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Indians vote on caste, religion because they lack information on MP, MLA performance: Study

In a randomised evaluation in UP, researchers asked voters to discuss development issues and told them about how MLAs spent their funds. Here’s what happened.

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Out of 539 winners in India’s 2019 Lok Sabha election, 29 per cent have, at some point, been charged with serious criminal cases, including cases related to rape, murder, attempt to murder, kidnapping, and crimes against women.

This represents an increase of 109 percent in the number of Members of Parliament (MPs) with declared serious criminal cases since 2009. Recent research suggests that MPs with criminal backgrounds reduce economic growth and increase poverty and crime in their constituencies.

So why do voters elect criminal politicians into office? Often, they aren’t aware of the charges against candidates running for office.

The information gap extends to other areas as well; many voters aren’t aware of candidates’ policy positions or voting records, and instead vote along caste lines.

An analysis of post-electoral surveys for national and state elections from 1962–2014 concludes that the main driver of voter choice during this period was caste and religious identification. Research suggests that this can negatively affect legislator quality, and lead to a higher incidence of political corruption.

How, then, can voter decision-making be improved? Evidence from randomised evaluations in India suggests access to information can drive voters away from voting along caste and ethnic lines, and towards choosing more qualified (less criminal) candidates who are more closely aligned with the voter’s preferences.

Also read: Communal riots help parties like BJP. But not for the obvious reasons

Report cards on politicians 

A possible cause for voting along caste and religious lines could be a lack of information about the quality of candidates. If this were the case, information about candidate performance and qualifications should allow voters to better determine who would serve their interests.

To test this, researchers published and distributed report cards on politicians in a random sample of slums in the run-up to the 2008 assembly elections in Delhi. These report cards contained information on the performance of incumbent legislators and the educational qualifications of all candidates, and were distributed through newspapers.

When compared to comparison areas that did not receive report cards, slums which received the cards saw higher voter turnout, reduced vote buying, and higher vote share for the incumbents who performed better in terms of legislative activity, attendance, and development spending, as well as higher vote share for relatively more qualified incumbents.

This supports the hypothesis that providing information about politicians can alter voting behaviour, and can direct votes towards better performing and more qualified politicians.

In this intervention, the use of print media allowed the researchers to reach almost one million voters. While a large number, this is only a small fraction of the nearly 425 million newspaper readers in India, underscoring the potential to apply similar interventions at a national scale.

Also read: Both Hindus and Muslims want development. But that’s where the similarity ends

Can caste-based voting be reduced?

To examine whether providing information about the responsibilities or performance of elected officials can shift voters away from casting their ballot along ethnic or religious identity lines, researchers conducted a randomised evaluation in Uttar Pradesh, a state where caste plays a prominent role in voter behaviour.

Researchers, along with the local NGO Sarathi, evaluated the impact of information campaigns, in the form of meetings, posters and a puppet show, on voter behaviour.

Voters were encouraged to discuss development issues that matter to them and were encouraged to vote along the lines of development rather than caste. In some villages, they were also informed about how the Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) of their constituency had spent their funds.

The information campaigns led to an increase in voter turnout, a reduction in voting along caste lines, and a decrease in voting for candidates with criminal backgrounds.

This evaluation suggests that interventions which emphasise the importance of voting to enable development may reduce caste-based voting behaviour by presenting a new evaluative criterion that voters can use, in this case one centered around development issues.

Also read: Data shows upper-caste voters of both BJP and Congress support core Hindutva issues

Adverse effects and the role of voter coordination

A distinguishing feature of the experiments summarised here is that both have focused on information related to either performance or educational qualifications and criminal histories, in contexts where voters were unlikely to have very strong prior beliefs.

In Mexico, reports about corruption by mayors distributed via leaflets leading up to the 2009 election actually reduced voter turnout. Researchers suggested that information that validated voters’ beliefs about the pervasiveness of corruption actually discouraged them from participating in the political process.

Additionally, the ability for voters to coordinate their response and act collectively to punish criminal candidates can play an important role in the success or failure of a particular intervention.

In an evaluation carried out before the 2017 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, where voters were given information about criminal charges against candidates via mobile phones, results were strongest when voters were notified that other voters were also receiving the same information, enabling citizens to coordinate a collective response.

Also read: Authoritarian streak among Indians on the rise and it’s helping BJP’s hard Right turn

Implications going forward

While several factors influence voting decisions, information campaigns can address one barrier faced by voters, that of a lack of information.

Rigorous evidence from India and other developing countries shows that in general, information campaigns that provide information on candidates’ policy positions and performance lead to an increase in vote share for less corrupt and better performing candidates, and are most effective when the information is widely disseminated from a credible source.

Information can be a powerful accountability mechanism, by not only allowing voters to select higher performing candidates, but also by helping them monitor incumbents when they are in power.

The evidence shows that information campaigns tested rigorously through randomised evaluations can guide us to context specific solutions. It is time to leverage evidence to make every vote count.

Prerna Kundu is a Research Associate at J-PAL South Asia. Views are personal.

This article was first published by Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. 

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  1. Hindus, by large, look after the background of an electoral candidate… Muslims just follow their Maulana blindly and end up voting the Anti nationals….

  2. People used to vote till 2014 in a certain way because they were brainwashed by left wing parties and rent seeking intellectuals and then there is a community which is lead by uneducated religious fundamentalist who guide there followers to vote in a certain way. Also churches play a great role in forming opinion of their community.

  3. The author has objectively defined the premises she was going to talk about and tried to compile a factual analysis.
    Although the language is not lucid which make the reading strenuous which should not be overlooked in further readings.

    Talking about the article, it seems self evident that, an informed voter is an asset to saviour and various studies done under RCT environments have shown it again and again. But, mostly studies have restricted themselves with providing an external stimuli (information in this case) to measure the differences.
    Rather, some studies should have been quoted where differences is seen between existing environments without external stimuli, like, how many legislators have criminal background in educated states (Kerela, NE) vs illiterate ones (UP, Bihar). etc
    Also, various programs initiated by EC, MHRD, state govt to reduce the information assymetry but taking cues from such programs abroad, would have made the article more explicable.

    • Educated vs less-educated states.
      Very good idea for Janta Malik App content.
      Would you be willing to join as volunteer in team?

  4. This is quite an insightful article, however, there are a couple of points which I look forwar dto hearing on to regard this article as a holistic view on cast based voting and the way forward.
    1) Which agency should own creating report cards on politicians / educating voters on who they are voting for and what are the checks and balances which should be implemented to prevent spreading false information about a candidate.
    2) What are the next steps on this research article and how is this being scaled up overcome the said problem.

    • ADR publishes candidates data.
      Janta Malik App has made it simpler and available in Hindi/English via mobile app.
      We can discuss this more. Janta Malik App creator.

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