Will Corruption Matter to India’s Low-Income Voters?

As India’s new anti-corruption Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party (AAP) jostles for votes in India’s ongoing (six-week long!) national elections, it must figure out a way to challenge entrenched voting habits and engage with low-income voters on the issue of corruption. The AAP has been described (and sometimes dismissed) as a middle-class phenomenon–a political upstart that will have difficulty connecting with the country’s many low-income voters, who have long been expected to vote along community lines. But this dismissive attitude–and the idea that anticorruption is predominantly a middle-class concern–may not be justified. In fact, the evidence seems to suggest that an anticorruption message is particularly likely to resonate with poorer voters.

Recent research focused on Europe indicates that lower socio-economic status (SES) tend to perceive corruption as a more serious problem (both in terms of its prevalence and its impact) than do higher SES voters. A 2010 paper by Matthias Pázmándy crunches Eurobarometer data and finds support for that conclusion; this paper by Natalia Melgar and colleagues reaches similar conclusions. If lower-SES people in India also perceive more corruption, then an anticorruption party like the AAP may well find greater support among lower SES people.

The AAP’s own debut electoral performance in Delhi supports this notion. The party’s core activists in Delhi included plenty of upper-middle class Delhiites–young professionals, academics, activists, and university students–and the AAP also relied heavily on social media to spread its message. All of this fed the notion that AAP is a middle-class party, and that its ideas and promises would not sway Delhi’s poor. However, Srinivasan Ramani of India’s Economics & Political Weekly uses GIS tools to map AAP’s share of the votes across Delhi’s seventy constituencies, and finds that the party did best in areas that had high concentrations of slums. In other words, the AAP’s electoral success in Delhi–the party won enough seats to form a minority government–relied heavily on votes from the city’s poorest people. Pázmándy’s study of Europe suggests that one possible reason for this is that corruption may be a bigger, more relevant issue among low-SES Delhiites than their better-off counterparts.

Will this be enough to get low-income Indians to vote for AAP? I hope so. For decades, community ties, cults of personality and promises of subsidies have guided electoral decisions among low-SES Indians, especially those living outside the country’s major urban centers. This is starting to change: more than ever, campaign phrases like “development” and “good governance” resonate with voters in India’s poorest states. Take Bihar, for example. Voters in this northern state–one of India’s poorest and most backward–long elected leaders on the basis of caste and religion. Today, its Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, promotes his track record of curbing corruption, building infrastructure and empowering women on the campaign trail. And across the country, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is widely expected to form the next government, showcases its leader Narendra Modi’s efficient government in Gujarat state.

This change is by no means universal: the BJP’s B.S. Yeddyurappa demonstrates that the public is too willing to forgive, or tolerate, corruption. Nonetheless, the shifting paradigm does benefit AAP. Low-SES voters across India now have corruption and governance on their minds as they head to the polls. If these voters have faith in AAP’s single-minded focus on corruption, the party might yet surprise India with a strong showing once the election results are announced on May 16.

5 thoughts on “Will Corruption Matter to India’s Low-Income Voters?

  1. This is interesting, Raj. I’m wondering how relevant the Eurobarometer study might be to this specific issue, though. In particular, Pázmándy study found that corruption perceptions were higher among “lower-level employees, self-employed from the primary industries, and workers.” These categories might be more widely represented in the lower-middle class in India than they would be among slum dwellers. More broadly, I’m curious as to whether people of lower socio-economic status in India and Europe are truly comparable in the context of corruption. If anything, one might think that the very poor in India might be even more sensitive to corruption than their European analogues, because they have less disposable income.

    • Phil, I had the same instinct as you regarding the usefulness of a study of Europeans in the Indian context. But, the evidence that areas with slums were strongholds for the AAP suggests that there’s something to the general theory.

      I think there are two questions when it comes to building the AAP or a similar movement: first, who’s going to run (or represent) it; and second, who’s going to vote for it. It makes some historical sense that the leadership of the AAP (and therefore its visible core) might be middle-class at the moment. After all, that’s the group that, across history, has had the resources and the incentive to get involved in politics and challenge the status quo and elites. But the idea that the leadership or the party and its electoral base might be different doesn’t shock me. Perhaps this indicates that the AAP should do more to engage and activate low-SES Indians as the face rather than just the votes of their party.

  2. The poorer you are then the less money you have to buy a service so even when you do buy the service -which should be free-it hurts a lot. Especially when the person you pay is much richer than you. He doesn’t live in a slum for starters.

    Sewerage and water are generally problems in slums. Where is the money for these things going is the question of the poor in the slums. Project X for sewerage. Promise Y for water. You know the sort of thing. Answer: disappearing by corruption.

    Hence they will vote for AAP. Or, I would think they would. High corruption and high poverty should result in higher anticorruption votes.

    A further point is the history of politics. It is of the nature of things that anticorruption parties can rise and be successful after a long history of the politics of corruption by mainstream parties. The anticorruption party gets an opening after the long time of broken promises. Bit like the history of the green movement. It’s opening was caused by a long period of ignoring the environment by mainstream parties. They were never sufficiently popular to govern but they were sufficiently popular to influence greatly. This may be true of anticorruption parties. Not enough votes to rule but enough to influence in the right direction.

  3. Nice post. Hope you are right but Banfeld and Wilson’s analysis of the decline of corruption in American cities in the 20th in their City Politics offers a caution. The mugwumps* or “goo-goos” sought for years to persuade inner-city voters to vote for reform candidates. But the tangible benefits – a patronage job, the proverbial lump of coals at Christmas, and so forth – that corrupt machines provided kept these voters aligned with them. The corrupt machines lost their hold over voters as the private sector, with its better paying jobs.

    History never repeats itself, to the frustration of social scientists, so past performance is not a sure predictor of future results. The story Kate Boo tells in Behind the Beautiful Forever suggests too that Indian machine politics differs from that Banfeld and Wilson recount. The police are the major oppressor of the poor in Behind the Beautiful Forever whereas in City Politics the police appear more often as a friend of the poor – either because they are from the same ethnic group or because the machine ensured they were.

    *“Mugwumps” has to be one of the more colorful expressions in American politics, and I can’t for the life of me understand why it has fallen out of use. The demise of “goo goos” or “good government types,” is another matter. But “mugwumps”?

  4. Thank you all for your comments, and thank you Rick for introducing me to “Mugwamps”!

    I’ll start with Rick’s comment on patronage. Outsiders will want to vote other outsiders to power, and then reap the benefits they have long been denied. For an Indian example, we can look at the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a party of (and initially for) “low-caste” Indians in the state of Uttar Pradesh. BSP is deeply corrupt, but it feels good as a long-marginalized community to see your own reap the benefits of political power. This is the sort of thing that AAP is up against.

    One reason why AAP may succeed in big city slums is because many slum dwellers in places like Delhi and Mumbai come from elsewhere in the country. They are marginalized in city and state politics. AAP is an attractive option because they seem to avoid identity politics–they don’t claim to represent the native population. When you can’t reap the benefits of corrupt practices, it’s good to vote for the anti-corruption party.

    Eden, you have a great point. AAP needs more low-SES candidates. It has a few, but its best-known candidates are all upper-middle class or wealthy.

    Phil, in a city like Mumbai, where real estate prices are insane and there’s a dearth of low-cost housing, many slum-dwellers are “lower-level employees, self-employed from the primary industries, and workers.” In other words, slum-dwellers include the lower-middle class: people who can afford to buy a DVD player, maybe even a bike, but must live in shanties.

    As AM suggests, if you’re a slum dweller, you will be asking why you need to pay a local strongman some ridiculous amount of money for two hours a day of electricity stolen from the grid. These are serious concerns. I believe its useless voting for AAP in parliamentary election if this is your concern–you need them in local government.

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