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Diverse Development Narratives in the Indian Elections of 2014


Economic growth, roads, electricity, employment, education, and health are dominating the electoral discourse and campaigns during the 2014 elections in India. A recent survey found that economic growth, corruption and inflation are the salient issues among voters. Voters are no longer voting ONLY along caste lines when they cast their vote.  Yet, as cautionary observers suggest, the identity of candidates continues to be important for many voters.  The pre-electoral survey conducted by the Lok Foundation also found that voters want members of their own community to be candidates in addition to wanting developmental outcomes.  Analogously, voters in India are not opposed to political dynasties.

How can we understand this apparent shift in Indian politics and political economy? How do we measure and assess its real effects? A discussion about “development” signifies a number of emerging trends in Indian politics, which are important to disentangle.

I start with a hypothesis that demands more research.  Development issues will compete with but not displace caste and religious identities in the 2014 elections and beyond.  Even candidates chosen for their ability to appeal to their caste and community brethren will speak the language of development.  Elected politicians will be evaluated based on their ability to deliver jobs, roads, and public goods. As Andrew Wyatt notes, parties seek votes by offering a number of public and club goods, including patronage even when patronage may not work. Various shades of developmental narratives will discipline Indian parties and politicians.

As an example, Jayalalitha recently spoke about Tamil Nadu’s success in ensuring development for its citizens in competition with the Gujarat model. Bihar’s Nitish Kumar challenged Modi’s claims for superior development outcomes in Gujarat. In short, the politics of clientelism is being shaped by the politics of development but not being replaced by developmental concerns.  Despite this initial hunch, we know very little about this emerging trend.  We need much more research into how development as an issue is emerging in Indian politics.

First of all, this trend speaks to the success of the Manmohan Singh’s government in focusing on development of the common man and farmers that began in 2004.  Indian voters want more of what the Congress government promised.  In that sense, the vote against Congress may be a “revolution of rising expectations” and aspirations, not a desire for more efficiency or growth. The Congress rule is facing the consequences of its own success in creating a rights based discourse around development.  The Congress party will lose this election not because they failed, but because they succeeded only too well in bringing in new groups who have rising developmental aspirations.  Another reason for a decrease in the popularity of  Congress party is due to the fact that the Congress leadership failed to frame the success of Manmohan Singh’s policies as the collective success of party and government.

How do different elements of India see development? Bloggers, economists, and editors of the English press argue that the new government must re-energize economic growth and ensure fiscal stability. These development narratives look outwards, to India’s perceptions at the global level.  Our western oriented middle classes are circulating these ideas shaped by the global discourse about India.  Global discussions about India have entered the electoral fray in many mediated ways, which can be a fruitful avenue for research. Modi’s supporters seek to tap into these narratives that privilege growth. But, India’s population does not privilege growth over equity and distributional issues.  They want both.

Second, the rational economist within all of us would be mistaken if they saw the desire for Gujarat’s model as a desire for markets or as someone put it “a libertarian emphasis” on less state and more markets.  The Gujarat market succeeded by deploying the state for public purposes and by aiming to create jobs both in the private, joint sector and public sector. The Gujarat model is a model of hybrid growth, of a classic developmental state that grew by harnessing states and their capacity in the service of growth not focusing only on markets.  Jagdish N Bhagwati, who may advise Modi if he wins, would do well to remember the real sources of the Gujarat’s model.  Modi governed a well-run state with a long historical focus on development.  If he wins, it will be interesting to see how his team manages the national government, which demands a multi-level framework with attention to backward states like Bihar and Orissa.

As an aside, we should remember that the Gujarat Model” means different things to different voters and different groups.  The English media sees the “Gujarat model” as pertaining to economic polices but when Modi talks about “the Gujarat Model,” the RSS and party cadres read it as about ‘teaching Muslims a lesson they will not forget’ and in ensuring that the government will not appease minorities. I hope we don’t get that model at the national level!!

Third, this is a long-term term trend: voters show a desire to vote on development outcomes rather than their primary identities across previous elections. Sirnate and Chhibber note: “In 2011, a survey in Uttar Pradesh asked voters whether they preferred leaders who could govern to those with whom they had a jati/biradari [caste/community] relationship. Seventy percent of the respondents preferred a politician who could deliver public goods and “govern;” and only 20 per cent said that they would like someone from their jati/biradari [caste/community] as a political leader. There were no statistically significant differences in the responses between Hindus, Muslims, Dalits, upper castes, and other backward classes (OBCs).”  Pratap Mehta noted: “And they [voters] are choosing empowerment over patronage, the future over the past, performance over rhetoric, sincerity over cynicism, rootedness over disembodied charm, measured realism over flights of fantasy. They are carefully assessing alternatives through the prism of local circumstances. Identities still matter, but voters are no longer prisoners of those identities”. Elliott found similar results in Andhra Pradesh and discusses how the state is moving from clientelistic politics to more of a welfare state model. Rahul Verma’s analysis of the 2004 and 2009 elections finds that voters’ perception of the performance of the UPA government rather than their class and social origins explains the electoral outcomes across all levels.

In some areas of the country, non-clientelistic schemes co-exist with patron-client relationships and “cash for votes.” In Bihar the government initiated a scheme in 2007 where a schoolgirl can obtain a check of Rs. 2,000 to buy a bicycle upon passing class VIII. The Bihar Government has spent Rs. 174.36 crores in the past three years to allow 871,000 schoolgirls to have access to bicycles, easing their travel to school.  The girls are required to attend school with a monitoring mechanism built in to the program. The number of ninth-grade girls registered in Bihar’s high schools END HIGHLIGHTwent from 175,000 in 2007 to 600,000 in 2012. School drop out rates declined significantly. 

I, with Adam Auerbach , argue that India is revealing the power of a distinct type of clientelism: “developmental clientelism,” where voters reward the provision of public goods and developmental services even by their community oriented patrons.   We also suggest that under some conditions, patron-client relationships may serve developmental ends. The mid day meal scheme in Tamil Nadu, while a cash good aimed as a patronage good for voters, increased literacy levels in Tamil Nadu.

The entry of AAP [Aam Admi party or Common Man’s party] has created another issue dimension in the election discourse: the one focused on corruption and clean governance.  In fact, the AAP created a new issue space for an anti corruption agenda.  Governments and voters thought that corruption was a non-issue precisely because it was so pervasive.  The AAP is quite distinctive in focusing on that one issue to the exclusion of any other development program.

Fourth, India has many development models and varied ways in which development is entering the electoral discourse and electoral strategies.  Three distinct models are: the Kerala model, the Gujarat model, and the Bihar model. The Gujarat model is the most notorious, but recently the Bihar model of development has emerged as an alternative to the Gujarat model.  Nitish Kumar put forward an alternative model of “inclusive growth with justice” where backward states get resources from the central government but are also allowed to develop their schemes autonomously.  Bihar’s government has focused on girls and women’s development.  Nitish Kumar said, “A country can grow only when all the states are allowed to grow.” Has this developmental goal resonated with the voters in Bihar?  Bihar and eastern India would be important testing grounds for answering this question.  The Kerala model is a longstanding model that relies on government action to improve the quality of life of its citizens.  Clearly, many developmental models, and many issues related to development have appeared in the Indian elections and more research is needed on assessing their import and significance.

Dr Aseema Sinha [Ph.D. Cornell University], Wagener Chair in South Asian Politics and George R. Roberts Fellow, Claremont Mckenna College. Aseema Sinha is the author of The Regional Roots of Development in India. She is currently working on a book entitled: When David Meets Goliath: How Global Markets and Rules Are Shaping India’s Rise to Power. The paper referred to above with Asam Auberacj is entitled ‘Does Developmental Clientelism Exist? Degrees of Clientelism in the World’s Largest Democracy’ Please contact her at:


Published inIndia Votes 2014


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