Polythetic democracy: Tribal elections, bogus votes, and political imagination in the Naga uplands of Northeast India

Jelle J. P. Wouters


This article presents an ethnography of modern democracy by examining the particularistic substance and conceptions of “politics” and “the political” in the small, hilly, and tribal state of Nagaland in India’s Northeast. Situating contemporary political practices in both the vernacular and the ethnographic longue durée enables us to reflect critically on the analytical usability of universalistic and normative canons and creeds of (liberal) democracy. To discuss this, and more, I explore the historical and cultural inferences, inner-logic, and intricacies that guided two crucial episodes that ensued in the run up to the Polling Day of Nagaland’s 2013 State Elections in a Chakhesang Naga village I shall call Phugwumi: First, the villagers’ (successful) attempt to protect the village electoral list from the deletion of “bogus votes” initiated by the government. Second, the villagers’ (unsuccessful) attempt to agree on a “village consensus candidate.” The analysis of these events leads me to critique preconceived definitions of “normative democracy” (Nugent 2008) and instead argue toward a critical anthropological appreciation of modern democracy’s polythetic (Needham 1975) and multivalent character.


Polythetic democracy, vernacular politics, tribal elections, political imagination, Indian democracy, Nagas

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau5.2.010