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Vote-buying encourages graft, hurts rule of law, finds study. And it’s getting worse in India

‘Vote-buying’ has increased significantly in India since 2010, according to the authors of the study, which is due to be published in the peer-reviewed journal World Development.

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New Delhi: The issue of freebies offered by political parties ahead of elections has become a hot topic, with a debate over whether these are a form of “welfare” or a barter system for votes that can cause damage to the economy. The Supreme Court Friday sought an “extensive hearing” on the matter before it can form an opinion.

Data from a paper due to be published this October in the peer-reviewed journal World Development, however, leaves little doubt about the negative effects of clientelism — defined as giving material benefits for electoral support — on governance and development.

Increases in clientelism “significantly correlate with increased political corruption and weaker rule of law”, the paper says.

Titled ‘Clientelism, corruption and the rule of law’, the paper is based on cross-country panel data from 134 countries, including India, for the period 1900-2018. It uses indices from V-Dem (Varieties of Democracies) —  a global collaborative project doing surveys on democratic values — to measure the magnitude of clientelism and then map its impact on corruption and rule of law.

The paper is authored by Staffan I Lindberg (University of Gothenburg, Sweden), Maria C. Lo Bue (University of Bari, Italy), and Kunal Sen (from the Global Development Institute of the United Nations University World Institute of Development and Economic Research, or UNU-WIDER, in England).

Speaking to ThePrint, Sen said that India’s clientelism score has risen significantly since 2010. The form of clientelism most prevalent here, he added, was “vote-buying”, or the provision of one-shot benefits just before elections, which is associated with corruption.

“The increase in pervasive vote buying (which we know is associated with money in politics) implies that India’s democratic traditions are being eroded over time,” he said.

However, there seems to be an upshot, going by the data. Sen said that India’s score on “relational clientelism”, which refers to benefits or favours being doled out throughout the election cycle and associated with a deleterious effect on governance and rule of law, did not seem to have increased significantly.

Also read: ‘Freebies not bribes but shake root of fair polls’ — what SC said in 2013 order it plans to revisit

Types of clientelism

The authors of the study define clientelism as the “informal and particularistic distribution of public funds from leaders to voters in exchange for public support”.

The study extracted a political clientelism index from the “vote-buying” and “party linkages” variables provided in the V-Dem dataset.

The authors, via sophisticated data treatment, found that a one unit change in clientelism is associated with “difference on the corruption index by around 18 per cent and a difference in the rule of law index by around 19 per cent”.

The study further classified political clientelism into two broad categories.

The first is “relational clientelism”, or party linkages, which involves politicians providing material benefits to voters throughout the election cycle in order to win support. These favours, like digging a well or building a bridge, are usually provided to a community.

The second category is “vote-buying”. This refers to the distribution of money or gifts to individuals, families, or small groups just before elections in order to earn votes.

‘Relational clientelism’ fosters ‘culture of impunity’

Given that vote-buying is akin to a one-time transaction, it is less likely to have a long-term effect on the rule of law, the study posits.

Relational clientelism, on the other hand, the study adds, can “foster a culture of impunity” that undermines citizens’ ability to hold public officials accountable.

It could also negatively affect rule of law since politicians might “be more likely to lean on law-enforcement authorities to selectively ‘adjust’ the rules (and the implications for their violations) in favour of specific groups of voters or potential voters”, the paper says.

The researchers mapped party linkages along a 0-4 scale. Here, 0 was completely clientelistic, where constituents were “rewarded” through goods/cash/jobs, while the highest level, 4, entailed constituents responding to a party’s policy positions and vision.

As the level of clientelism moves from 4 to 0, then for every unit change, corruption increases and the rule of law index decreases by around 5 per cent. In other words, as the polity improves and voters value a party’s stand on policies rather than goods or favours, governance improves and corruption lessens.

Both vote-buying and relational clientelism are damaging, but the findings suggest the latter does more harm.

“While both strategies are expected to have similar negative effects on corruption, the post-election delivery of goods and services to specific voters in return for political support delays the building of an impersonal bureaucracy, with well-defined rules and modes of functioning,” the study states.

“This implies that — as suggested by our findings — the effect of political clientelism through party linkages may have a larger negative effect on the rule of law than through vote buying,” it adds.

India faces ‘pervasive vote buying’

In terms of vote-buying practices, South Asia is one of the worst-performing regions (along with Southeast Asia) and does not show “any substantial improvement over time”, the study says.

To learn more about how India fares, specifically, ThePrint contacted the authors of the study and received responses from UNU-WIDER’s Kunal Sen.

The V-Dem score on clientelism shows that over the last couple of years, specifically since 2010, India’s score on clientelism has been rising significantly. It used to be 0.5 in 2010 and had reached 0.54 by 2021.

According to Sen, this is correlated more to an increase in vote-buying practices rather than relational clientelism.

“We do not see a prevalence of relational clientelism in India, but we do see pervasive vote-buying. This explains the rising clientelism score for India. According to our paper’s finding, this implies that vote-buying is associated with higher corruption in India. However, given the lack of any discernible trend in party linkages, this would not have a deleterious effect on governance/rule of law. So, the evidence on clientelism’s negative effects in India is mixed,” Sen said.

He noted that vote-buying is nevertheless detrimental to democracy, adding: “It is interesting to note that much of the increase in vote buying occurred in the 1970s and early 1980s and the 2010s — the latter possibly linked to increasingly competitive elections.”

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

 Also read: ‘We are cracking down’— how Modi govt plans to make it tougher for states to fund freebies


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