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?”
Theories of clientelism broadly depend on the untested assumption that brokers possess fine-grained information on voters’ political preferences prior to elections, and often can monitor their votes. As the first direct test of this assumption in a competitive democracy, I develop a measure, guessability, which measures the ability of local brokers to identify the partisan preferences of voters from their local area. I apply this method to elected village politicians in rural India who often perform brokerage functions. I find that these local leaders perform well at identifying the partisan preferences of co-partisans, but perform no better than a low-information benchmark that captures the level of guessability that outsiders can achieve with respect to non-core voters. This suggests that an electoral strategy rooted in quid-pro-quo exchange is extremely inefficient in rural India where clientelism is believed to be feasible, with implications for prominent theories applied to other settings.
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)
Does democratic decentralization encourage pro-poor targeting in a context of weak state institutions? Contrary to research which suggests that local elites are well-positioned to capture local governments, we argue that local elections in subsistence-based village settings, characterized by dense social ties and high-information, select politicians with pro-poor, broad-based targeting preferences. This is consistent with the preferences of pivotal voters where the conditions of the moral economy hold. At the same time, leaders use their discretion to bias benefits towards their political supporters, which is feasible under the constraints of local democracy. We test our theory with data from a behavioral measure, distributive preferences, which isolates leaders’ “pure” non-strategic preferences over the targeting of selective benefits from the impacts of electoral considerations and other constraints. We develop a novel statistical strategy that models dependence in the data, to demonstrate the implications of our theory.
See a synopsis of the article in the Hindu Business Line here: “Do Local Leaders Prioritize the Poor?”
Works in Progress
The central question of this project concerns how elected local leaders under the constraints of democracy at the local level (among other social and institutional constraints) employ their discretion over distribution. 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.
(With Adnan Farooqui)
“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.