Freebies and quotas have little impact on turnout or a party’s electoral fortunes.
Since Independence (in fact, for much of the early 20th century), the political landscape of India is dotted with multiple groups making demands on the state. With increasing political competition, electoral politics has become a mechanism to placate divergent group demands.
Over the years, a pattern seems to have emerged where territorial groups demand special packages (for example, Bundelkhand) or statehood (for example, Telangana). Social groups make community-specific demands, such as reservations (the recent inclusion of Jats in the Central OBC list), special status (as with minority status to Jains), or subsidies. Various state governments have also indulged in offering exclusive benefits to certain communities, such as unemployment allowance, free television sets, gold, free computers, etc. Elections in India have become an occasion for competitive populism, with the expectation that politicians can buy their way to victory. In this article, we show there is little evidence that populism wins elections.
Recent elections were no exception. Just before the 2014 election, the government announced reservations for Jats — a policy questioned by the Supreme Court and the National Commission for Backward Classes. Similarly, despite the Reserve Bank of India’s reservations, the Central government increased the number of subsidised gas cylinders available to voters.
The excessive use of freebies has even led the SC (judgment in S. Subramaniam Balaji vs Government of Tamil Nadu & Others on July 5, 2013) to intervene and ask the Election Commission to frame guidelines regarding what political parties can promise in their manifestos.
While parties seem to be engaging in this competitive populism, what is the evidence that these policies actually sway voters? Our research shows that these policies have little effect either on voter turnout or on support for a party. First, if populism (quotas or freebies) won elections, incumbent parties and their candidates would be less likely to lose. There is overwhelming evidence that suggests that incumbents face a big disadvantage in India, that is, their chances of re-election are lower than non-incumbents.
Second, the provision of quotas is no guarantee that the beneficiary group will continue to support the party that gave it quotas. Why? If one looks down the game tree, once a quota has been granted to a group, there may be no reason left for the group to continue supporting the party that gave it the quota. There is not much else the party can do for the group. The case of Jats in 2014 is a case in point. If populism in the form of extending reservations to the Jats would improve the electoral prospects of the party, the Congress should be doing better in the Jat-dominated areas of western UP, Haryana, Delhi and Rajasthan in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Opinion polls, continued…