Who swings the vote in India?

“Given the secrecy of ballot, middlemen cannot directly monitor the votes of citizens.” Voters in Jorhat district, Assam, in 2016.Ritu Raj Konwar

“Given the secrecy of ballot, middlemen cannot directly monitor the votes of citizens.” Voters in Jorhat district, Assam, in 2016.Ritu Raj Konwar  

From matchmaking to brokering on behalf of the state to making deals with foreign companies, the presence of middlemen and brokers is a ubiquitous phenomenon in India. It would not be an exaggeration to say that in some senses, these middlemen run the everyday affairs of Indian society. This, in turn, has given rise to a mythical idea of vote banks. In scholarly and journalistic accounts, these middlemen help citizens get documents, navigate the bureaucracy, access the benefits of government schemes and other such things, and thus they have “control” over voters’ choice on election day. According to these theories, local politicians protect and nurture middlemen who mobilise voters on their behalf during elections. And these politicians, in turn, are part of a large patronage system that runs from State capitals to local constituencies.

There is no doubt that politicians in India serve as providers of patronage to citizens. Politicians across parties and at all levels distribute gifts to voters during election time in exchange for votes, and also help them navigate the contours of the state machinery. However, anyone who observed the widespread grief after the deaths of political leaders such as Y.S.R Reddy, Bal Thackeray, Kanshiram and Jayalalithaa could testify that the hold of such leaders on the masses in India cannot be explained simply by a transactional arrangement between them, brokered by middlemen. In line with the conversation we began in this series that such theories of vote buying in India are myths (“Money can’t always buy votes,” Nov. 15, 2017), here we suggest that contemporary research on the linkage between leaders and voters, mediated by such middlemen, overstates the importance of middlemen in influencing vote choice.

Voters and middlemen

Why do we think that voters in India do not reward the efforts of middlemen at the polling booth? First, very simply, most such transactions between voters and middlemen occur with a fee (or a petty bribe) and are hence compensated for. Second, because, as Jeffrey Witsoe had argued, brokers in India tend to be specialised and typically have arrangements with only one government office each. Voters need to approach several brokers during the period between elections with different requests and favours. Since they only have one vote to offer, they cannot possibly reward all the different brokers by voting the latters’ choice of party. Third, given the secrecy of ballot, these middlemen cannot directly monitor the votes of citizens, and hence the awarding of benefits cannot be conditioned on how people have voted. With a secret ballot, voters are free to vote for whomever they wish, regardless of any promised or received benefits.

Survey results from Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) bear this out. Only 14% of respondents to the 2009 National Election Study (NES) expressed belief that local politicians could figure out how people had behaved in the polling booth. Respondents were also asked whether those who have received such gifts feel obliged to vote for the party or candidate that provided them, or whether beneficiaries ultimately vote as they wish to vote, regardless of any gifts. Of the respondents who expressed an opinion, 71% felt that people vote as they wish to vote, even if they have received benefits. Similarly, in a 2015 survey conducted by Cicero Associates of more than 15,000 electors in Uttar Pradesh, respondents were more likely to approach local leaders (or middlemen) connected with the Samajwadi Party when they needed something done that involved the government, since they believed that officers would be more likely to listen to leaders associated with the ruling party. Nevertheless, there was no correlation in the survey between whom a voter was likely to approach in this situation and the party for which he or she ultimately voted.

These results also resonate with new research on the linkage between voters and middlemen. Simon Chauchard shows that voters in Mumbai are unlikely to interact with a single middleman belonging to a long-term partisan network. Tariq Thachil and Adam Auerbach report from their research on urban slums in north India that while slum leaders openly acknowledge distributing gifts and cash during elections, very few think it does any good. In fact, they think that on average, only 10% of the residents allow their votes to be affected by such gifts. Similarly, using evidence from rural Saharanpur, Rahul Verma and Rajkamal Singh argue that these vote banks are built over a long period of time, where personal loyalties and guardianship structures play a larger role than distribution of cash and goodies.

Party or candidate?

If these middlemen do not swing votes in India, then what does? In the 2009 and 2014 NES, Lokniti-CSDS asked voters what mattered more to them when they were deciding whom to vote for in the recent election — the party or the candidate? A follow-up question asked respondents what was the most important consideration for them with respect to voting for the party or the candidate. We classified the respondents to these questions in four ways: party-level characteristics (traditional supporters — those who are attracted to a party’s overall programme or its leadership), candidate-level characteristics (impressed by a candidate’s work, her personality, or finds her accessible), social network (voted along with the community) and clientelistic benefits (received or expects to receive benefits, or has personal ties). The data presented show that party-level characteristics were the most important consideration.

Ideally, in a parliamentary democracy, the responsibility of communicating the party’s ideological vision should lie with the party itself. However, in India, parties across the board are weakly institutionalised. As a result, leaders and their parties have become mirror reflections of each other. There is no distinction between the two as far as the ideological message is concerned. Witness the current campaign in Gujarat and how the top leaders of two national parties are fighting like provincial satraps. Leaders with ideological messages swing votes for their parties in India, not the middlemen and local politicians who have mere transactional relationships with voters.

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

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