Does corruption influence voter choice?

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:37 pm IST

Published - May 27, 2014 01:47 am IST

There is overwhelming consensus that the Congress-led UPA has performed poorly in this election owing to charges of massive corruption at the highest level, besides lack of leadership and the government’s inability to control price rise. Political commentators and the BJP-led NDA made repeated references during election campaigns to the coal scam, the 2G spectrum allocation scam, the >commonwealth games (CWG) scam and the >Adarsh Housing scam among others. But the BJP too faced its own share of trouble — among other accusations, Narendra Modi’s government in Gujarat was alleged to be favouring the >Adani business group and Nitin Gadkari was alleged to be involved with the Purti group. Notwithstanding the campaign rhetoric, however, the issue of corruption does not matter in the way commentators and political parties think it does.

Knowledge of scams

This is not to say that voters in India do not care about corruption. There is a crucial difference in how voters think about corruption and how political parties and leaders represent this issue in their campaigns. Voters care more about the corruption they encounter on an everyday basis, whereas parties make the issue a spectacle.

In our view, big-ticket corruption does not determine electoral outcomes in India for two important reasons. First, a large proportion of the electorate has never heard of the corruption scams that occupy newspaper headlines and prime-time television space. In July 2013 (tracker I poll), Lokniti-CSDS contacted more than 18,000 citizens and found that awareness among the general public on scams such as 2G and >coalgate was quite low. Only half of the sampled respondents said that they had heard of the coal scam; 40 per cent knew of the >2G scam . For all other scams, less than a third of the citizens reported that they had heard of them. Not surprisingly, the awareness of all of these scams is much lower among women, the poor and respondents residing in rural areas.

Second, did knowledge of a scam influence which party a citizen preferred? The 2013 tracker poll had asked respondents whom they would vote for in the elections. We estimated a statistical model that would asses whether a respondent’s knowledge of the scams would influence which party he/she preferred, after controlling his/her demographic characteristics (age, gender, caste, religion, economic class and locality of the respondent, and his/her exposure to the media). We found that there was no statistically significant influence of the knowledge of scams on the respondent’s preference for the the two main parties — the Congress and the BJP.

The table shows that the likelihood of a voter preferring the Congress remained almost the same whether or not he/she had heard of the party’s involvement in scams. Those who had heard of the scams were a little more likely to vote for the BJP but the difference in the probability of a voter voting for the BJP after hearing about the scams is no more than 10 per cent (and that too only for the CWG scam) and does not pass the threshold of statistical significance. In layman’s terms, the difference in the probability of a voter voting for the BJP after hearing of a scam and one opting for the BJP without having any knowledge of a scam is zero.

Local-level corruption Why do these scams have no bearing on vote choice? In our view, this is because it is the corruption of local-level institutions which matters more to voters. In the State of the Nation survey conducted in January 2009, respondents were asked if it was possible to get work done in a government office if the work was legitimate and if one had all the documents. Only one in every five respondents said yes. The others said that despite having all the documents, even for legitimate work one needed to either know someone important, pay a bribe, or both. Similarly, data from the State of the Nation survey (2011) show that people are much more concerned with the everyday corruption they face while interacting with local-level state institutions — the police, Block Development Officers etc. It is extremely difficult for a voter to use this local-level corruption as the basis for casting his/her vote. Since most local-level corruption cases are directly linked to state officials and are not directly linked to any particular party, corruption is not an issue on which voters discriminate while exercising their franchise.

(Pradeep Chhibber, Harsh Shah and Rahul Verma are with the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, U.S.)

Also read

>The importance of high turnout

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