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.

Working Papers

Do Brokers Know Their Voters? A Test of Guessability in India (Under Review)

Can the quid pro quo strategy of vote buying emphasized in research on clientelism function when local brokers fail to correctly identify voters’ partisan preferences and votes? Local brokers are thought to possess fine-grained information on voters’ political preferences, material needs, and even social preferences. Research on clientelism assumes that brokers meet the most basic informational requirement of knowing voters’ partisan preferences if not their votes. This assumption drives theoretical predictions on the types of voters politicians should target with selective benefits, and whether or not a quid pro quo exchange of benefits-for-votes is an efficient electoral strategy relative to programmatic distribution. Nonetheless, existing scholarship does not test this assumption and analysis of variation in brokers’ ability to identify voters’ partisan preferences has not been conducted. To test this assumption, this paper develops a unique measure, guessability, based on whether or not village council presidents in Rajasthan, India correctly guess the partisan preferences of voters surveyed in their local areas. I find guessability to be lower than existing theory and low-information benchmarks expect. Local leaders can identify the partisan preferences of voters who are easiest to guess due to ethnic cues to partisanship or their location in co-partisan networks, but perform poorly at identifying those whose partisan preferences are more difficult to predict. This has important implications for targeted distribution in rural India.

See the  Center for the Advanced Study of India (University of Pennsylvania) working paper here.

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 the Center for the Advanced Study of India (University of Pennsylvania) working paper here.

See a synopsis of the article in the Hindu Business Line here: “Do Local Leaders Prioritize the Poor?”

Works in Progress

Quotidian Democracy: The Local Roots of Accountability in Rural India (Book Project)

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.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road: State Capacity and Governance Across Indian Districts

It is widely understood that the capacity of state institutions to implement government programs varies dramatically across and within Indian states. Nonetheless,  research on state capacity is broadly focused on cross-national variation rather than variation at the district level where much of government implementation occurs. This project will develop a data set on the capacity of district administrations across India to deliver a wide range of basic public services from mail delivery to the implementation of a wide range of central schemes funded by the federal government. This will provide the first theory-driven district-level measure of state capacity in India. This project is in collaboration with Devesh Kapur, Milan Vaishnav, and Aditya Dasgupta. Data collection is in progress.


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.

Early Work

Breaking the Wave: Explaining the Emergence of Inter-Ethnic Peace in a City of Historic Ethnic Violence, Honors Thesis, University of Michigan, 2004.