The election results on May 19 are proof that, beyond a point, Indian voters don’t really care about corruption and corrupt politicians.
The only two chief ministers who held on to power—J Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal—have faced charges of corruption in the recent past. But voters seem to have flatly ignored this.
In 2014, Jayalalithaa was sentenced to four years in prison and fined Rs100 crore for allegedly misusing her office to amass unaccounted wealth worth Rs66 crore ($9.8 million). In West Bengal, members of Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) party were alleged to have been involved in the collapse of the Saradha Group, a huge Ponzi scheme. More recently, a sting operation showed TMC politicians allegedly accepting bribes.
It’s not that Indians aren’t aware of corrupt politicians. In fact, before the general elections of 2014, a survey of 3,000 Indians revealed that 75% believe corruption is widespread in the government.
So what explains this phenomenon?
The most exhaustive explanation in recent times is perhaps from a speech Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan delivered in 2014:
While the poor do not have the money to “purchase” public services that are their right, they have a vote that the politician wants. The politician does a little bit to make life a little more tolerable for his poor constituents – a government job here, an FIR registered there, a land right honoured somewhere else. For this, he gets the gratitude of his voters, and more important, their vote. Of course, there are many politicians who are honest and genuinely want to improve the lot of their voters. But perhaps the system tolerates corruption because the street smart politician is better at making the wheels of the bureaucracy creak, however slowly, in favour of his constituents. And such a system is self-sustaining. An idealist who is unwilling to “work” the system can promise to reform it, but the voters know there is little one person can do. Moreover, who will provide the patronage while the idealist is fighting the system? So why not stay with the fixer you know even if it means the reformist loses his deposit?
Rajan’s full explanation is available here.
There’s some research that broadly supports Rajan’s theory. A 2015 study (pdf) by Sandeep Sukhtankar of the Dartmouth College and Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argued that benefits to voters trump concerns over crime. In other words, when a politician promises benefits, people vote for him or her irrespective of the corrupt persona:
Recent survey data analyzed by Sircar and Vaishnav (2015) finds that at least 26% of respondents admitted that they would vote for a candidate with serious criminal charges but who delivers benefits to them. What is especially intriguing is that there is a strong association—at the state level—between support for criminality and expressions of caste bias (as measured through a list experiment from the same survey). This finding is in line with the “criminality as credibility” hypothesis.
In 2012, a group of academics and economists—Abhijeet Banerjee, Donald P Green, Jeffery McManus, and Rohini Pande—conducted a study (pdf) on 260 village clusters in Uttar Pradesh to analyse voter behaviour towards corrupt politicians. They found that limited information about candidates and the absence of alternatives often force poor voters to choose a corrupt candidate:
First, contrary to the voter preference hypothesis, voters presented with vignettes that randomly vary the attributes of competing legislative candidates for local, state, and national office become much less likely to express a preference for candidates who are alleged to be criminal or corrupt. Second, voter distaste for criminal and venal candidates is unrelated to education status, ethnicity, or political knowledge. Third, voters exposed to vignettes in which the politician belonging to their ethnically favoured party was the target of allegations report reduced ethnic party allegiance. The results imply that the electoral performance of candidates who face serious allegations is attributable to factors other than voters’ preferences for patronage, such as limited information about candidate characteristics or the absence of credible alternative candidates with clean records.
The lack of information is an issue that Carnegie’s Vaishnav also points to in another research paper:
Across all levels, from local to national politics, a significant number of politicians in India have thrived in elections even though they have had criminal cases—often of a serious nature— pending against them. Some researchers as well as representatives of civil society have argued that this is an outgrowth of the ignorance of India’s voters who, faced with a dearth of information about the true nature of their political candidates, unwittingly elect (and reelect) people linked to criminal activity.
There has also been some discussion about voters’ attitude towards corrupt politicians if they belong to the same caste or religion. A 2015 study (pdf) by Avidit Acharya, John E Roemer and Rohini Somanathan pointed out that in some instances caste does matter:
For instance, respondents may take into account the fact that caste is correlated with class and be assigning a party’s policy towards a particular caste. Alternatively, respondents who have a strong caste bias in favour of a particular party may report a lower perceived level of corruption for that party for psychological reasons.