Managing Political Space: Authority, Marginalised People's Agency and Governance in West Bengal
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This paper investigates governance reform which aims to ‘move the state’ closer to people, arguing that greater attention needs to be paid to two questions: how does political decentralisation affect the ways in which authority is exercised? And what spaces does it leave open for poor people’s agency? It focuses on West Bengal, an Indian innovator of decentralisation through panchayati raj (‘rule by local councils’) in the late 1970s, investigating the everyday practices through which rural political space was being managed through in-depth qualitative evidence gathered from two panchayats towards the end of the Left Front government’s long rule (1977–2011). This work indicates the ways in which patronage, coercion and surveillance were melded by those exercising political power in the Bengali countryside, and the limited political opportunities which these practices left open to the poor. The ostensibly democratic structures of panchayati raj thus coexisted with the informal exercise of power and the reproduction of new forms of ascribed political identity for poorer and marginal groups. This in turn raises critical questions about programmes of governance reform being pursued across the global South.