In a previous blog post “Electoral turnout, why should we care“, I mentioned that India was an outlier with respect to the voting behavior of poor people, because poor people tend to have a higher turnout than rich people, whereas it is the contrary in other countries. Another puzzle in Indian politics is the victory of a so-called “elite party”, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the national elections in 2014. This puzzle is addressed in the book of Tariq Thachil “Elite Parties, poor voters. How social services win votes in India?” published in Cambridge University Press. In this book Tariq Thachil tries to understand how the BJP massively gained votes from marginal and poor citizens, without doing a programmatic shift, and without losing votes from the rich.
His hypothesis is that the BJP gained votes from the poor by privately providing them with services such as education or health through affiliated welfare organizations. Outsourcing service provision is a way to gain votes from the poor while retaining votes from the rich because no programmatic change is needed to capture this new electorate. To test this hypothesis Tariq Thachil first rules out alternative explanations. He first shows that there was no programmatic shift towards lower classes’ interests. For example he shows that the BJP had “a reduced commitment to pro-poor public spending”. Secondly, it is also commonly believed that the BJP gained votes by crystallizing the attention of people around religious questions. He rules out this potential explanation by showing that the prevalence of religious riots in Indian States is not correlated to vote gains from lower castes for the BJP. Third, he demonstrates that the gain in votes is not driven by a strategy of inclusion of lower castes candidates or by joining forces with parties that usually appeal to low-caste voters.
He then turns to a direct test of his hypothesis. Using econometric analysis and data from the National Election Study, a post-poll survey, he analyses the determinants of voting behavior. He tests the hypothesis that poor and rich voters vote for the BJP for different reasons. His hypothesis is that welfare organizations were key determinants of the votes from the poor for the BJP but did not affect the votes of the rich. So poor voters should be influenced in their vote by the presence of welfare organizations but not by the program of the BJP. Rich voters, which did not benefit from services, should be influenced by ideology and not by welfare organizations. And this is exactly what he finds. Non-party organization affiliation, which includes religious or welfare organization affiliation, strongly predicts voting for BJP for lower castes, but not for higher castes. And ideology does not predict voting BJP for lower castes, whereas it does so for higher castes.
Next, focusing on a State where the progression of the BJP was particularly important, Chhattisgarh, he studies if the vote share for BJP was higher in villages that have services from welfare organizations and within villages if villagers that benefited from the services have a higher probability to vote for the BJP. He finds robust evidence that this is the case.
While the question that Tariq Thachil addresses is specific to India, the answer he provides is relevant for other contexts and explains similar patterns that were observed in other countries. In particular, Tariq Thachil argues that the strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Yemen and Indonesia was similar to the one of the BJP. More generally, it shows how an increase in votes for a specific party does not always mean that people are more attracted by the ideology of this party.