Targeting Ordinary Voters or Political Elites? Why Pork is Distributed Along Partisan Lines in India

Author Summary by Anjali Thomas Bohlken

AJPS - Targeting Ordinary Voters or Political ElitesIn many societies, governments are responsible for delivering a range of important goods and services to citizens such as water, sanitation, roads, and electrification. Yet, although these goods and services could potentially play a significant role in enhancing citizens’ well-being, they are often not allocated to the people and places that would benefit the most from them. Why is this the case? The dominant explanation offered by previous research is that government actors often seek to allocate public resources in such a way as to cater to those citizens who support their political party. But do the preferences of ordinary citizens – or at least certain groups of them – always remain central in shaping government actors’ allocation decisions? My forthcoming article entitled “Targeting Ordinary Voters or Political Elites?” in the American Journal of Political Science suggests that the answer is no. Specifically, I argue in the article that government actors often allocate public works projects not only with the goal of catering to ordinary citizens but also with the goal of winning over the co-operation of political elites occupying positions at lower levels of government.

To provide evidence for this argument, I utilize data on over 70,000 public works projects proposed by Members of Parliament (MPs) in India representing seven states in North India. Using these data, I show that these MPs allocated systematically higher project expenditures in the years just after a state election to areas controlled by state legislators belonging to their party than to otherwise similar areas controlled by opposition party state legislators. I provide further evidence to suggest that these state legislators used these allocations not to cater to ordinary voters at large, but to grant favors to individuals who provided them with electoral assistance or to derive opportunities for private kickbacks.

Why might MPs seek to benefit their partisan colleagues in the state legislature in this way? The reason – I argue – is that these colleagues often have control over the government machinery responsible for implementing public works projects and, if they choose, could help ensure that these projects are successfully implemented. In turn, the successful implementation of these projects could be important for the MP’s own re-election prospects. Thus, MPs may allocate these rewards as part of a quid pro quo exchange in order to win over the co-operation of their partisan colleagues. Consistent with this idea, I find that MPs belonging to the state ruling party who were facing imminent re-election witnessed a greater rate of success in the implementation of public works projects that were located in the areas controlled by co-partisan state legislators.

The findings advance our collective understanding of why, when and how national politicians may have an incentive to cater to political elites rather than citizens when allocating public works projects. In doing so, they shed new light on how citizens in multi-level systems may be disadvantaged by public programs that allow for political discretion in their implementation.

About the Author: Anjali Thomas Bohlken is Assistant Professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Institute of Technology. Her research “Targeting Ordinary Voters or Political Elites? Why Pork Is Distributed Along Partisan Lines in India” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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