The Discerning Voter: Partisan Alignment and Local Distribution Under Multi-Level Governance (Forthcoming at Party Politics).
What shapes voters’ expectations of receiving private anti-poverty benefits and local public goods in decentralized systems where discretion over the allocation of different types of government resources is held at different tiers of government? Existing models of instrumental voting in patronage-based democracies suggests that voters’ expectations are shaped by shared ethnic or partisan identities with party leaders or candidates or a record of past distribution. This work, however, does not consider the nuanced calculations that voters make in systems where different types of benefits are controlled by different tiers of government. In this article, I show that voters in rural India weigh the impact of co-partisan ties with the local leader on distribution differently where discretion over targeting varies between the local and state levels of government. I test my argument with a unique vignette survey experiment in which I randomize the partisan affiliation of real village council politicians, whom voters identify as a prominent Congress/BJP leader in their locality. Consistent with the argument, voters are more likely to anticipate private benefits when the sarpanch is a co-partisan; the impact of co-partisanship on access to state funds for local public goods is conditioned on whether the sarpanch belongs to the ruling party at the state level.
See a synopsis of the article in the Hindu Business Line here: “How Savvy is the Rural Indian Voter?”
Articles Under Review
Revise and Resubmit at Electoral Studies
Prominent theories of clientelism—the exchange of benefits for political support—depend on the assumption that brokers possess detailed information on voters’ political preferences prior to targeting. This article provides the first direct test of this assumption. It develops a unique survey measure, guessability, which gauges the ability of local brokers to correctly identify the partisan preferences of voters in their locality. It then develops a way to estimate brokers’ added informational value by comparing brokers’ performance against low-information benchmarks that capture guessability rates that can feasibly be achieved by outsiders. Original data from a cross-referenced survey of voters and elected village leaders across 96 village councils in Rajasthan, India indicate that while an important category of brokers out-perform low-information benchmarks overall or with respect to non-co-partisans. This has important implications for the feasibility of core and swing targeting strategies in India and beyond.
See a synopsis of the article in the Hindu Business Line here: “Can Benefits be Tied to the Vote?”
Does Local Democracy Serve the Poor? Identifying the Distributive Preferences of Village Politicians in India (Under Review)
(With Neelanjan Sircar)
What are the consequences of decentralization to elected local leaders for responsiveness to the poor in developing countries where local leaders often have significant personal discretion over distribution? Existing research suggests that efficiency concerns or electoral strategy explain targeting outcomes. By contrast, this article argues that targeting biases follow from the non-strategic distributive preferences of leaders selected through local elections in high-information village contexts where voters and leaders share dense social ties. Focusing on subsistence-based villages, we argue that elected leaders prefer to target their own supporters, and especially the poorest among them, consistent with the preferences of pivotal voters in this setting, where a norm to protect the survival of the poor is likely to be salient. To test our theory, we develop a behavioral measure that isolates elected leaders’ personal distributive preferences from electoral considerations in 84 villages in the Indian state of Rajasthan. We find that elected leaders prefer to distribute 94% more to political supporters and 17% more to supporters one standard deviation below mean village wealth. This suggests that local elections select leaders with preferences to target to the poorest villagers even when electoral incentives are removed, albeit with political biases.
See a synopsis of the article in the Hindu Business Line here: “Do Local Leaders Prioritize the Poor?”
Works in Progress
Decentralization across the developing world devolved significant powers over the distribution of state benefits and services to elected leaders– often in villages characterized by extreme poverty and inequality. How do these elected local leaders employ their discretion and what are the consequences of village elections and village social relations for the responsiveness of local leaders toward their constituents?
In addressing this question, I make several key arguments, supported by unique micro-level quantitative and qualitative evidence. First, I challenge the conventional wisdom that unelected local elites in India largely capture local democratic institutions.I demonstrate this in rural India, drawing on my research on the micro-foundations of clientelism and democratic selection. Second, I develop the concept of local democracy, which is characterized by dense social ties and high information because politicians and voters have interacted with one another personally. This introduces an array of informal and formal mechanisms of local accountability. Third, moving from private targeting preferences to public allocation and brokerage, I explore the implications of local democracy on distributive outcomes for those benefits over which local leaders have substantial discretion. I leverage variation in decentralization across Indian states to capture the impact of discretion targeting behavior. Finally, I consider the strategies that politicians beyond the village pursue vis-à-vis elected local leaders. I argue that where there is substantial discretion, we should see parties and higher-level politicians attempt to shape how these local leaders distribute benefits and attempt to influence which local leaders will be elected.
I draw on completed and future micro-level evidence to explore the impact of local democracy on democratic accountability in India. This book project will challenge the conventional wisdom that local elections are largely manipulated by powerful local elites and vote buying in contexts of traditional, subsistence-based societies while building a deeper argument for how democratic decentralization impacts the nature of distributive politics and brokerage in India.
Do State-Run Elections Measure Up? Institutional Quality and Local Democratic Quality Across Indian States. (with Sarthak Bagchi, Ahmedabad University)
The Indian Elections Commission (IEC) is widely heralded as a model of election management in the developing world and beyond. While evidence suggests that federal and state elections, conducted by the IEC, are free and fair, there has been no systematic analysis of local elections, which are managed by state election commissions controlled and funded by state governments. In this project, I examine variation in the quality of elections managed by these decentralized election authorities, and compare the implementation of local elections conducted by these bodies to state assembly elections managed by the federal Election Commission. This project leverages the unique opportunity to compare elections that are managed by centralized and decentralized bodies in the same country, and will provide important contributions to research on state capacity and electoral integrity in developing countries. Quantitative data collection is in progress. An all-India elite/journalist survey and ethnographic follow-up research will be conducted in 2019.
Local Elections (All-India)
Although more voters vote in local elections in India than in any other elections in the world, little is known about these elections given the lack of accessibility of local elections data in India. To address this, I am collecting local elections data for all major Indian states through a combination of web-scraping and field visits to government offices. This project will result in a valuable data resource and articles on the local electoral competition and its consequences for development policy outcomes.
“How Savvy is the Rural Indian Voter?” Hindu Business Line, 31 January 2018.
“Do Local Leaders Prioritize the Poor?” Hindu Business Line, 14 December 2015.
“Can Benefits be Tied to the Vote?” Hindu Business Line, 14 January 2014.
Breaking the Wave: Explaining the Emergence of Inter-Ethnic Peace in a City of Historic Ethnic Violence, Honors Thesis, University of Michigan, 2004.