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Populism doesn’t win polls

Freebies and quotas have little impact on turnout or a party’s electoral fortunes.

Parties offer freebies without informing voters about the fiscal impact of these policies. CR Sasikumar Parties offer freebies without informing voters about the fiscal impact of these policies. CR Sasikumar

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, however, suggest otherwise. Jats are not supporting the Congress in these areas and the Congress is expected to do really badly in parts of western UP and Haryana. These quotas have another unintended negative consequence. Providing quotas to a local caste group like the Jats alienates other castes that oppose the Jats in specific areas. In UP, once the Congress gave Jats the “quota”, Muslims, especially in western UP, were further alienated from the Congress.

Third, for these goodies to have an impact on whom a voter votes for, it is important parties be able to monitor the vote. This is the case in countries like Argentina, where it is said that voters are given one shoe before they enter the polling booth and the pair is completed once a ballot has been cast in favour of the party. In India, however, this is not the case. The EC goes to extreme lengths to ensure the secrecy of the ballot. Data from the 2009 National Election Study (NES) conducted by Lokniti-CSDS suggests that most respondents say that, at the local level, political leaders can rarely figure out whom they voted for — that is, their ballot is secret. The secrecy of the ballot has one consequence, however.

All parties engage in handing out freebies to voters who then vote as they wish. Interviews with local politicians in Karnataka pointed out the dilemma that parties face. Politicians admit giving money to voters, but also admit that the money they give does not influence for whom the vote is cast.

Fourth, we carried out a randomised control experiment at a few polling stations during the 2011 assembly elections in Tamil Nadu to estimate the effect of freebies. Tamil parties — especially the DMK and the AIADMK — are known for their extensive use of freebies before an election. We found that freebies did not increase turnout, that is, those who were told of the freebies were not any more likely to vote than those who did not hear of them. We also found that those who were made aware of the freebies being promised by the DMK, were not any more likely to vote for the DMK. Similarly, those voters who were made aware of the freebies being promised by the AIADMK were not any more likely to vote for the AIADMK.

Fifth, and perhaps the biggest travesty of all, is that political parties offer freebies without informing voters about the fiscal impact of these policies. It stands to reason that if anyone is offered something free of cost they are not likely to refuse it. It is no wonder that parties advocate these policies because their own surveys may tell them of the overwhelming popularity of freebies, such as increasing the number of subsidised cylinders or giving 600 litres of free water to all citizens. Once voters understand the implications of such a policy, they are less likely to support freebies.

In a survey experiment carried out in Delhi in conjunction with Lokniti-CSDS (Tracker III poll in February 2014), a randomly selected set of voters were asked whether they supported the freebies given by the government. Another randomly selected set of voters were given additional information in terms of how much these policies would cost the exchequer and were then asked whether they supported these policies. Those who were given complete information, that is, given the cost of the policy, were far less likely (by about 12 percentage points) to support freebies.

The fact that freebies do not influence turnout, the vote choice or a party’s electoral fortunes does not mean competitive populism will go away any time soon. Politicians face a real dilemma. They know that, given a secret ballot and that all parties engage in competitive populism, voters can exercise their independent choice. No politician will, however, take a risk by not pursuing a policy that eschews competitive populism because of the fear that “if I am not giving out freebies and my opponent is, will I lose the election because maybe that is what is expected of me at election time?” In other words, we are in an equilibrium that seems hard to displace.

The writers are with Lokniti-CSDS, Delhi and the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, US

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