February, 2015

The Poverty of Politics

Sonali Chowdhry writes a synopsis of the Crossover Series conducted by Abhijit Banerjee (Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics, and Founder and Director, Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA)

It was the perfect prequel to the great political churning witnessed in New Delhi’s Assembly elections in February. Our lecture with Professor Abhijit Banerjee, delivered with gentle humour, prompted us to review widely-held assumptions about India’s democracy by showing us critical evidence gathered from recent field studies.

The first confounding question raised was on the deplorable status of sanitation and sewage facilities in Delhi. Proceeding systematically, his research revealed that this is not a consequence of indifferent residents (complaints are many and frequent); resource constraints (as evidenced by MLAs’ generous expenditures on road construction and repair) or residential mobility (public hygiene is poor even in areas inhabited by long-term settlers and not due to seasonal migrant populations that may be less interested in such long-term investments).

The immediate underlying cause can be traced to the lack of accountability amongst private contractors who are in-charge of building and maintaining these public toilets. However, it is also indicative of a larger phenomenon, that of broad centralisation of politics in India which gives greater emphasis to prominent national leaders and their ideological leanings than issues of local concern. In order to improve the status quo, Professor Banerjee suggested further division of densely populated urban settlements into smaller administrative units with clearer jurisdictions for local agencies.

The lecture then progressed to analyse the curious nature of electoral behaviour in India. Identity and caste-based voting has long been considered synonymous with Indian politics, yet the prevalent belief that voters’ loyalties are firmly entrenched within these defined ethnic boundaries was challenged by a J-PAL study in rural Uttar Pradesh. Preferences for same-caste candidates declined significantly after voters were asked to vote on development issues over caste through information campaigns. In another intervention, distribution of objective report cards on incumbents’ performance decreased the likelihood of caste-based voting.

These findings entail that democratic choices are being exercised within an environment of inadequate information as voters faced with seemingly similar candidates end up using caste as a filter to choose. This practice feeds into a collective action failure wherein each voter supports his/her caste candidate, presuming that everyone else is adopting similar strategies. Contestants are no longer driven by the need to perform and consequently, we witness a breakdown of the system of incentives that assures citizens’ needs are addressed in a democratic social order. In light of these research findings, efforts to improve transparency in party funding and disclosures of candidates’ wealth, criminal histories and work output empower voters, reward performance with electoral gains and restore the delicate balance of institutional checks that are vital underpinnings of a functional democracy.

(The writer is Fellow at Young India Fellowship, Class of 2015 and a Rhodes Scholar)

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