The strategic logic of money flows in Indian elections

  • Blog Post Date 16 July, 2018
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Why do political candidates give voters handouts during election campaigns, even when they are unable to monitor voter behaviour? Based on a qualitative study in Mumbai, this article argues that competitive elections prompt candidates to distribute handouts for strategic reasons: candidates expect opponents to distribute handouts and hence do so themselves to split votes of handout-reactive voters – rather than to attempt to ‘buy’ votes per se.

Electoral handouts – gifts given to voters by political candidates during campaigns – are a common feature of many emerging democracies. They also appear to be common in contemporary India. Why do candidates spend so much on these last-minute gifts to voters? This is the puzzle my recent qualitative work on Mumbai elections explores.

Electoral handouts for ‘vote-buying’

One simple reason might be: because it buys them votes. Political scientists have most often interpreted handouts as the first part of such quid pro quo exchange. According to these arguments, handouts constitute the first part of an exchange that requires recipients to engage in behaviours they might not have engaged in otherwise. Some studies suggest that handouts affect turnout among populations who receive them (Nichter 2008).1 Other arguments around ‘vote-buying’ suggest that handouts also influence the choices of voters (Auyero 2000, Brusco et al. 2003). In both cases, a quasi-contract between candidates and voters is enabled by similar techniques: ‘brokers’ who constitute the ‘machines’ of candidates collect information on voters, and hence ‘monitor’ their behaviour. This monitoring allows machines to detect or predict which voters will follow through with their end of the deal (Brusco et al. 2003, Auyero 2000; Finan and Schechter 2012). This makes vote-buying relatively efficient in spite of the secret ballot.

Competitive environments with multiple actors and no monitoring of voter behaviour

Yet the delivery of electoral handouts does not always square with these ‘machine politics’ accounts. In many cases, the political actors who deliver handouts do not monitor voters, either because they do not have machines that allow them to do so or because they choose not to. They instead distribute gifts (in kind or in cash) in competitive environments in which multiple actors give gifts to overlapping groups of voters, and in which none of these actors monitors these fluxes of money. Recent studies in Kenya (Kramon 2016), Peru (Muñoz 2014), and Mumbai (Björkman 2014) suggest that electoral handouts may be at least as prevalent in such competitive contexts. Accordingly, scholars have developed a variety of alternative arguments – insisting on the informational, relational, and cultural role of handouts – to explain these patterns. Kramon (2016) and Muñoz (2014) argue that lavish spending provides relevant information about candidates. Björkman (2014) emphasises the relation-building aspect of gift-giving. Piliavski (2014) and Lawson and Greene (2014) contends that cultural norms explain gift-giving.

My recent study on handouts in Mumbai (Chauchard 2018) challenges both of these literatures . In Mumbai, all serious candidates shower liberal amounts of cash on poor communities during campaigns. Besides, while handouts are common, some of the candidates provide many more handouts than others, leading to dramatic differences in expenses across candidates. These patterns raise two important theoretical questions about the motivations of gift-givers in contexts such as contemporary Mumbai. First, what motivates candidates to provide handouts when they know that their competitors also provide them, and that they cannot monitor the effects of these overlapping fluxes of money? Second, why do some candidates deliver more handouts than others?

My observations and repeated interviews with over 100 party workers between 2014 and 2018, confirm that ‘machine’ arguments do not fit this case. In Mumbai, candidates and parties rarely engage in the costly monitoring inherent to ‘machine’-based strategies: my observations show that most parties including the Shiv Sena do not have proper ‘machines’ in Mumbai. Besides, political workers are unable to engage in much monitoring around elections. Drawing on observations and interviews of low-level party operatives, I also show that while alternative explanations insisting on the informational, relational, or cultural role of money, explain why candidates without monitoring capabilities provide handouts, they generally do not explain differences in spending.

Gift-giving is rational

This leads me to propose a different explanation for the behaviour of handout-providers in Mumbai, and beyond – in competitive polities in which handouts are common. I argue that “prisoner’s dilemma”2 often explain the strategies of candidates in these contexts. Mumbai political operatives see handouts as a highly uncertain strategy. Yet they also acknowledge that deviating from the strategy likely adopted by other candidates is exceedingly risky. This is because they tend to assume that their competitors will provide handouts, and that this spending will reduce their own vote-share. A vast majority of political operatives thus perceives that one has to provide gifts, insofar as a small fraction of the electorate only votes for candidates who provide handouts, hence disqualifying those who do not.

This leads them to provide handouts not to ‘buy’ votes per se, but instead, to counter or neutralise, the effects of their competitors’ handouts and minimise the chance that they lose an election because they did not bid on handout-responsive voters. In game-theoretical terms, the combined presence of handout-responsive voters and multiple gift-givers – in a context of limited information – makes gift-giving a ‘dominant strategy’ for all players. This strategic argument also explains why candidates end up spending different amounts: since candidates feel unequally vulnerable to handout-responsive votes, some need to spend more than others to neutralise their competitors.

This suggests that the delivery of handouts may owe to different rationales in different political contexts. Insofar as patronage appears to play a major role in Indian elections, it also illustrates how quid-pro-quo strategies between candidates and voters can survive in the absence of ‘machines’, and when levels of political competition are high. This calls for added sophistication in the literature on handouts. Contrary to what has sometimes been argued, it can be rational for candidates who face stiff competition and who do not have the ability to monitor voters to distribute handouts. In such context, these handouts however are defensive attempts at splitting the votes of handout-reactive voters rather than attempts at ‘vote-buying’ per se. This also suggests that rising levels of political competition in India over the past 30 years may contribute to the omnipresence of handouts in the country today.


  1. Other examples however suggest that handouts are delivered to selectively depress turnout, as in Cox and Kousser (1981).
  2. In game theory, a prisoner’s dilemma refers to a situation in which two individuals acting in their own self-interests do not result in the optimal outcome, since both parties choose to protect themselves at the expense of the other participant. As a result of following a purely logical thought process, both participants find themselves in a worse state than if they had cooperated with each other in the decision-making process.

Further Reading

  • Auyero, Javier (2000), “The Logic of Clientelism in Argentina: An Ethnographic Account”, Latin American Research Review, 35(3): 55-81.
  • Björkman, Lisa (2014), “You Can’t Buy a Vote: Meanings of Money in a Mumbai Election”, American Ethnologist, 41(4): 617-634.
  • Brusco, Valeria, Marcelo Nazareno and Susan C Stokes (2003), “Vote-Buying in Argentina”, Latin American Research Review, Vol. 39, No. 2: 66-88.
  • Chauchard, Simon (2018), “Electoral Handouts in Mumbai Elections: The Cost of Political Competition”, Asian Survey, Vol. 58, No. 2: 341-364.
  • Cox, Gary W and J Morgan Kousser (1981), “Turnout and Rural Corruption: New York as a Test Case”, American Journal of Political Science, 25(4): 646-663.
  • Finan, Federico and Laura Schechter (2012), “Vote‐Buying and Reciprocity”, Econometrica, Econometric Society, Vol. 80(2): 863-881.
  • Javier, Auyero (2000), “The Logic of Clientelism in Argentina: An Ethnographic Account”, Latin American Research Review, 35(3): 55-58.
  • Kramon, Eric (2016), “Electoral Handouts as Information: Explaining Unmonitored Vote Buying”, World Politics, Volume 68, Number 3.
  • Lawson, Chappell and Kenneth F Greene (2014), “Making Clientelism Work: How Norms of Reciprocity Increase Voter Compliance”, Comparative Politics, Vol. 47, No. 1, pp. 61–77.
  • Muñoz, Paula (2014), “An Informational Theory of Campaign Clientelism: The Case of Peru”, Comparative Politics, 47(1): 79-98.
  • Nichter, Simeon (2008), “Vote Buying or Turnout Buying? Machine Politics and the Secret Ballot”, American political Science Review, Vol. 102, No. 1, February 2008.
  • Piliavski, A (2014), ‘India’s demotic democracy and its ‘depravities’’, in A Piliavski (ed.), Patronage as Politics in South Asia, Cambridge University Press.
  • Stokes, Susan (2005), “Perverse Accountability”, American Political Science Review, 99(3): 315–325.
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