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Why vote buying doesn’t work in India

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With a secret ballot, voters are free to vote for whomever they wish, regardless of any promised or received benefits.

Political scientists and economists use concepts like patronage, clientelism, and vote buying to describe this supposed system of exchange between politicians (patrons) and voters (clients), alleging that the better and bigger patrons win elections.

It is no surprise, then, that a few weeks before the UP assembly elections, many academics, along with the leaders of the SP and the Congress Party, were convinced that their alliance was far ahead. There were many apparent reasons for their optimism. Akhilesh Yadav was extremely popular, and he was ubiquitous on television. The media heralded him as agent of change who dared to take on the old guard, even within his own family. He had engineered a bloodless coup d’état to wrest control of the SP from his father and his uncle. And the SP–Congress Party alliance had the demographic arithmetic in its favor. According to many observers, however, the most important reason for optimism was that Akhilesh Yadav had carried out the patronage regimen by the book. He had not played the usual game of caste politics but instead had courted voters with direct giveaways, and this looked like his path to victory.

Akhilesh Yadav’s campaign team, ostensibly advised by experts in communications strategy and a number of Ivy League academics, had created his image as that of a leader who would bring everyone along. In his five years as chief minister, his administration had used pure patronage to court every possible community of voters. In the very first meeting of the UP cabinet, after the results of the 2012 assembly elections were known, his government announced a monthly unemployment allowance of 1,000 rupees ($15) for everyone over the age of 35 (some 900,000 people were then registered with the employment exchanges) as well as laptops and computer tablets to students who passed their class 12 and class 10 examinations. His government also gave financial assistance of 30,000 rupees ($460) to Muslim girls who passed their class 10 exams so they could further their education or get married without worrying about money.

Over the next five years, Akhilesh Yadav’s government carried out several such schemes. When the fallout associated with the demonetization of currency notes led to a slowdown in registrations for the smartphone scheme, the government not only extended the registration deadline but also set up a dedicated helpline to address any issues that might arise during the registration process. Many journalists conducted interviews with young people who reportedly said that they would vote for Akhilesh Yadav in the upcoming elections because he had given them laptops and promised them smartphones. Not only did the SP directly distribute resources to millions of voters but it also rewarded many groups with symbolic measures.

By all accounts, then, and given this level of patronage, the SP government should have been comfortably returned to power. Instead it lost badly in the 2017 elections. But proponents of the patronage theory claim that patronage becomes an effective strategy for winning votes only when the patron adheres to certain practices, such as effectively targeting benefits, claiming credit by making sure that beneficiaries know the source of the benefits, and ensuring the presence of brokers to help monitor the beneficiaries and sanction any who do not vote for the patron. Did Akhilesh Yadav’s government follow those practices?

The schemes of Akhilesh Yadav’s government did meticulously target different demographic groups. Pensions targeted housewives. Kanya Vidya Dhan focused on young women. A housing scheme focused on the poor. The unemployment allowance was for middle-aged men. Laptops were for first-time voters. There were bicycles for landless laborers, and irrigation schemes and a small-farm loan waiver (and subsidies) to win the votes of farmers.

Did the intended beneficiaries actually receive the benefits? Yes, according to data from a July 2015 survey of 15,000 voters conducted by Cicero Associates, and data from multiple surveys of 5,000 voters conducted since July 2016 by Lokniti-CSDS. Were people aware of all the benefits that had been distributed? Again, yes. News media reported that the SP had handed out nearly 10 million pocket calendars, 5 million brochures highlighting twenty-five flagship schemes of the government, and 5 million wall calendars printed by the Department of Information and Public Relations (the calendars featured a picture of Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, and a description of his government’s schemes was printed on the back). Every medium of advertising was used. A special program—UP Ki Kahaniyan (Stories of UP), broadcast on various FM radio stations—narrated the progress of the common man under Akhilesh’s regime. More than 150 promotional films, each lasting five to ten minutes, were shot for TV advertisements and highlighted the developmental work by every government department. In addition, full-page advertisements were published almost every day in many English and Hindi daily newspapers.

The state’s first around-the-clock social media communications hub was also set up in Lucknow to promote the government’s schemes on various social media platforms. Did voters in UP approach brokers when they had business with the government? According to the 2015 data from Cicero Associates, voters were more likely to approach local leaders (or brokers) connected with the SP when they needed something done that involved the government, since they believed that government officers would be more likely to listen to leaders who were associated with the ruling party. However, there was no correlation in the Cicero Associates survey between whom a voter was likely to approach in this situation and the party he or she ultimately voted for. And this was not the case only in UP. As we show later in the chapter, even in Tamil Nadu, widely considered the pioneer in handing out benefits, we found little support that votes are tied solely to patronage.

It is also important to note that much of the evidence for clientelism and vote buying in India comes from research on panchayat and municipal elections. But to conflate evidence from local-level elections with contests for state assemblies and Parliament may not be prudent, since term limits and the rotation of reservations in local elections do not allow candidates to pursue voters on the basis of policies, ideological platforms, and the like. Moreover, recent research seems to suggest that vote buying and clientelism do not work even in local elections.

To be clear, however, we are in no way suggesting that cash and other gifts do not flow during elections, or that citizens in India do not look to the state for the provision of material benefits, or that connections and bribes are not important when it comes to ordinary citizens’ ability to access the state.

Interaction with the Indian state is an expensive game whose rules are unclear; Anirudh Krishna (2013) and many others have documented that pahunch (a term that has to do with individuals one knows or can reach) and pooch (an appeal made to an individual who can set things right for a supplicant) are all that matters.

Indeed, data from the 2009 State of the Nation Survey show that almost 50 percent of respondents reported that connections as well as bribes were necessary to getting something done in connection with a government department; another 18 percent reported that connections alone would suffice, and almost 66 percent of all respondents pointed to the role of connections in accessing the state.

In short, then, political connections do matter when it comes to citizens’ ability to access the state, and politicians (and their brokers) do help citizens in this regard, but the claim that citizens offer their votes in direct exchange for such favors is one for which empirical evidence is lacking.

Why do we think that voters in India do not reward such efforts of local politicians and middlemen at the polling booth? First, very simply, most such transactions between voters and middlemen occur with a fee (or a petty bribe) and are hence compensated for. Second, because, as Jeffrey Witsoe (2013) had argued, brokers in India tend to be specialized and typically have arrangements with only one government office each. Voters need to approach several brokers during the period between elections with different requests and favours. Since they only have one vote to offer, they cannot possibly reward all the different brokers by voting the latters’ choice of party. Third, given the secrecy of ballot, these middlemen cannot directly monitor the votes of citizens, and hence the awarding of benefits cannot be conditioned on how people have voted. With a secret ballot, voters are free to vote for whomever they wish, regardless of any promised or received benefits. As Ahuja and Chhibber (2012, 390) put it: “Patronage networks do exist, but the consumers of the services of such networks are limited in number.”

Excerpted with permission from “Ideology and Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India” by Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma, Oxford University Press.

 

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