Attraction of factions

There have been disagreement on what constitutes the basis of Indian society: caste or class. Both caste and class are extremely important in our collective social life. But a large part of our private lives is governed neither by caste or class but faction. Factions are easily noticeable in the domain of politics: they are usually formed around important people in a political party. Factions are not limited to only political domain of our social life, they replicate themselves almost everywhere in similar forms.  They have received some well deserved attentions from political scientists but one fails to find a good amount of empirical or theoretical work done on factions by sociologists.

When little data collected systematically is available about a social process, one turns to one’s common sense and one’s own life to analyze the problem. Rural life is simple as far as its institutional organization is concerned. What count most is personal equations; impersonal rules are rarely cared for in corporate life of a village. Since society is small, this is an efficient arrangement. People are able to take finer personal distinction into accounts while dealing with each other. They turn to their kinsmen for both business and leisure. In return, the kin-group offers a certain kind of security to its members.  I am not suggesting that kinsmen and relatives always seek help or they always help each other. Nonetheless, they feel a strong moral obligation to help their kinsmen and a moral right to seek help.

The life in cities is different in scale and arrangement. It is mediated by different kind of institutions. British introduced many new institutions into our country, and, in our zeal of modernization, we have added some more. Whether we have the experience and ability to manage them or not, we can not imagine our lives without them. Institutions in urbane India are supposed to work via impersonal rules and procedures. It goes without saying that impersonal rules do not count for much in most of our institutions. First, we did not have a tradition or “habit of hearts” which prefers “rules” over “person”, and, second, conditions do not exist  in our institutions where such a tradition can grow and sustain a life of its own.

If we are to analyze factions, we need to discard two widely held beliefs about them. First, that factions are essentially a by-product of peasant mentality and their presence in white-collar professions or in urban middle class is a traditional residue; and they are bound to disappear with more industrialization and modernization.  Second, that factions appeal to our baser nature and has little or no moral legitimacy whatsoever. If anything, I would argue, that appeal of faction is most intense in urban middle classes and they are ubiquitous among them. And they are not without a moral legitimacy whether or not we are willing to admit it in public.  Perhaps the reason behind this is that we notice factions among others easily but fail to recognize them among ourselves.

We can learn a little more by looking at how an Indian in village copes when he is confronted by such an institution. A place where everything is done by unknown people through impersonal rules is a scary place for a villager to be. Whenever he has to deal with such places – banks, police,  hospital, etc. – the first thing he would inquire is whether he can find a person he can find some factional ties. If such a person does not exists then the idiom of kinship needs to be extended. If a bank-manger, doctor, or revenue officer happens to be from a different caste but from the same or nearby village, then the idiom of kinship is extended according to village even though everyone knows that the kinship can not exists between different castes. On the other hand, if he is from  distant village or town, then one inquires about his caste and extend the idiom of kinship accordingly. It is this fluid nature of idiom of kinship which enable villagers to find “connections” to get their work done in modern institutions. For them it is necessary too for they can not be certain if their work will get done through written rules and procedure only. Also factional ties are appealing to them because it relieves them from impersonal world of modern offices and bring them a psychological relief by bringing them closer to their kinsmen — a sort of pseudo family where the Indian feels truly secure.

The attraction of a faction (or a pseudo kinship) is no less strong in our cities. The idiom of kinship is even more fluid among urban Indians. In colleges and universities, it can be extended to hostels, wings, batches, labs and even to departments; not to mention academic lineage, if one gets one worth mentioning. One can easily witness it in IIT Bombay during elections. Voting takes place on factional lines: wing, hostel, department, batch etc. One notices a great deal of similarities here and voting based on “jati” and other communities in villages. In NCBS Bangalore, attendance pattern in journal club meeting depends largely on labs. There are many who attend the club meeting only when their own lab-member are reading a paper. This pattern is often broken by the presence of faculty member, usually perceived to be an authoritative figure on Indian university campus.

The conditions and environment in which our institutions operate are both uncertain and pliable. In the face of uncertainty, people fall back to their faction because there is nothing else to fall back to. The pliable nature of institutions  offers vast opportunities to manipulate personal relations in factional ties. Once a pseudo-kinship is formed and acknowledged, one feels free to demand some patronage or favour. It is remarkable to the length people in position of power in this country are willing to go to fulfil these demands of patronage. There is always some opportunity for material gain in all this, but one does it for sheer satisfaction and social prestige it brings. A man in some position of power in our society who does not offer patronage to his kinsmen is a man of no account.

The distribution of patronage among his kinsmen by a person in power has its own moral legitimacy in traditional order. First generation of Indian anthropologist, Nirmal Kumar Bose wrote about factional ties in the city of Calcutta; how city life was riddled with factions or ‘dal’. How these factions tried to outdo each other at public occasions by a lavish display of wealth. The wealth spent at these occasion was mostly private wealth. These days, the democratic processes in country have made it possible, in fact legitimize to some extent, to squander public wealth for factional display of might and status.

The attraction of factions does not look weaker even in the most efficient section of our society. It is remarkable that a person who appoints someone often feels that he now have a moral claim on the life-long loyalty of the appointed-one. Perhaps the appointed-one also feels that such a claim is morally justified, if somewhat uncalled for in the given institutional settings. What looks like a faction without any moral legitimacy to an outsiders is a humane arrangement of interdependence, loyalty and security for its members.

The inefficiency in our institutions depends largely if not solely on the fact that impersonal rules, by which our institutes are mandated to govern themselves, are discounted or simply ignored. Nothing will be gained if we discard these institutions simply because we now find these foreign plants withering away in our tropical environment. We need to rethink and appreciate the role of impersonal rules in modern institutional settings.  Many of us — with strong factional ties — would artfully agree in public that impersonal rules must count for much in our institutions. But not many of us are willing to give up the convenience it will cost us by abandoning the “cronyism” and “factionalism”.

Many Indians seem to have realized the costs some of our political institutions are made to pay for accommodating families into them. But it does not look like that we are getting even a little concerned about factionalism. In facts, there are many busybodies around trying to paint a humane face onto them [1]. If we are really troubled by the sorry states in which we find our institutions today, we have to understand that factions (or pseudo kinships like IITians, Bengalis, Jats, Delhites, IASs etc.) — whatever advantages they bring to individuals — cannot have the same moral claim as of real kinship. In long run, factions are parasitic in nature and a parasite can not thrive unless it feeds on its host.


[1] Gurucharan Das and S Gurumurthy can be taken as two examples. One of them recently argued that, “Instead of morally judging caste, I seek to understand its impact on competitiveness. I have come to believe that being endowed with commercial castes is a source of advantage in the global economy. Bania traders know how to accumulate and manage capital. They have financial resources and more important, financial acumen.”



Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

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