Home / News / India /  When democracy fails the poor

In India, the poor are often the more committed and regular voters. Yet, they have not succeeded in using their vote to ensure an adequate standard of living for themselves. A new study by Rohini Pande of Yale University argues that this is true elsewhere too: the poorest in many middle-income economies have not benefited from high economic growth rates common since the early 2000s.

Even though the vast majority of the poor live in countries with democratically elected governments, they lack the political power to claim a fair share in their countries’ growth, Pande writes.

Poor countries have larger vulnerable populations than the rich ones, but their elected officials enact less redistributive policies, she argues. India, home to both the largest number of extreme poor in the world and the third-largest number of billionaires, is a perfect example of this paradox.

The state’s limited capacity to deliver anti-poverty programs may be one reason. But, any redistribution will ultimately depend on the economic and political influence different socio-economic groups wield on the state, Pande argues.

This presents a “catch-22" situation in a democracy: the poor lack the political power to command sufficient resources that could improve their economic position.

In many settings, the economic elite can exploit their social connections and economic power to buy out poor voters. This, along with lower literacy and less access to relevant political information, can further weaken the ability of the poor to use their vote to hold politicians accountable, Pande writes.

She suggests that reforms in democratic institutions should ensure effective enfranchisement of the poor, transparency initiatives, and mechanisms to enable greater citizen engagement with state officials. This can improve the ability of democracies to deliver policies that can change the lives of the poor.

Also read: Can democracy work for the poor?

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