India’s national election campaign is in full swing. The outcome will not be known until mid-May, when the multi-stage, region-by-region voting process is complete. The first voters head to the polls on April 7th, less than a week from today. Unfortunately, they may have to decide whom to vote for without knowing the detailed programmes of either of the country’s two major parties.
The election manifesto of the ruling Congress Party is woefully short on policy specifics, and long on unsupported projections, such as annual rates of industrial growth more than six times what has been achieved in recent years. The fiscal implications of its commitments are nowhere spelled out. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which polls indicate is likely to win the largest share of seats in the new parliament, has yet to publish a manifesto at all. News reports suggest that it may be released on 3 April, or “possibly” on 5 April, just two days before the first round of voting begins. Anonymously quoted party insiders attribute the delay to the labour-intensive process of ensuring that policy platforms compiled by numerous sectoral committees are “reconciled with [the] party’s position—a job that could not be done because of paucity of time and [the] party’s preoccupation with elections.” In other words, the BJP was too busy with electioneering to devise a set of policy positions that would allow the electorate to evaluate its agenda for governance.
So what? Given voter skepticism about the policy commitments of all parties, does it really matter when (or even if) the BJP ultimately releases its manifesto? In past elections, this would have been an understandable response. But this election was supposed to be different. The Indian voter, we have been repeatedly told, is increasingly motivated by substance rather than style, by actual policy positions rather than pledges of special treatment for social groups that back the winning party. As one political analyst recently put it, “the average Indian voter” can no longer be “bought off” with promises of minor material rewards.
Political scientists characterize this transition, wherever it has occurred in the world, as a shift from “patronage politics” to “programmatic politics”. (Sometimes the term “clientelism” is used instead of “patronage politics”, but the upshot is the same: a transactional relationship in which votes are exchanged for promises of preferential treatment should the candidate win office.) To what extent does India’s current campaign season indicate such a fundamental break with past political practice? Can programmatic politics really be said to have arrived when party programmes either have not been announced or lack policy specifics?
To raise such questions is to invite accusations of condescension, of seeing Indian voters as childlike, unaware of where their interests truly lie. Skeptics are dismissed as blind to the “maturation” of the Indian electorate. The typical rebuttal is to reject claims of political “maturity” as themselves patronizing – were voters in earlier elections “immature”? – and, worse, based on Western models of democratic development.
It is important not to let such ideological disagreements distract us from the task of assessing the evidence at hand, and how it is being interpreted. While India’s “patronage democracy” has not yet been pronounced dead, it is increasingly portrayed as having reached an advanced (and irreversible) stage of terminal decline. This may reflect wishful thinking as much as anything else. But it also may stem from confusion about how to interpret two crucial developments in Indian politics.
The first is the spectacular rise of the Aam Aadmi (“Common Man”) Party under the leadership of anti-corruption crusader Arvind Kejriwal. The party’s stress on transparency, its refusal to nominate candidates facing criminal charges, and its pledge to involve the public in holding officials accountable have appealed to many people disgusted at the venality of the political class, symbolized by the numerous corruption scandals that have engulfed the current government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
But India has seen anti-corruption “waves” in the past, notably during the 1989 general election that ousted the government of Rajiv Gandhi – son of Indira Gandhi and father of the Congress’s current prime ministerial aspirant, Rahul Gandhi. Yet, in the aftermath of that election, patronage politics remained intact, and corruption probably increased. Perhaps more importantly, even the Aam Aadmi Party finds it hard to resist the lure of identity politics. Kejriwal recently promised India’s small traders that, if elected, he would continue to oppose the entry of foreign “multi-brand retailers” such as Walmart into India, stressing that he too came from a trading (“baniya”) community.
The second development seized on as evidence that patronage politics is on the wane is the popularity of Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. Modi has governed the state of Gujarat for nearly thirteen years, winning three successive elections, most recently in 2012. Voters beyond Gujarat are said to be attracted to Modi because of the results produced by the business-friendly approach to governance he has pursued. Modi’s ability to promote economic growth – by reducing regulation and focusing on infrastructure development – is seen to have eclipsed his earlier image as the chief minister who, in 2002, allegedly facilitated targeted violence against the state’s Muslims. In the process, Modi has reinvented the BJP’s national profile. In the public eye, the BJP is now a party focused on “governance” and “development”, having jettisoned its former emphasis on such divisive issues as disputed religious sites, the status of Kashmir, and the separate legal codes that apply to members of India’s religious minorities. Modi’s rise, in short, is seen as a response to the new priorities of the post-patronage Indian voter, fed up with both political symbolism and transactional politics.
But Modi’s electoral success in Gujarat has hardly been free of the caste calculations that all political parties routinely pursue, and which necessarily involve promises of preferential treatment for the caste groups involved. Nor has Modi’s government been free of the corruption that allows patronage politics to thrive. A recently published study of the implementation of India’s Special Economic Zone policy in eleven states documented the Modi government’s alleged violation of environmental and other laws when allocating land – on highly favourable terms – to an array of private investors. And surely the much-vaunted sophistication of India’s electorate allows hardline Hindu nationalist voters to read between the lines of Modi’s rhetoric. When Modi recently called Kejriwal a Pakistani agent – code for “soft on Muslims” – it was to this group that he was speaking.
But is not this form of divisive identity politics something other than patronage politics? Indeed it is. Little of substance – except what social scientists sometimes call “psychic rewards” – is being directly promised to such voters. Even so, claims about the maturation of the Indian electorate tend to lump the decline of patronage politics together with the increasing immunity of voters to “manipulation” by politicians intent on fomenting social conflict.
Surveys showing that people’s voting decisions are not influenced by locally powerful members of their caste or community are often cited as evidence of the decline of patronage politics. And, yet, people can continue to vote along ethnic lines – with the expectation of specific or diffuse rewards for members of their community – even when making their choice without the aid of a middleman. Moreover, a key trend over the past twenty years has been the emergence of a new breed of vote-broker – political entrepreneurs drawn from non-elite groups whose following depends on their ability to deliver on their promises. Patronage, though of a new and more complex variety, is integral to this form of politics.
Perhaps the clearest indication that ethnically-based patronage politics is not only alive in India, but actually thriving, comes from the polls themselves – in some cases based on the very same surveys that suggest voters care more about economic performance than identity issues. In almost every state, and virtually every parliamentary constituency, there are marked differences in the support given by various caste groups to competing parties. Precisely because voters are rational, using their votes to advance their interests, there is every reason to believe that these differences reflect calculations among groups of voters concerning the likely payoffs from supporting a particular party. Reports from Western Uttar Pradesh, for instance, suggest that members of the prosperous land-owning Jat community have begun to shift their allegiance away from the earlier presumed support for the BJP. This took place after the (Congress-run) government in New Delhi announced the inclusion of Jats in the list of “backward” communities eligible for quotas in central government jobs, which is about as pure a form of identity-based patronage politics as one could possibly imagine.
An impressive voter survey recently found that just 3% of respondents chose “greater opportunity and respect for persons of my caste or religion” as the main factor that would determine their voting decisions. This was interpreted by the survey’s authors as a sign that identity politics was “less potent than many political parties believe”. Maybe. But it might also be more important – and adaptable – than many political analysts are willing to admit. As the authors concede, the survey was conducted several months before the campaign had begun. Voters’ priorities would “likely change” – presumably toward greater concern with caste and community – “when faced with actual candidates at the time of voting”.
Rob Jenkins is Professor of Political Science, Hunter College & The Graduate Center, The City University of New York. He is author of Democratic Politics and Economic Reform in India (Cambridge University Press, 2000) and more recently, co-edited Power, Policy and Protest: The Politics of India’s Special Economic Zones (Oxford University Press, 2014).