Rob Jenkins’ excellent post in this blog series (Is “Programmatic Politics” Possible in the Absence of Party Programmes?) argues that the unavailability of party manifestoes makes it very difficult for voters to make a finely calibrated choice or indeed vote for a programme! Jenkins argues that Indian politics is heavily based on patronage politics. Voters and politicians are said to engage in a transaction: party candidates promise ‘preferential treatment’ in return for the vote. Thus, voters become clients of politicians. As Jenkins has written elsewhere the transaction might not be material. For example, politicians can use their leverage over the police to secure favourable outcomes for their clients. He contrasts this patronage or clientelist politics with a programmatic approach to politics. Programmatic politics requires making and delivering on manifesto-type promises to all citizens. Jenkins queries whether the BJP has really moved towards this kind of politics with its promise of governance and development. Indeed, a recent book on Ahmedabad, by Ward Berenschot documents the clientelist activity of local politicians of the BJP. There is plenty of evidence that patronage is practiced in Indian politics. A striking story in 2011 related in detail how politicians in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh had given voters cash when soliciting votes in recent elections.
However there remain quite a few puzzles which call into question India’s status as a patronage democracy. The first puzzle is that patronage politics doesn’t work very well. One would expect incumbent politicians to direct the flow of state resources to their constituents through a political machine that would enable them to get re-elected. Yet most incumbent governments at the state level are defeated after a term in office. Furthermore, in the state of Tamil Nadu where I have done work, most Members of the Legislative Assembly are turned out of office on a regular basis. If patronage politics was alive and well we would expect to see larger numbers of seasoned heavy weights using a local political machine to create ‘stronghold’ that would deliver them a safe seat through successive elections.
The second puzzle is that the evidence that parties have effective patronage mechanisms is mixed. In a few states, some parties, such as the Left in West Bengal and Kerala or the BJP in Gujarat, have strong local organisations that can deliver material benefits in an efficient way to voters. In many other states party organisations are notoriously weak and it is far from clear that parties have the infrastructure to deliver benefits to enough voters to make a difference at the polls.
A third puzzle is that it is not necessarily rational for Indian voters to respond to patronage. Their expectations of patronage benefits should be quite low. Parties and legislators struggle to locate enough resources to pass around to enough voters to make a difference. Government jobs may well go to the supporters of incumbents but there are too jobs to go around. Likewise a few hundred rupees or gifts in kind are unlikely to be enough to sway voters’ decision. Voters will get far more material benefit (and not just at election time) if the government has well run welfare schemes or is able to deliver cheap food through the PDS ration shops. There is evidence that state governments are getting much better at delivering welfare without the intervention of politicians.
A final puzzle remains. If patronage politics is ineffective why do politicians continue to seek out clients? We await the final answer but there are several possible explanations. One is that politicians use multiple ways of seeking votes, appealing to ideology, a leader’s image, policy promises, service delivery and preferential treatment. In other words patronage is part of a larger bundle being offered to voters. A second answer is that politicians may use patronage politics defensively, rather like an insurance policy, in case their opponent does the same. Politicians may not expect to win many votes by gift-giving but they don’t want to run the risk of looking mean-spirited. A third answer is that Indian politics rests on enormous economic inequality. Most candidates are massively better off than their constituents. So voters know they can shake the candidates down for a few election time gifts, whether they vote for that candidate or not. Elections are a rare moment when a fiction of political equality is played out. Candidates face voters and have to respond to them.
As Rob Jenkins predicts, Indian voters will be wooed with gifts and hints of future favours in the next few weeks. Money matters in Indian elections. The reluctance of some Congress politicians to contest seats they would almost certainly lose is likely motivated by the cost of fighting an election in India. The Election Commission is working to stop vote buying. Headlines will be made when suitcases of cash are confiscated from politicians posing as patrons of their constituencies. Even so, a lot of money will be spent on voters. Yet it is unlikely to swing the election.
Andrew Wyatt is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Bristol. He is the author of: ‘Combining Clientalist and Programmatic Politics in Tamil Nadu, South India’, Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, 2013, 51 (1): 27–55. He tweets @AW1010