual interests through
subordination does not find a place in such an understanding of power. Democracy as
a system of governance is perhaps the best example to serve such a notion of power,
where the system is presumed to exist for the society as a whole.
One could also find that empirically both the notions of power can be located
differently. While the Parsonian notion fits well into organised positions of power,
Weber’s and Dahl’s understanding of power can be located in day-to-day social
interactions. Where positions are backed by rules and regulations and are considered
legitimate, one may think of employing Parsons’ views on power. Here, it becomes
the legitimate right of the position holder to exercise power and the rest are bound by
law to yield to his/her authority. Power in such cases is exercised only in accordance
with law, and any other action which is not approved by such law cannot be regarded
as power. However, on occasions where power is exercised without such legal support
one may recall Weber’s understanding of power as the realisation of interests despite
The above discussion makes it clear that whatever may the basis of power, it
essentially depends upon ‘control over resources’. One’s capacity to exercise power
rests on the resources he/she controls. Such resources, however, may not be limited
only to physical force. It may be one’s personal intellectual or charismatic qualities,
one’s position in organised systems or in the social hierarchy, or authority, which
enables a person to exercise power. While for Parsons, legitimate authority or
organised (political) positions are the only resources, controlling which a person or a
group is eligible to exercise power, Weber mentions several other resources such as
domination, physical force, social status and personal charisma, which make an
individual powerful. However, control over resources in terms of domination and
authority may not be sufficient to exercise power in all situations. There may be
certain occasions where power holders use manipulation and persuasion to uphold
their own interests, and thereby exercise power. In this context, Lukes’ (1974) notion
of power deserves attention.
Steven Lukes on Power
From the preceding discussion, it is clear that power is an essentially contested
concept and it is difficult to arrive at one settled or agreed upon definition. This
contestation is best captured in Steven Lukes’ (1974) work ‘Power: A Radical View’,
which distinguishes between three faces or dimensions of power. Lukes contrasts his
own ‘radical’ perspective with the ‘liberal’ account of power presented by Dahl and
other American Pluralists and also with the ‘reformist’ view presented by many of its
critics. While Lukes describes the pluralists as insisting that the exercise of power can
be identified only in cases of observable conflict, he sees their ‘reformist’ critics as
recognising that power may also be exercised in such a way as to prevent certain
conflicts of interest from appearing in the political arena. Both views regard power as
enabling some individuals to prevail over others in situations where there are clear
differences between their respective interests. Lukes goes further to advance the
‘radical’ view that power can also operate to prevent such differences from emerging
in the first place, and that it does so by ensuring that those subject to its influence
have a false understanding of where their true interests lie (Hindess, 1996: 68).
Lukes describes the liberal view as a ‘one-dimensional’ view of power.
According to this ‘one-dimensional’ approach it would be possible to identify a ruling
elite only if there was clear evidence that the supposed elite is normally able to
impose its wishes, even against majority resistance. Lukes associates the reformist
view with the ‘two-dimensional’ approach, according to which there are two faces of
power: the public face and the private face. While the pluralist analysis or the ‘onedimensional’ view focuses only on the public face of power, the ‘two-dimensional’
view captures both the faces of power. Bachrach and Baratz (1962) mention that the
private face of power can be seen in the covert exclusion of the interests of particular
individuals or groups from consideration in legislative assemblies, council chambers
and other arenas in which decisions are taken affecting the life of the community. In
this way, the manifest discontent of these individuals or groups is prevented from
leading to cases of overt political conflict.
Even though Lukes regards the second view of power to be superior to the first
view, he considers it to be seriously incomplete. Thus, in its place he proposes a
‘three-dimensional’ view, which he describes as ‘radical in both the theoretical and
political senses’ (Lukes, 1974: 9). Where the second view of power suggests that the
interests of certain individuals or groups may well be excluded from political debate,
Lukes goes further to argue that there may also be instances of the exercise of power
in which its victims fail even to recognise that their real interests are at risk, and
consequently make no attempt to defend those interests. In this view, there is a third,
particularly insidious, form of power, which is able to influence the thought and
desires of its victims without their being aware of its effects (Hindess, 1996: 5).
In this light, power can be said to have three faces. First, it involves the ability
to influence decisions; secondly, it is reflected in the capacity to shape the political
agenda and thus prevent decisions being made; and thirdly, it takes the form of
controlling people’s thoughts by manipulating their needs and preferences (Barnes,
1993: 199; Heywood, 1994: 78 – 85).
Decision-making – power is exercised to ensure that one set of interests prevails
over another, and that a contested political decision is made in the way in which
the more powerful party prefers. This treatment of power corresponds to the
commonsense belief that power is about getting things done, and is therefore most
clearly reflected in decisions and how they are made.
Agenda-setting – power is used to ensure that policy issues are initially framed
and formulated in the interest of its possessors, and that formulations which would
serve other interests are never made available for debate. This dimension of power
affects not just the immediate process of decision-making, but also behind-thescenes activities such as agenda setting.
Thought control – power is used as a means of shaping the perceptions and
cognitions of others, so that what they consider to be in their interest is radically
transformed. Through this third dimension of power, its possessors secure their
interests not by winning a contest, or even by avoiding a contest, but by
transforming the consciousness of their political opponents and weakening their
grasp of the nature of their real interests so much that no contest threatens.
Lukes argues that any radical understanding of the operation of power must
recognise that it takes place in all these three dimensions, but he stresses that only the
first dimension of power is clearly and obviously manifested in visible behaviour,
whereas in the other two, power operates invisibly.
Conceptualising Power
In the contemporary social theory, power has been depicted in several ways, and
scholars, in their attempt to conceptualise power, have taken resort to different
terminologies. Scott (2001: 2) defines power as a form of social relation between two
agents, who may be called ‘principal’ and the ‘subaltern’. While the principal is the
paramount agent in power relationship, who exercises power; subaltern is the
subordinate agent, who gets affected in the power relation. However, in reality, power
relations are not always so simple and straight-forward. In power dynamics, principal
in one power relation may become subaltern in another, and the similar fashion, a
subaltern may have his/her domain of exercising power.
Dowding (1996) distinguishes between two forms in the conceptualisation of
power: ‘power to’ and ‘power over’. The ability to produce outcomes implies ‘power
to’, which does not necessarily involve any structured interaction. On the other hand,
power of one actor over another (power over) involves social relationship and
interactions, in which one actor has a capacity to affect others’ actions. Thus, ‘power
over’ includes ‘power to’, e.g., A has power over B to make B do ‘x’. Power over can
be treated as social power and thus defined as ‘… the ability of an actor deliberately
to change the incentive structure of another actor or actors to bring about or help to
bring about outcomes’ (1996: 5). Changing the incentive structure of one actor by
another involves mechanisms ranging from manipulation to straightforward coercion.
Hindess (1996) mentions two conceptions of power. First, the idea of power as
a simple quantitative phenomenon. Power, in this sense, is a generalised capacity to
act. This conception of power as simple capacity suggests that there will be an
unequal relation between those who employ power for their own purposes and those
who are subject to its effects. Power may be used as an instrument of domination. The
second understanding is that of power as involving not only a capacity but also a right
to act with both capacity and right being seen to rest on the consent of those over
whom power is exercised.
The concept of power is structured differently by Goehler (2000), who
attempts to define power in terms of ‘transitive’ and ‘intransitive’ models. These
conceptions are used in philology to describe the behaviour of verbs. In Latin,
transire means ‘to pass by’. Power is transitive, when it refers to others and
intransitive when it refers back to itself (Ibid. 43). The transitive model of power
refers to the subordination of one person’s will by the will of another. This model
generates a power relation in which A restricts the actions of B and brings them into
line with his or her own preferences. B is not able to act according to his or her own
preference and orients his or her behaviour towards the preferences of A either by
avoiding actions that A does not approve for him or her, or by engaging in those
which A does. However, Goehler mentions that this power relation does not mean that
B is without power since B’s options are not reduced to zero. Without counter-power
or resistance, power becomes pure force or violence. If actor A is exercising unlimited
power over B, then there is always a chance of resistance or rebellion for which A
will take into consideration B’s resistance.
Intransitive power, Goehler suggests, does not refer to the subordination of
one person’s will under the will of another within a community, but rather it refers to
the subjection of one person’s will to the conditions and regulations of the community
itself. In this context, power is understood as being self-referential in the sense that it
empowers a social unit. The intransitive aspect of power brings about an increase in
the power of all participants simultaneously and focuses on the collectivity.
Intransitive power both increases and decreases actors’ options. On the one hand, selfempowerment generates forces which are more than the share of individual power. On
the other, in such a context individual actors can no longer do whatever they desire.
Effective intransitive power sets clear limitations upon the discretionary exercise of
transitive power (Goehler, 2000: 50).
Goehler’s categorisation of transitive and intransitive power corresponds with
the conceptualisation of power in terms of ‘power over’ and ‘power to’ respectively.
Though both transitive and intransitive power can be conceptually differentiated on
many grounds, yet, aspects of them blend together in the case of authority. Authority
involves transitive relationship of power, since commands are given with the
expectation that they would be carried out. The intransitive side of power can also be
found in authority, since it can only take place in a common space of action in which
both command and obedience are accepted (Ibid. 2000: 51).
Westwood (2002) discusses power in terms of modalities and sites. By
modalities she means the different forms in which power is exercised, the qualities or
attributes of different forms of power and the manner in which power is enacted. Sites
of power include social spaces and locations for the exercise of power. The different
modalities of power are located in repression/coercion, constraint, hegemony and
counter-hegemony, manipulation and strategy, knowledge, discipline and governance,
and seduction and resistance. The enactment of these modalities of power takes place
in sites such as race, gender, class, space and visual power.
The interests and/or intentions of power holders have been central to many
discussions of power. Scott (2001) has rightly pointed out that social power is
necessarily more than a simple causal influence between actors. Thus, Wrong (1979)
holds that social power is a form of causal influence that involves production of
intended effects. An exercise of power, therefore, typically involves an intentional
intervention in a chain of causal effects. Wrong further argues that, an accidental or
incidental effect of an agent’s action can not be regarded as an exercise of power,
unless it is a foreseen consequence of these actions (Wrong, 1979: 4). In this sense, a
power relation involves the intention to produce a particular effect or the desire to see
a particular effect happening. Beetham (1991: 43), thus, defines social power as ‘…
an intended or desired causal effect – an effect that realises a purpose’. In any social
relationship, the existence of power can not be identified, unless and until there is
reference to intentions and interests of the actors involved (Wartenberg, 1990: 65).
The above discussion of the concept of power can be summarised into two
points. First, power is a kind of ability, which can produce some desired outcomes.
These outcomes may or may not take others’ actions into account. While it does not
take anybody’s action into account, then it is just a capacity to do things in the manner
that a person wants. That action takes place without disturbing or affecting the other’s
action. Power in this sense, is just the production of causal effects or bringing about
consequences. Here, the question of domination or subordination does not arise. But
in the other case, while the action of a person affects the action of another, notions
like domination or subordination often automatically come into being. In this context,
the person who exercises power not only produces some effect, but that effect also
changes or affects the actions of others. Secondly, the ability, which affects the action
of others in a power exertion, can either be legitimate or illegitimate. When it is
legitimate the power holder has a right to produce the effects and thereby affect the
actions of others. This kind of power is much closer to authority. This form of power,
which necessarily changes the behaviour pattern of others because of power holder’s
action, may be termed as ‘social power’. Thus, social power is a form of causation
that has its effects in and through social relations (Isaac, 1987, 1992).
Delimiting the Scope of Power for the Present Research
Delimiting the scope of power in the present research context becomes important
owing to the fact that power is not always a straightforward case of authority derived
from organised positions, despite the Panchayats being constitutionally formed
institutions. Understanding the power relations in the Panchayats calls for a deeper
examination of the overall social base in which they are embedded. The simple fact of
the Panchayat being a constitutional body, which ensures the devolution of power to
the lowest stratum of decentralised government, doesn’t make its elected members
powerful in the true sense of the term. This is mainly because the elected
representatives are a part of a ‘competing structure of authority’ (Vijayalakshmi and
Chandrashekar, 2002: 3) of the overall social structure of the community, which also
includes several important players other than the elected ones. The notion of ‘control
over resources’ becomes crucial at this juncture. The other important players of the
competing authority structure control several other resources like higher positions in
the local caste hierarchy, higher economic attributes, personal charisma, etc. The
power of these individuals gets legitimised because of its acceptance by the rest of the
community over a period of time. Power in the panchayats, therefore, necessarily
involves an interaction between these different individuals or various groups of
individuals who control differential resources.
The present research, while aiming to study the exercise of power in the
Panchayats, apprehends that those who enjoy legal political authority may not always
be in a position to exercise power in reality due to the interplay of several factors. The
political authority gained through elections to rural institutions of governance, and
social and/or economic power acquired and/or ascribed through one's position in the
caste hierarchy or through landholdings may go in different directions. Even though
the different representatives have equal political authority in the Panchayats, they may
not enjoy equal power in the functioning of the Panchayats because of their
differential backgrounds, experience and above all the differential resources that they
bring with them to the political interaction. Thus, authority and power need to be
examined as separate attributes. It might often happen that certain people, without
having any formal political authority may influence the working of the Panchayats
because of their control over other sources of power. Thus, to understand the
existence, use and exercise of power in the context of Panchayats and to gauge its
impact, we may conceptualise power as the ability of individuals or groups to have a
bearing on the decision making process in the panchayats and effect outcomes of their
choosing. The outcome may affect the interests of different people, or it may benefit
the powerful individual himself/herself.
To examine power, conceptualised in the above manner, we need to observe
the modalities and sites of power exertion (see Westwood, 2002). Power, in the
Panchayats is exercised through different modalities such as domination, coercion,
influence, manipulation, and charisma, besides statutorily sanctioned political
authority. The enactment of these modalities of power in the Panchayats takes place in
multiple sites — pre-election alignments, mobilisation of support, the electioneering
process, decision-making process, resistance to certain decisions and potential to
prevent specific issues from being taken up, the network of relations between elected
members and other influential individuals of the community, the prevailing patronclient relations, etc. A deeper examination of these modalities and sites of power is
essential in order to understand the complex phenomenon of power in the panchayats.
It is also important to point out that any one theoretical formulation may not
be sufficient to understand the complexity of the phenomenon of power, and more so
in the Panchayats of rural India. Viewed empirically, Weber and Dahl’s notion of
power necessarily involves domination and coercion in power relations. Power based
on domination and coercion may not be sufficient and enduring. Such a power
relation will not withstand any kind of opposition or resistance, which are obvious in
it. The persons subject to power will always be in search of a chance to come out of
the restraints, which are imposed upon them because of such power relations. Though
the Parsonian concept of power avoids possibilities of resistance and opposition by
making the use of power as legitimate and a right to act, yet such legitimacy is limited
only to organised and established positions. In the Indian rural social context, there is
every possibility of the exercise of power outside the purview of established and
organised positions. For instance, in rural local political institutions, even those who
do not hold established and elected positions often exercise power by influencing the
course of the decision-making process.
Since the present research aims to analyse the power of elected representatives
in the Panchayats and who thereby possess authority, the Parsonian notion of power
can be used. But this may not explain the exercise of power by those outside the
sphere of political authority. In such a context, those who are exercising power are
doing so either through domination or coercion. To understand this process of the
exercise of power through domination, Weber and Dahl’s conception of power may
be employed. But exercising power through acts of domination and coercion may not
always be possible in a democratic set up where people have a right to vote and can
resist the domination through it. They can easily come out of that power relation by
indicating their choice against such power holders through elections. In such a
situation, the power holders will end up in searching mechanisms to avoid such
Lukes’ theory of power provides a base wherein resistance is wiped out by
shaping the interests of those subject to the power. Lukes comes out with propositions
where the power holder uses manipulation, persuasion and other such mechanisms to
continue his/her power positions. Lukes states that a person will be able to exercise
and withstand power only by manipulating the interest of the subjects. Here,
importance is not given to domination or coercion but rather on manipulation to avoid
a threat to the position of power holders. How the power holders manipulate the
interests of the subjects and create a false consciousness among them becomes much
more important here.
Contextualising Power in the Social Structure
Any attempt to contextualise power in the rural social structure requires a thorough
understanding of the rural ‘power structure’. The concept of power structure is
defined in various ways by different scholars.10 In a general sense, it means the
systematic arrangement of power in a community. Power structure can be understood
as ‘… a system within the social system comprising an individual or a group of
individuals who exercise control over rest of the community’ (Miglani, 1993: 22).
Chauhan (1980: 81) discuses three dimensions of power structure in a community,
viz. power distribution, leadership and dominance. Even though these three
dimensions can be analysed separately, they are usually found with overlapping
features. Power can be seen as a base upon which the leaders, as agents, exercise or
use dominance by means of their leadership. Dominance in such situations becomes
an overt act in the exercise of power. Power structure, therefore, becomes the central
point of the village political life, which recruits leaders, leads the overall village
activities and produces agents for domination.
The discussion so far suggests that whatever may be its basis, power
essentially depends upon ‘control over resources’. One’s capacity to exercise power
rests on the resources he/she controls. Such resources, however, may not be limited
only to physical force. It may be one’s personal intellectual or charismatic qualities,
For different conceptualisations of the term ‘power structure’, see Miglani (1993: 22 - 23).
one’s position in organised systems or in the social hierarchy, or authority and one’s
ability to persuade or manipulate, which enables a person to exercise power.
Now the question arises, what are these resources, the possession of which a
person or a group becomes powerful (or dominant) in the Indian rural context? To
begin with several resources, such as official positions, social standing, wealth,
knowledge and expertise, esteem and charisma, the right to vote may be identified and
are employed meaningfully to exercise power. In the Indian context, caste, land and
access to politics are some of the important resource bases that determine the rural
power structure.
Caste and Dominance in Social Structure
In rural India, caste plays a vital role in determining the access to and exercise of
power. Its deeper roots in traditional rural society make its role in rural politics more
powerful and decisive. In many Indian villages a particular caste possesses much of
the power resources, such as high prestige, high ritual status, most of the land and
other economic assets. A caste enjoying all or most of these resources has a decisive
dominance (Srinivas, 1955, 1959, 1987; Mitra, 1980; Pathy, 1999). Srinivas (1955:
18) mentions ‘A caste may said to be ‘dominant’ when it preponderates numerically
over the other castes, and when it also wields preponderant economic and political
power and occupies a relatively higher position in caste hierarchy’. Similarly Stern
(1979: 77), while accounting for the dominance of the Rajputs in Rajasthan observes,
‘…the Rajputs’ connections with land, the positions they occupy outside the village
and their lofty rank in the ritual hierarchy combine to confer upon them a dominant
position in village life, in terms of influence and power’.
In rural Orissa, certain castes namely, Brahmana, Karana and Khandayat, the
ritually higher castes, hold most of the sources of power mentioned above and thus,
occupy dominant positions. Apart from their higher status in the caste hierarchy,
certain other factors, such as outside political links, significant landholdings in the
village and access to western education and government services have enhanced their
power in socio-economic and political spheres of the village (Mitra, 1980; Lerche,
1993; Pathy, 1999). Often, traditional obligations and primordial ties (forms of
patronage) including owner-tenant relations and creditor-debtor relations, Pathy adds,
are extended for political mobilisation by these dominant castes.
There has been an emphasis in sociological literature on the analysis of ‘group
dominance’ or ‘caste dominance’. Certain scholars, however, are of the view that
there can be different criteria of dominance and power in contrast to the ‘dominant
caste model’ of Srinivas (see Dube, 1968; Gardner, 1968; Atal, 1968; Oommen, 1966,
1970a, 1970b; Dumont, 1970; Sharma, 1980). Distribution of power and dominance
has been located either in individuals/families (Dube, 1968), or in different levels of
leadership coming from different caste groups (Oommen, 1966, 1970a). Dube (1968)
had indicated that it is the individuals/families who are dominant in the village and
not the caste. This is precisely because pronounced inequalities of wealth, prestige
and power are found even between the members of a dominant caste, and the
dominant individuals of such a caste also often exploit non-dominant members of
their own caste as well as members of ‘non-dominant castes’. In contrast to single
caste dominance, Oommen (1970a) proposes dominance by multiple caste groups or
different levels of leadership in a multi caste village.
The ‘dominant caste model’, notwithstanding its different variants, has been
one of the major perspectives to understand and assess the nature of dominance in
rural societies. According to this model, castes overlap in their positions on various
stratification dimensions, and a high position in one dimension helps the caste to be in
high position on other dimensions (MacDougall, 1980: 79). For example, a caste with
numerical strength and possessing most of the land in the village can then utilise the
power that land and numbers confer to succeed in its effort to get elected to official
positions in village Panchayats and gain authority. The scholars adhering to the
dominant caste model take into account both ‘symbolic’ as well as ‘material’ bases of
power to understand the notion of dominance in rural societies (MacDougall, 1980).
In other words, the symbolic bases of power in terms of ritual superiority, high social
prestige, etc. are combined with material bases such as landownership and access to
economic power, to make a particular caste or castes, or for that matter a few
individuals of particular caste/s dominant in rural society.
Land as a Resource for Dominance
Post independent India witnessed a shift in the basis of power in rural societies from
one's position in the caste hierarchy owing to factors such as control over land,
expansion of commodity production and the agrarian market, outside the village
political linkage and acquisition of political power. It is important to point out that
dominance and exploitation have been inherent to the caste system; and such
dominance was further strengthened through access to economic assets like land by
certain castes. Therefore, Quigley argues that to distinguish between castes on the
criterion of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’, as pointed out by Dumont (1970), will be an
‘ideological obfuscation’ (Quigley, 1994: 31). Based on Quigley’s argument,
Brahmins are at the top and untouchables are at the bottom in the rural social
hierarchy not because of their respective degree of purity, but because of their
respective degree of material or economic power. The fundamental reason for
emphasising economic power as a decisive factor in making a caste dominant is that
ritual status and economic power do not always necessarily coincide. In a village
community, members of the Brahmin caste, for instance, may not wield much of
economic power despite their ritual superiority in the caste system. And the opposite
also holds true when one finds castes which are seen as low in the hierarchy but
whose members are in fact wealthy in comparison to the rest of the population and
therefore, enjoy a dominant status. It is worth referring to Quigley in this context, who
from his study of the caste system in Nepal stated that the Nay caste of Kathmandu,
many of whom have been butchers traditionally, have managed to become wealthy in
recent years and subsequently improving their social status (1994: 44). In the Indian
context, Bailey’s (1958), Beteille’s (1965) and Berreman’s (1979) works are some of
the best examples to support this kind of an argument.
In many areas of the country Brahmins were the elite groups in the colonial
period owing to their higher ritual status as well as access to education, landed
property and public services. However, during the post-colonial period non-Brahmin
land owning castes emerged as dominant groups in several parts of the country. The
emergence of these castes as dominant land owning castes enabled them to exercise
power in the countryside (Beteille, 1991; Satyanarayana, 1998). Beteille's study of
Tanjore village in Tamil Nadu shows that these newly emerged non-Brahmin castes
owe much of their power to connections with influential non-Brahmin castes outside
the village (1991: 344).
The transfer of power from traditional elites to newly emerged middle class
has also been depicted by Bailey (1958) from his study of rural Orissa. Land
occupancy, contacts with political parties and sanskritisation, through which these
emerging middle class achieved high status in the social structure, have played a vital
role in enhancing their dominance over other castes in the village. Bailey (1958: 197)
argues that economic prosperity often leads to a greater say in the management of the
community, makes a group politically more effective, and enables it to enhance its
ritual standing as compared to other caste groups in the village. Likewise, Dube
(1968: 59) adds that economic power can be used to achieve political power as well as
to gain further economic power. By means of economic strength, which frequently
allows access to modern education and profitable new occupations, a caste can
perpetuate its dominance in the community power structure.
It needs to be pointed out that caste does not only contain the ideological force
behind it while it acts as an instrument for dominance in rural communities. Often it
possesses ‘material substance’ for domination too. To quote Manor (1989: 333),
‘Caste exists not only at the level of ideas but at the level of concrete social structure,
at the level of action and interaction’. It will, therefore, be erroneous to believe that in
rural social organisations dominance springs from the ritually higher position alone,
which the caste provides. When the caste network expands, members of the caste
occupy different class positions even in a single village, and what counts for
dominance in such a situation is their class position, rather than membership in any
particular caste. Manor (1989), for example, from his study in Karnataka indicated
several instances where the poorer members of the Vokkaliga and Lingayat castes, the
two dominant castes of the state, were dominated by wealthier members of their own
Emphasising the importance of accessibility to land, Satyanarayana (1998)
from his study of Andhra, pointed out that the landlord class in the Andhra consist
predominantly of the non-Brahmin upper class, i.e. Kshatriya, Velama, Kamma and
Reddy. The control over land and acquisition of wealth and influence helped
landlords to exercise power and authority in rural Andhra. He further adds that the
threat of eviction of the tenantry, who were under the will of the landlord class,
contributed to their submission to the landholding upper castes.
Based on her study of dalit politics in the Meerut district of Uttar Pradesh, Pai
(2000) states that traditionally land and social status have provided the basis for rural
dominance and power. In rural Uttar Pradesh, the Rajputs, Gujars and Jats own most
of the cultivable land, which were also irrigated, and this allowed them to take up
double cropping. These middle caste Jats and Gujars and the upper caste Rajputs
formed the dominant castes of the region. Pai (2000) further asserts, ‘…during the
post independent period, two government policies – Land Reforms and Green
Revolution – helped the traditionally dominant and landowning Rajputs, Jats and
Gujars to consolidate their position’. Land reform has removed the absentee landlords
from the countryside, which helped the middle castes in gaining control over land and
consolidate their power in the absence of any potential rival from absentee lords. In
addition, the green revolution provided the landowning middle castes with new
technologies, increased their profits and turned them into rich peasants in the rural
economy. This further resulted in the subordination of lower castes, who are now
employed in the fields of landed owners as agricultural labourers.
The introduction of commercialisation in agriculture along with the
application of new technologies, mostly a post-green revolution phenomenon, has also
contributed its part to the nature of dominance in rural India. Such a process has made
it easy to correlate income with the extent of landownership of several castes. From a
study to identify and assess the changes in the nature of caste structure and its
significance in central India from 1954 to 1992, Mayer (1996) concludes that
cultivation of crops like garlic, potatoes, and onions, which gives a higher return than
the traditional crops, has helped in providing more income to particular castes, and in
turn influence their position in the social structure.
Such an understanding of the access to power by means of land and other
economic resources is mentioned as the ‘Rich-Peasant Model’ by MacDougall (1980)
in contrast to the ‘dominant caste model’. According to the ‘rich peasant model’ the
important sources of power are political and economic control. This model of
understanding the nature of dominance in rural society is substantiated by the fact that
since independence, the command over economic surplus of the village and of the
formal positions of village political institutions has increasingly passed on to the rich
peasants. It is also by means of this control that the rich peasants have been able to
corner the major part of benefits of the government’s development resources and also
to consolidate and strengthen their dominance at the local levels (MacDougall, 1980).
Caste, Land and Politics
Besides a higher position in the caste hierarchy and possession of economic resources,
access to politics facilitates an individual or a group to dominate in the rural power
structure. Caste, land and politics are found closely interlinked in rural India (Omvedt,
1982). Sharma (1997: 201) points out, ‘…land is closely related to caste hierarchy and
power, and those who have support of caste and control over land, have entry to the
game of power politics in rural India’. Thus, both caste and land form the bases of
political power and they further act towards the consolidation and enhancement of
their socio-economic status.
Caste occupies an important place in influencing rural politics. With a deeper
and stronger ‘caste consciousness’, the institution of caste exerts a powerful influence
in shaping the electoral behaviour of rural aggregates. Caste loyalties and caste
feelings often become instruments for political organisations and political alliances in
rural India. Utilisation of caste loyalties for mobilisation of political support may take
several forms, such as a generalised appeal to caste sentiments, activating networks of
kinship and marriage, and organising activities of caste associations (Beteille, 1996).
Similarly, the notion of power and dominance, which is inherent in politics,
influences the caste system by giving it an opportunity to consolidate and assert its
position. Kothari (1970) while focusing his attention on the inter-relationship between
the two, calls this process as ‘politicisation of caste’. Such politicisation of caste,
according to Kothari (1970: 5), ‘is something in which both the forms of caste and the
forms of politics are brought nearer to each other, in the process changing both. By
drawing the caste system into its web of organisation, politics finds material for its
articulation and moulds it into its own design. In making politics their sphere of
activities, caste and kin groups on the other hand, get a chance to assert their identity
and to strive for position’. Politics, therefore, becomes an instrument to consolidate
one’s dominance or raise one’s position, either by reproducing the existing social
order or bringing certain changes in some aspects of it.
Caste plays a crucial role in determining the nature and type of leadership in
the rural power structure, and in turn the village politics. The dominant individuals of
the rural power structure are generally leaders of several important caste groupings.
The caste leaders in rural societies also act as leaders of social, economic, political
and ideological spheres of village life. One of the important factors, which has
affected the traditional rural political order, is the introduction of modern democracy,
more precisely universal adult franchise. Modern democracy, with its inherent
emphasis upon majority rule, has paved the way for numerically preponderant middle
and lower castes to organise politically and achieve power in rural society, which
conventionally was the monopoly of ritually superior, upper castes.
The numerical strength of a caste, therefore, besides giving it a dominant
status (Srinivas, 1955) in the rural society, helps it in mobilising itself for holding
political authority and position in village political arena. Srinivas too argues, ‘…the
numerical strength of a caste group became critical in a political democracy based on
universal adult suffrage, and dominance based on economic power and education
alone was not enough’ (1966: 153). Economic power was an obvious reason for
making a caste dominant in rural set up in pre-independent India. However, with
independence and introduction of adult suffrage which followed it, numerical strength
has become the most crucial resource at the disposal of a caste to consolidate its
position and exercise dominance. Oommen, therefore, points out that the elements of
dominance have undergone a change in terms of its relative significance (1970a: 77).
This is not, however, to undermine the importance of ‘economic power’ of a caste in
the whole process of making it dominant in rural societies. The three factors, i.e.
numerical strength, economic power and access to politics, together work towards
giving a dominant status to any particular caste. The castes which are numerically
superior as well as economically dominant become politically powerful, if they are
not divided into competing factions (Oommen, 1970b).
The recent political developments in rural India have, thus, been instrumental
in weakening the authority and position of ascribed traditional leaders on the one
hand, and strengthening the position of numerically stronger castes on the other
(Zaidi, 1988). From his study of political power and rural leadership in Uttar Pradesh,
Zaidi (1988) illustrates that in Mirapur village, the Passi caste, which is a Scheduled
Caste, has acquired more power, in recent years, owing to its numerical factor. He
further adds that the dominant castes of the village had to give representation to this
Scheduled Caste only because of their numerical strength.
To further substantiate this point, Nahar’s (1993) study of three Panchayats
in the Jodhpur district of Rajasthan indicates that the numerically preponderant castes
such as Pittals, Bishnois and Jats are emerging as more influential castes than the
Rajputs and Brahmins in rural Rajasthan. The Brahmins who were influential because
of their high ritual position, and the Rajputs who claimed royal lineage, are now
challenged by these numerically preponderant and emerging influential castes, who
are also becoming politically active in rural Rajasthan.
Notwithstanding the importance of numerical strength in making a caste
politically powerful in rural society, there have been serious criticisms to this
approach. Questioning the notion of numerical strength as a deciding factor of
dominance in rural politics, Gupta (1999: 271) states, ‘…the identification of certain
dominant agrarian castes with a region cannot be based on numbers alone’. Gupta
(1999) further substantiates this point by focusing his attention upon the rural politics
of Uttar Pradesh and the numerical strength of certain caste groups. To be more
specific, he states, ‘…even though the SCs constitute above 25 per cent, and in some
cases above 30 per cent, of the population in practically every district of Uttar
Pradesh, yet, there is no area in UP which is known to be politically controlled by the
SCs’ (Gupta, 1999: 271). It is, thus, evident that the traditional position still holds
some importance particularly in respect to castes such as SCs, which have had several
disabilities. Therefore, it is not just numbers, but some other factors such as internal
organisation, political mobilisation, group cohesiveness, etc. that ensures dominance
and power of certain castes over others in rural societies.
Though caste, land and politics are the major criteria for dominance in the
rural power structure, yet the mere possession of these may not make an individual or
group the actual exerciser of power. To substantiate this, we can refer to Oommen’s
(1970a) argument, which makes a distinction between the resources available to
individuals or groups for the exercise of power and the act of actually exercising
power. Referring to Srinivas’ concept of dominant caste, he argues that it is one thing
to have the resources at the disposal of a caste, it is quite another to press these
resources into service to exercise power (Oommen, 1970a: 75). In order to use the
resources to exercise power, a group or an individual must be highly articulate and
politicised. For instance, even a person who acquires power by virtue of hereditary
succession may refuse to use it, or may use it in selected situations only. Further, the
concept of dominant caste can be questionable in the context of local self-government
(Panchayats), which constitutes several villages with the possibility of different castes
being the ‘dominant caste’. In this context, instead of a dominant caste, considering
the existence of dominance by a selected few individuals or ‘elite dominance’
becomes more appropriate. Several scholars have discussed aspects of elite
domination in the rural power structure (Sirsikar, 1970; Narain et al, 1976; Sharma,
1984; Sharma, 1988; Thakur and Gaur, 1988; Miglani, 1993;). Elites not only possess
the major power resources like caste, land and political linkages but also press these
resources, in order to strengthen and consolidate their power and position.
To summarise the discussion, it can be said that depending on the distribution
of power in the rural social structure, one may find several forms of domination. A
rural power structure may be dominated by first, a particular caste, which wields
much of the power and exercises decisive dominance (Srinivas, 1955, 1959, 1987);
second, more than one dominating group, or caste, generating a ‘multiple power
structure’ (Oommen, 1970a); and third, a dominant individual or group of dominating
individuals — the elites — (Dube, 1968; Sirsikar, 1970; Narain et al, 1976; Miglani,
Institutional Exercise of Power: The Panchayats
The introduction of institutions of local government, such as, Panchayats has made
the power structure more dynamic in rural societies. While on the one hand it has
enabled the rural elite to retain their power and authority by entering into these
institutions and on the other hand it has also created opportunities for backward
sections of the society to acquire formal positions of power and exercise authority.
Several scholars hold the view that political positions in rural local institutions
such as Panchayats was monopolised by members of upper and dominant caste/class
due to their supremacy in social and economic sphere (Sirsikar, 1970; Jain, 1971;
Narain et al., 1976; Ahmad, 1977; Kumar, 1978; Mishra, 1979a, 1979b; Chauhan,
1980; Madan, 1983; Satyanarayana, 1998; Narayana, 1998). Satyanarayana (1998)
from a study of the formation of rural elites in rural Andhra during the first two
decades after independence (i.e. 1947 – 67) observed that with the introduction of
Panchayati Raj and rural Co-operative Societies, the rural rich could really become
politically powerful. Besides their numerical strength, landed property and social
status, the acquisition of political power reinforced the power and authority of the
dominant peasant castes in the countryside. The Panchayats became instrumental in
the consolidation of their power in the village. His study shows that Kammas and
Reddies, the dominant castes in rural Andhra controlled the rural institutions of power
in coastal Andhra and Rayalseema respectively.
While examining the village leadership, Satyanarayana observes that the upper
caste peasantry such as Kammas and Reddies monopolized the positions of power in
various local institutions. Though other castes have also been represented in the
Panchayats, the only decision-makers are the Kammas (in the areas of their
dominance) and all others just obey their decisions without any noticeable protest.
Although the backward castes and Scheduled Castes were in a majority in the
countryside, their participation in decision-making was limited. A similar observation
has also been made by Mishra (1979a) in his study of a Gram Panchayat in Bihar,
where he mentions that the traditional dominant castes had a prominent role in the
functioning of the Panchayats.
Empirical studies have demonstrated that dominant classes in rural north
India, who control land through ownership and usually belong to upper or middle
ranking castes, have been able to transfer their economic strength into power over
Panchayat decisions and administration. By heading the Panchayat councils, these
dominant classes are able to obtain privileged access to government contracts,
employment and grants (Lieten, 1996a; Gupta, 1998; Lieten and Srivastava, 1999;
Jeffrey, 2002).
The passage of the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution in 1993 occupies a
significant position in the history of democratic decentralisation in India, owing to its
commitment to the devolution of power to the grass roots, and to policies of
affirmative action. Central to the Amendment Act was the reservation of institutional
positions for disadvantaged sections of society, such as SCs, STs and women. Such
reservation of seats altered the organisational structure of Panchayats, where
representatives from these disadvantaged groups outnumbered traditionally dominant
and ritually superior castes. With the passage of time, the political processes that were
set in motion by the 73rd Amendment Act have slowly begun to make an impact in the
rural society in general and rural political institutions in particular. As a corollary to
this, the social science research started gearing up to understand such a process of
change at the local level. A few studies observed this process as an agent of change in
the political sphere of village life ( Panda, 1995, 1999; Mishra and Singh, 1998; Pai,
2000), though several others suggested a negative outcome.
In the context of rural political institutions, the reservation policy has made it
possible for a number of people, who otherwise would not have been elected
members, to play a significant role in the democratic process. The local depressed
groups have a better chance of organising themselves now in the Panchayati Raj
elections because of reservations (Aziz et al., 1996; Narayana, 1998). In other words,
the reservation of seats in the Panchayats has brought about a large-scale
representation of the weaker sections of society, such as Scheduled Castes, Scheduled
Tribes and women. However, such numerical representation has not always been
successful in converting the incumbents of Panchayats into persons of power and
influence (Inbanathan, 1999).
Pasayat and Barik’s (1998) study of Panchayats in Orissa indicated that Gram
Panchayat representatives from disadvantaged groups have remained subordinate to
the dominant caste members. In another state, Karnataka, Inbanathan (2000), states
that being representatives in the Panchayats and actually participating in the
Panchayat activities are separate things and may not be always seen together.
According to him, the reservation of seats has, no doubt, provided representation to
weaker sections in Panchayati Raj Institutions, but the system of reservation and
rotation of seats also facilitates the further dominance of local elites in the functioning
of Panchayats. Two structures of power are, thus, found within the Panchayats. One is
the formal structure, related to institutionalised positions and the authority and
functions that are clearly established. The other is the informal power structure, which
refers to the ability of individuals or groups to exert influence by virtue of their
personality, access to resources and ability to reward or punish. In this context,
Oommen’s (1970b) distinction between ‘power reservoirs’ and ‘power exerciser’ is
useful. He mentions that power elites may not be found in formal positions of power,
but still influence the decision making process. They do not exercise power
themselves, but they control others who exercise power. Thus, power reservoirs are
more powerful than power exercisers.
Inbanathan’s (1999) discussion of Panchayats in Karnataka had suggested that
the provisions in the 1993 Act often excluded the traditional elites from contesting
elections in Panchayats by reserving certain seats for disadvantaged sections of
society. However, the landlords, and other local elites retained their influence on local
politics in a form of indirect dominance over the Panchayats by putting their proxies
into the formal positions in the Panchayats. Further, analysing the lower participation
of the representatives who were women and/or Scheduled Castes, he states that low
education and lack of political experience have been an obstacle in their effective
participation. However, the reservation has been instrumental in increasing the social
status of individuals from disadvantaged groups to a limited extent.
The reservation of seats for women in the Panchayats was intended to provide
a sort of counter ideology to the existing one which restricted women to their homes,
to carry out household work and to look after the children. It was expected that their
entrance into political institutions would increase their political participation, enhance
their ability in decision-making process and help them in empowerment. Panda (1995)
from her study of five Gram Panchayats in Ganjam District of Orissa, disagrees with
the view that women will not participate effectively due to lack of education,
ignorance and their lower ability to assert themselves. Her study was conducted in
two phases, first immediately after the Panchayat elections and then after 9 months.
She found that women's attendance as well as their participation had increased
considerably in the second phase.
Certain studies, however, reveal that though women's representation in the Panchayati
Raj bodies is significant in terms of numbers, their participation in decision-making is
very low. It was often seen that husbands and family members influenced the women
representatives in taking decisions (Mathew and Nayak, 1996; Lieten, 1996a; Ghosh,
2000). In most cases the women representatives were ignored and were invariably
influenced by male family members. Illiteracy, poverty, lack of political awareness
and communication skills, and family responsibilities are the major factors, identified
by scholars, which hinder women's participation in decision-making (Mishra, 1998;
ISED, 1998; Panda, 1999).
From a study of village Panchayats in Kolar district of Karnataka, Bryld
(2001) observed the low participation of disadvantaged groups (SCs, STs, Women) in
the working of the Panchayats. Women in particular are considered only for domestic
responsibilities, while the public and political sphere was the men’s prerogative. The
socio-economic disabilities, which the members of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled
Tribes and women face in the overall social structure and more particularly in the
existing institution of patriarchy, gets reflected in the functioning of the Panchayats
and works as a barrier for their effective participation. Bryld, therefore, concludes that
though reservation has ensured the representation of weaker sections of society in the
Panchayats, it has not, however, resulted in their empowerment (2001: 169).
Lieten (1996a) from his study of village Panchayats in western Uttar Pradesh
observed that women members have never been involved in anything related to
Panchayat work, and some of them were not even aware of their Panchayat
membership. Even those members who at least knew that they were members in the
Panchayats hardly attended the Panchayat meetings. If at all some had done so, that
was only for the purpose of signing the necessary documents, without having any say
in decision-making. The agenda for Panchayat activities were never discussed in the
meetings and the usual procedure has been that of sending the necessary documents to
the houses of the members for their signature.