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The politics of patronage

The politics of patronage
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First Published: Fri, Oct 15 2010. 10 52 PM IST
Updated: Fri, Oct 15 2010. 10 52 PM IST
Inequality and Political Clientelism: Evidence from South India—by Thomas Markussen, University of Copenhagen
This paper attempts to answer the question whether local governments in the four southern states of India— Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka—are forces of social change, or vehicles of patronage.
If recent events in the Karnataka legislature are any guide, there should be little doubt about where the interests of politicians lie.
The paper investigates the role of political parties in local governments by studying clientelism based on party membership. Clientelism is just a fancy way of saying that people exchange votes for political favours. In other words, the author has tried to find out whether the benefits of government programmes go to people who support the political party in power.
The author starts off by speculating about the reasons for political clientelism. They’re pretty straightforward —Markussen writes that “from the point of view of ordinary citizens in poor countries, patron-client relationships serve as insurance devices and as means of obtaining access to scarce resources”. He cites a paper by Robinson and Verdier (2002) which argued that political patronage is fostered by high inequality and low productivity. Low productivity leads to poverty, which increases the demand for the security offered by patrons. Inequality typically means that potential patrons command large amounts of resources relative to potential clients and are, therefore, more easily able to afford paying for their loyalty and services.
The author sampled data on distribution of BPL (below poverty line) ration cards from several gram panchayats in the four southern states to arrive at his conclusions. The surveys were conducted in 2002. The author found evidence of political clientelism only in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, but not in Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh. In Andhra Pradesh, he believes the Janmabhoomi programme at the time created a parallel structure of local governance bypassing the panchayats. He speculates that Karnataka suffers from an earlier form of clientelism—“clientelism of the notables”—or patronage extended by local notable persons of high caste or status, which is not so dependent on political parties. He argues that political parties in states such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala have been successful in supplanting the power of these notables. Seen from this perspective, patronage by the political parties is an advance from earlier and more unequal forms of patronage.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that this is the ideal form of democracy or a proper use of scarce resources. After all, social programmes are meant for the poor, not for the followers of any one political party. A rather strange result from the study was that in Tamil Nadu, while party-based clientalism is strong for villages with AIADMK presidents of gram panchayats, it doesn’t exist for villages that have a DMK gram panchayat president.
The author says that this was perhaps because the AIADMK was in power in Tamil Nadu at the time and so resources may have been channelled to AIADMK gram panchayats.
Yet another conjecture is that, according to Markussen, while the DMK practices “assertive” populism, such as reservations and jobs and beneficiaries require a minimum level of resources necessary to benefit from these type of services, the AIADMK practices “paternalist” populism, such as providing welfare goods. Since the provision of BPL cards is not typical of “assertive” populism, says the author, the DMKgram panchayatsdid not have political party clientalism. This conclusion, however, seems rather suspect, for why on earth shouldn’t the DMK practice “paternalist” populism if it gets in the votes. In Kerala, both the Congress and the CPI(M) vie with each other in political clientalism. And finally, the author also finds that greater equality reduces this kind of patronage. His prescriptions: decentralization doesn’t necessarily mean good governance; land reform, so that inequality is reduced; and greater openness, to prevent misuse of power by the local politicians
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First Published: Fri, Oct 15 2010. 10 52 PM IST