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The Difficulty of Clientelism in Urban India

Simon Chauchard
March 28, 2016

State legislators face a significant incumbency disadvantage in India. Being elected once makes it harder to be re-elected. This is puzzling to the extent that holding political office should provide these incumbents with a significant advantage over challengers during subsequent elections. For instance, one might expect them to be rewarded for having rendered personalized services to their constituents. Indeed, Members of Legislative Assemblies (MLAs) usually see these local tasks as much more crucial to their re-election than their legislative duties in the assembly, and they spend the lion’s share of their time writing letters and making calls on behalf of constituents. The pressure they place on various state services and private actors in their constituency often leads to life-changing outcomes for their voters: a pension is obtained; a child is admitted to a private school on a quota; or a reluctant doctor is pressured into performing a vital surgery at a lower cost. Examples of this type abound, but the puzzle remains, why are elected representatives not better rewarded for their service?

In some cases, the absence of electoral rewards has to do with party-level and national-level factors. For instance, Congress Party incumbents were at a clear disadvantage in 2014, even if they had performed well in their constituency. But the incumbency disadvantage is not specific to the 2014 “Modi wave,” and it exists across parties and states. In many other cases, it has to do with incumbents not sufficiently engaging in the kind of local problem solving discussed above. Where voters perceive that their incumbent is shirking, one obviously should not expect voters to reward their representatives with another term in office.

While these arguments partially explain high rates of anti-incumbency, my recent field research in Mumbai points to a more general explanation. Due to a series of demographic, social, and political changes, incumbents are increasingly unable to develop the kind of quid pro quo relationship by which services and benefits are exchanged for votes in subsequent elections. If urban constituencies offer a preview of changing political dynamics, this type of contingent exchange – usually described as “clientelism” or “patronage” – will become increasingly difficult, maybe even impossible, to execute in the future. This explains why even virtuous, hard-working incumbents might not be rewarded.

Three macro-level, long-term trends make the development of a clientelistic relationship increasingly unlikely. The first factor is the increasing size of constituencies. Quid pro quo politics is hard to achieve when politicians have more constituents to take care of. While many MLAs present themselves as champions of the aam aadmi, they cannot feasibly solve the problems of three to four lakh people. Worse, because they inevitably end up solving the problems of some and not others, including among their core supporters, they often alienate some groups of voters against them. Where infrastructure is limited and basic state services are dysfunctional, even the most dynamic MLAs can only solve a portion of the problems that voters ask them to solve. Besides, problems that are solved are not always rewarded with a vote. Politics in more populous constituencies requires the involvement of an ever-larger number of intermediaries to get the attention of the elected politician. In this context, voters are likely to attribute a positive outcome to a variety of actors, and not necessarily to the MLA herself.

Demographic factors might be minimized if politicians had a strong group of loyal supporters on the ground to broadcast their (relative) achievements. Unfortunately for most incumbents, this is rarely the case. I attribute this organizational weakness to a second trend: the steady rise in levels of political competition. More candidates automatically means more uncertain elections, and hence more anti-incumbency. But there is a more indirect, though important, effect of rising levels of political competition. It also makes it much more difficult for incumbents to build a strong pyramid-like organization reaching all the way down to voters. Demographic changes imply that organizational growth is required since it is crucial for politicians to have agents who are in close contact with voters. This is one way to interpret the recent membership drive of the BJP: namely, as an attempt to identify additional party agents at the local level.

However, increased competition complicates this task, as it means the individuals at the lowest echelons of party organizations – at the booth level – now have multiple partisan options. As a result, they are increasingly opportunistic, decreasingly loyal, and often unreliable. Extremely few parties in India – not even the BJP – possess the kind of strong, loyal organization that guarantees that the achievements of their candidates can be sufficiently publicized at the very local level come election time. By the same token, these relatively weak organizations do not allow proper monitoring of voters ahead of elections. This is not to suggest the lowest echelons of parties never include earnest supporters or ideologically committed individuals. All do, to some extent. However, my interviews suggest that many more of these low-level party agents do not constitute the kind of loyal, hard-working, and reliable workers that party higher-ups typically dream of recruiting. While there are other causes to this relative disorganization of parties – including the lack of internal party democracy and unfair rules for advancement within parties, which frequently discourage low-level workers – this organizational weakness makes it further difficult for incumbents to maintain themselves in office.

The third and final factor that complicates the re-election prospects of incumbents has to do with social and generational changes that have emerged in recent campaigns. Notably, this pertains to the rising independence of young educated voters, both from parties and from their family’s partisan preferences, which may herald the progressive disappearance of “vote banks.” According to many party workers I spoke with, young urban voters are increasingly difficult to read, as they select candidates on the basis of merit rather than caste or party label, or they are frankly disinterested in the political process. These changes have increasingly eroded the natural connections that existed between members of some groups and some parties. This, in turn, can deprive incumbents of the support they might have automatically received from some groups. Given the difficulties they otherwise face when they attempt to publicize their achievements, this is further bad news.  

Altogether, these new difficulties mean that incumbents face an uphill task as they strive to get re-elected, and more generally, that purely clientelistic strategies will not work anymore in urban India. This may be good news for the political system, as it suggests voters are rarely captive, that they have increasing options, and that they exercise them freely. Whether or not this is really good news, however, depends on what strategy will eventually replace this increasingly failed form of clientelism.

Simon Chauchard (simon.chauchard@dartmouth.edu) is an Assistant Professor of Government at Dartmouth College. His research focuses on the impact of political reservations, voting behavior and voter-politicians relations in India.


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI. IiT articles are re-published in the op-ed pages of The Hindu: Business Line. This article can be read here.

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