Money can’t always buy votes

Smaller constituencies and longer campaign periods are essential reforms

There is a widely held belief that voters in India, especially the poor, sell their votes in exchange for cash, liquor, saris, and many other such goodies. Using evidence from the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, we have argued that theories of large scale vote buying (patronage and clientelism) in India are myths (“Death of patronage?”, The Hindu, May 23, 2017). We received several comments from readers, some of whom remain unconvinced that money does not buy votes. They asked, correctly, that if money does not buy votes, why is there a flow of cash and liquor during elections? And why is there an army of brokers at the local level, often aligned with politicians and parties, helping citizens navigate the State?

Probability stakes

It is indeed true that a candidate with greater resources has a higher probability of winning elections in India. This is true in many other parts of the world, including in the U.S., where a candidate with a larger war chest is more likely to win elections. There is also enough evidence to suggest that the supply of cash and consumption of liquor (and other items such as saris) increases during elections, which is unexplained by a normal rise in demand of these goods.

In our view, cash flows during elections not to buy votes but rather to support a campaign. Cash is an important grease to run a smooth campaign machinery for a number of reasons. First, parties have weak organisations at the local level and face heavy institutional constraints. Most parties do not have enough committed volunteers to mobilise votes. Money acts as a substitute for the organisation as cash is used to engage vote mobilisers or local individuals who will seek votes for a party and/or candidate. Institutional constraints also make money extremely critical. The Election Commission (EC) allows only 14 days of official campaigning, which ends 48 hours before the scheduled close of polling. The fact that parties do not finalise their nominations for most constituencies until the very end puts pressure on candidates to mobilise votes as quickly as possible. Given the size of constituencies (both in area and the number of voters), a candidate requires an army of workers during the campaign period. Even if a campaign decides to pay the current minimum wage for agricultural labourers to each of its workers during the entire campaign period the candidate would end up exceeding the expenditure limit. To avoid this, candidates spend huge sums of money on cash, liquor and gifts that they hand out to their middlemen.

Second, money signals resources and power, or access to powerful networks. It allows candidates to mobilise supporters who in turn can pull a crowd together. The role of money as a symbol of power is especially important in a hierarchical society such as India, with the state wielding enormous power. Moreover, in many parts of the country, the display of money during elections is socially approved in certain ways, is a political necessity, and is born of cultural expectations. Voters ask themselves whether someone who has no clout — monetary, political, or familial — can work the levers of administration for them. In most cases, the answer is no. Witness how many independent candidates lose elections in India, and even when they win, it is because of attributes like family legacy, money, and muscle power. This is an important reason why parties perceived as weak stand little chance of winning elections, and why they are likely to wither away even if they do win.

Studying vote banks

Our arguments find resonance with two outstanding ethnographies of vote banks and local clientelism. In her study of the 2012 Mumbai municipal corporation election, Lisa Björkman wrote that spending of money was not reflected in the vote count. The candidate who spent the most came nowhere near winning the seat, while the candidate who won a landslide victory did so with limited spending. She describes distribution of money as an uncertain investment and a leap of faith on the part of the candidate. Similarly, Mary Breeding in her study on the micropolitics of vote banks in Karnataka quotes a Congress worker: “Voters will take our party’s gift, the other party’s gift, and so on. Then they go into the polling booth and vote however they wish.... I know that many voters find these benefits — liquor, saris, and such — to be very insulting. They vote their minds.”

Likewise, Philip Oldenburg, who has been studying this question since the 1970s, described a conversation with a Delhi politician who explained to him the role of money and goodies in elections: “Voters basically began to tell politicians that they had to keep the goodies (liquor, cash, and so on) flowing if they wanted their votes. Maybe the politicians would get their votes and maybe they wouldn’t, but they definitely wouldn’t if they didn’t pass out the goodies.”

What does all of this tell us about the role of money in elections? Cash and goodies do get distributed during elections, but their influence on vote choice is marginal. Competitive populism in Indian politics has led to the development of an “ante-up quid pro quo” system, with politicians and parties forced to put money and goods into the pot before they could play a hand. And this is amplified by weak party organisations, limited campaigning periods and the humongous size of constituencies. Thus, campaign finance reforms should begin by increasing the number of constituencies and the duration of the official campaign period. Smaller constituencies with longer campaigning period are more likely to curb the negative influence of money in politics in comparison to putting a cap on the expenditure limit.

Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma are with University of California, Berkeley. Harsh Shah is an alumnus of the same university

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 5:30:06 PM |

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