In an interview given recently by the Pakistani cricketer-politician Imran Khan to Newsweek magazine, he said: ‘My vote bank is increasing’.

To whom do we owe the term ‘vote bank’? I wager few readers of this column can answer the question. Nor can Imran Khan, although—like the rest of us, its use comes naturally to him. The term is very widely used in India, and in Pakistan; apparently, it is well understood by foreign journalists as well (it was reproduced by Newsweek without explanation).

‘Vote bank’ was coined by the sociologist M. N. Srinivas. Born in Mysore in 1916, he was part of an extraordinary generation of writers and artists who lived in that city—among them the novelist R. K. Narayan, the poet-translator A. K. Ramanujam, the cartoonist R. K. Laxman, and the photographer T. S. Satyan. Srinivas took his first degree in Mysore and then went to Bombay for his graduate work. His Ph D thesis was on the religion of the Coorgs (or Kodavas as we would now call them). He then did another Ph D at Oxford, his second thesis a reworking of the first with the help of the (then) advanced theory of structural-functionalism.

The Kodavas in the 1940s were rather isolated and apolitical. However, in the early 1950s Srinivas did a second spell of fieldwork in a peasant village not far from Mysore, which he named ‘Rampura’. This was a time of intense social change. Irrigation water from the Kaveri was making subsistence farmers moderately prosperous. The Constitution of India was giving Dalits rights for the first time in living memory. The elections mandated by the Constitution were bringing party politics into the village.

Srinivas first reported his Rampura research in an long essay he wrote for a seminar organized by the University of Chicago. ‘The Social System of a Mysore Village’ dealt principally with the relations between the different caste groups. A section on ‘patrons and clients’ spoke of the relationship of dependence and obligation between master and servant, landlord and tenant, creditor and debtor; the first term in these relationships always denoting a person of a higher caste than the second. The last paragraph of this section ran as follows:

‘The word “party” has become a Kannada word. Every administrator and politician speaks of “party politics” in villages, and even villagers are often heard saying, “There is too much ‘party’ in such and such a village”. The coming of elections gives fresh opportunities for the crystallization of parties around patrons. Each patron may be said to have a “vote bank” which he can place at the disposal of a provincial or national party for a consideration which is not mentioned but implied. The secret ballot helps to preserve the marginal affiliation of the marginal clients’.

In one crisp paragraph is compressed a mass of sociological detail. We learn of how, so soon after independence, the rhetoric of party competition had seeped into popular discourse. However, some villagers at least were cynical about its effects. There was the ability of a patron to command the vote of a client whom he employed or loaned money to. There were the pay-offs which resulted from placing this vote-bank at the service of a higher-level politician. And there was the space provided by the secret ballot for at least some villagers to vote according to their personal preference rather than the social relationships in which they were embedded.

How does this description hold up fifty years later? The competition between parties in rural Karnataka, as in the rest of India, has become more intense. At the same time, the cynicism about politics and politicians has increased. The favours granted to those who mobilize votes have possibly gained in value. What has changed is the ability of patrons to command the loyalty of their clients. In the 1950s, if a Vokkaliga peasant told his Dalit labourer to affix his thumb impression on the symbol of a particular party, then he was very likely to do so. Now, however, he is more prone to vote according to the wishes and desires of his fellow Dalits.

We still use the term coined by Srinivas; however, we mostly mean it now to capture a solidarity that is horizontal rather than vertical. ‘Vote bank’ is not what a single patron commands; rather it denotes a collective political prereference exercised by a particular interest group. In India, this interest is defined principally by primordial identity—of caste or religion or language. But one can also think of ‘vote banks’ being constituted by shared material or moral interests. Thus, for instance, a politician may promise to cut taxes to cultivate a vote-bank of middle-class tax payers. Or he may promise to ban abortion so as to placate those who believe that the foetus is a living being.

Coined to capture the goings-on in a single Mysore village, the concept is flexible enough to capture key elements in democratic politics everywhere—in Pakistan as well as in India, in North America as much as in South Africa. Before his death in 1999 Srinivas had been witness to this ubiquitous use; although (as a proud and possessive scholar) he liked to claim its ownership whenever he could. But I think he would have been especially tickled by Imran Khan’s use of the term, and unconcerned—at least in this case—about its paternity being left vague. For, as a good Mysorean and better Indian, M. N. Srinivas had a deep love of the game of cricket.

Published in The Hindu, 20/1/2008