Elections as auctions


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WILL Indian democracy endure? This is the primary question that social scientists and observers of Indian politics have asked themselves since the institution of a democratic regime in 1950. It is a legitimate concern, given the frequency with which crises that have destroyed democracy elsewhere have arisen in India: the wave of regionally concentrated linguistic mobilizations in the 1950s, the succession crises engendered by the death or assassination of the incumbent prime minister (Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964 and Indira Gandhi in 1984), the Emergency of 1975, the collapse of Congress dominance in several states and then at the Centre, the rise of Hindu nationalism, and the regionalization of the party system.

But this is no longer the most pressing question that we should be asking. If we understand democracy to mean a system of institutionalized uncertainty in which parties lose elections,1 then it is clear that it is now consolidated. India has so far held fourteen parliamentary elections over five decades, and wave after wave of elections at the state level. These elections have been accompanied by increasing participation by members of subordinate social groups.2 Incumbents have frequently lost. Because of India’s first past the post electoral system, in which a small shift in voting patterns can produce a large shift in seats, the losses have often been large. And all sides have accepted the verdict. The unanticipated defeat of the NDA in the most recent elections, followed by a return to business as usual under a Congress government, is in this sense a routine event.

A more pressing question now is: Why has India’s democracy taken the form that it has? India’s is a ‘patronage-democracy’ in which elections have become auctions for the sale of government services.3 The most minimal goods that a government should provide – security of life and property, access to education, provision of public health facilities, a minimum standard of living – have become, for large numbers of people, market goods rather than entitlements. This is a violation of modern norms of governance. Worse, this violation affects citizens unequally. And worst of all, this violation has become routinized in everyday imagination, so that it is now no longer perceived as illegitimate. Just as democracy in India has become business as usual, so has the politics of patronage.



Take the example of the marketization of security of life and property. It is now routine for candidates from across the political spectrum to campaign in Muslim areas on a single-point promise: ‘Vote for me and I will make sure that no one harms a hair on your head.’4 These candidates reinforce through door-to-door campaigns the promises their national leaders routinely make on public platforms, of which Mulayam Singh’s famous promise in 1990 to safeguard the Babri Mosque – Masjid par ek parinda bhi par nahi maar sakega [Not even a bird will be able to fly over the mosque] – is perhaps the most memorable. These are routine promises come election time. But the import is extraordinary.

Security is a minimum good that all governments, democratic or not, should provide to all citizens as a basic guarantee. Yet, it is selectively provided (and withdrawn) in India by political parties in return for political support. The BJP, as has been documented at some length, often seeks votes by covertly encouraging violence, or at a minimum, withdrawing the protection of BJP-led governments from the potential targets of that violence. But just as importantly, ‘secular’ parties also gain from the conversion of security from an entitlement to a market good. As long as citizens are forced to obtain this good through bargaining on the electoral market, politicians can obtain support at relatively low cost, simply by promising to do what a government should do in any case – that is, not look the other way during communal riots.



The freedom to vote has become another good that many voters must often purchase, ironically, by giving up their freedom of choice. For many scheduled caste voters in Uttar Pradesh, for instance, the security of their voting rights depends upon striking a bargain with politicians from dominant castes, either through an umbrella party or an umbrella alliance. Without such a bargain, they cannot vote. As one such voter put it: ‘Dabane vala aur dabne vala ek hi party main hain to theek hai. Agar alag party main ho gaye to mushkil hoti hai. [If those who oppress and those who are oppressed are in the same party, it is all right. If they end up in different parties, then there is a problem].’5

This was the reason, he explained, why it was critical for his preferred party, the BSP, to find a dominant caste party as an alliance partner. His assessment was justified. In an election in which the BSP did not negotiate an alliance, politicians from other political parties were straightforward about the consequences. According to an upper-caste politician from an opposing party: ‘In previous elections, Harijans told everyone "we are with you." But when Mayawati became strong, they opened up. Now in the next election, we know how they will vote, and no one will let them vote. Harijans here can still be intimidated and with Mayawati not in power, no one can help them.’6

Statements such as these were commonplace in Uttar Pradesh. Despite the reforms introduced by the Election Commission in recent years, those whom I interviewed had no expectation that the state could intervene effectively. Why, I asked, did voters not complain to the District Magistrate (DM)? ‘DM kya kar sakta hai? Har aadmi ko suraksha chahiye – aur iske liye majboot hona chaihiye. [What can the DM do? Each man needs security – and for this it is important to be strong].’7 The ‘strength’ that he was referring to was the backing of a winning political party.

The significance of these statements lies only partly in what they reveal of the failure of the state to safeguard voting rights as an entitlement. More importantly, it lies in what they reveal about public attitudes towards this failure. The voters and candidates that I spoke with were matter-of-fact, describing, not protesting, a fact of life. The flat statement – DM kya kar sakta hai – carried with it neither complaint nor outrage but an impatience with the naiveté of my line of questioning.



Take a third example, of the marketization of the basic implementation of government policy. The state looms large in India because, in addition to the basic services any government provides, it plays an extensive role in development and also has a large regulatory presence. The number of everyday transactions which require a direct interaction between a citizen and a state official, therefore, is abnormally large. Citizens require a minimum set of goods to attest to their existence and then to get by – birth certificates, death certificates, caste certificates, land titles, appointment letters, ration cards, hospital beds, loans, drinking water, electricity, sanitation and so on – and procuring each of these requires contact with the state.

Elected officials have an enormous amount of influence in how these goods are allocated. Candidates, therefore, routinely court voters in return for the promise to use political influence in their favour. Regardless of the policy issues their national level leaders raise on public platforms, the standard promise of the candidate at the constituency level is: ‘Vote for me and I will get your work done.’ Again, this marketization of basic services is an accepted political fact. Voters believe they can count on state services only when the politicians whom they have paid with votes are in power and not otherwise.

The example of one scheduled caste youth, facing resistance from a local bureaucrat in obtaining an appointment letter for a government job, put it philosophically: ‘Its because our government has fallen. If our government was in power, he would have given me that letter in two minutes.’8 By our government, he meant a BSP government. The idea that an administration led by a different party might also have provided the same service was not taken seriously either by him or any others present.



Such marketization does not affect all citizens equally. Those whom it affects most are those who are most vulnerable. The higher that individuals rank on the ladder of income and education, the easier it is to opt out of the electoral market. Such individuals possess the resources to pursue exit options in the private sector or through migration. And, when they cannot escape dependence upon the state, they possess several tools other than the vote – e.g. status, bribes, personal connections – to get state officials to use discretion in their favour. But the lower an individual stands on the ladder of income and education, the more his fate depends upon access to state-provided goods, and the more likely it is that the vote is his primary channel of influence.

Because class and ethnicity intersect, this means that those affected come disproportionately from subordinate ethnic groups (defined by caste, religion, tribe and language), and especially from the poorer sub-groups within these ethnic groups. For these individuals, the magnitude of the adverse effect of marketization depends upon the degree to which electoral contests are competitive. Comfortable margins of victory diminish the purchasing power of small groups of voters, thus giving them access to fewer resources. Small margins of victory, in contrast, magnify the purchasing power of small groups. The more competitive an election, therefore, the more such voters from these groups are likely to benefit. But no matter how competitive it is, a democracy that does not guarantee access to a minimal set of entitlements for its most vulnerable citizens has malfunctioned in a serious way.



Paradoxically, however, this malfunction may well be the reason for the survival of democracy in India. When survival goods are allotted by the political market rather than as entitlements, voters who need these goods have no option but to participate. The best form of political participation is to obtain political office, which provides the most secure guarantee of access to these goods. The story of one such office-seeker (now a former Member of Parliament) is illustrative. The source of his political ambition was, quite simply, his father’s wish to provide for his sons. ‘Initially,’ according to this MP, ‘he thought simply of giving us a good education. But then when he saw that these days politics is so important, he thought that at least one of my brothers should go into politics.’9 As it turned out, two of the four sons in the family sought livelihoods through politics, beginning with student elections at university and local (panchayat) elections at the village level, and fighting their way up to higher levels of the political system, while the others entered the state civil service and police cadres.

A second-best form of political participation is voting. Voters do not themselves have control over the distribution of goods. But by voting strategically and voting often, they can increase their chances of obtaining these goods. It is no wonder, then, that we see rising rates of both office-seeking activity (measured by the number of contestants per seat) and voter participation (measured by looking at voter turnout rates) among subordinate groups in India.10 The increasing participation of these groups is motivated by the high stakes associated with elections. But it has the effect of simultaneously giving a wide range of groups a high stake in the preservation of a democratic system.



For social scientists working on India, it is important on both analytical and ethical grounds to raise the question of why democracy in India has taken this malign form. And we may uncover some hypotheses by looking at significant variation in the degree of marketization of entitlements across Indian states. I can offer only a speculative answer here. There may be a difference in the factors that account for the origin of India’s patronage-democracy and in the factors that account for its persistence. The origin of this system lies, in all probability, in the expansion of the state after independence which, when combined with scarcity and low levels of literacy, gave state officials discretion in the allocation of a wide range of government goods and services.

But over time, this system may have persisted because of the incentives that politicians have to maintain it. Patronage politics is a unique way to keep individuals in power. The credit for the collective provision of goods through policy legislation goes to the leader, or to the leadership of the ruling party, and to a party as an institution, rather than to individual MPs, and MLAs. But the credit for the goods delivered through patronage accrues to individuals. Politicians can use patronage, therefore, to develop independent power bases which they can then use as leverage for their advancement within party and government.



Thus, over time, politicians in India have developed a stake not only in democracy, but in patronage, and the two cannot now be disentangled easily without depriving a whole political class of power. Thus, we have the problem of a highly competitive democracy, in which there have been fundamental changes in the identity of those who take power, but no change in the style according to which this power is used.

The question of how a system of this sort might change depends on a diagnosis of its causes. If the causes lie in the stake that politicians have developed in its perpetuation, then changing it requires changing the incentives that office-seeking politicians have within the current system, or in eliminating the power to distribute resources through patronage. The incentive structure for individual politicians might profitably be changed by strengthening the degree of internal competition within party organizations. Internally competitive party organizations, I have argued elsewhere, provide individual office-seekers within a political party with stable expectations of eventual access to government office.11 The institution of competitive elections within political parties, then, may have the benefit of altering the incentives that individual politicians have to maintain independent power bases and therefore reducing the incentives for patronage.



The power to distribute patronage goods might be reduced by decentralization. In states such as Kerala and West Bengal, for instance, panchayati raj institutions have been somewhat successful in subjecting decisions on the allocation of state services to the oversight of local communities. Ultimately, however, the most effective means of eliminating the basis of patronage politics may lie in downsizing the state. A great deal has been written about the negative effect of India’s dominant state on economic growth. But it has had a no less deleterious effect on the quality of India’s political life. A change in the form of democracy in India, therefore, may well require a change in the character of the Indian state.



1. Adam Przeworski, Democracy and the Market. (Cambridge University Press, 1991).

2. Yogendra Yadav, ‘Reconfiguration in Indian Politics: State Assembly Elections 1993-95’, Economic and Political Weekly, 13-20 January 1996, 95-104.

3. I develop this interpretation of Indian democracy at greater length in Why Ethnic Parties Succeed: Patronage and Ethnic Head Counts in India (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

4. These and other claims about the content of political campaigning in India are based on fieldwork during several election campaigns between 1996 and 1998.

5. Interview, November 1997.

6. Interview, November 1997. The term ‘Harijan’ would not now be used by scheduled caste voters in UP to refer to themselves. However, I retain the usage of the respondent.

7. Interview, November 1997.

8. Interview, November 1997.

9. Interview, December 1996.

10. Yogendra Yadav, ‘Reconfiguration in Indian Politics’, Economic and Political Weekly 31(2 & 3), 13-20 January 1996, 95-104.

11. Chandra, Why Ethnic Parties Succeed.