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If elections become covert auctions, governance goes to gallows

Monday 24 April 2006, by MURALI*D.

APART from rolling beads and handling cash, Indians as a nation start counting only on two occasions: First, when a one-day-international is getting tense in the last few overs, and so every run counts. And, second, when election results start pouring in, with no clear majority, and so every seat counts.

Our voters and politicians are "amateur mathematicians and politicians," writes Kanchan Chandra with a wry sense of humour in her book titled Why Ethnic Parties Succeed, published by Cambridge University Press ( .

"They count the heads of co-ethnics across parties and the electorate, use these head counts to attach probabilities to different outcomes, and choose their strategies according to the result of these calculations."

Thus, when the author, an assistant professor in the department of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, went about visiting constituencies, she came across `sophisticated calculations of the chances of victory or influence’ and phrases such as `wave effect’, `plus factor’, `winning margin’, and `cutting votes’ were `a routine part of their vocabulary’.

Ethnic politics is not desi stuff. It flourishes across the democratic world, writes Chandra in the intro. "Canada, Spain, India, the UK, Israel, Sri Lanka, Macedonia, South Africa, and Russia are only a few examples."

However, `politicisation of ethnic differences’ is perceived as `a major threat to democratic stability.’

The central argument of Chandra is this: "An ethnic party is likely to succeed in a patronage-democracy when it has competitive rules for intra-party advancement and when the size of the ethnic group(s) it seeks to mobilise exceeds the threshold of winning or leverage imposed by the electoral system."

To clarify, here are a few definitions: Ethnic group refers to the nominal members of an ascriptive category such as race, language, caste, tribe, or religion.

Nominal membership is inherited. Ethnic party overtly represents itself as a champion of the ethnic group.

A party is `successful’, well, you-know-when, but what is `patronage democracy?’ There "the state monopolises access to jobs and services and elected officials have discretion in the implementation of laws allocating the jobs and services at the disposal of the state". With private sector growing, one hopes India would slowly shed the patronage tag and elected representatives turn humbler.

What you now have are `political entrepreneurs’ - those who seek to obtain or retain elected office.

A look at the wealth statements furnished by contesting candidates would lend credence to what Chandra says: That "those who have the capital to launch a political career tend to be `elites’... better-off than the voters whom they seek to mobilise."

Equation for the elites is EP(Office) = P(Win)*P(Org). "EP(Office) represents the expected probability of obtaining office in the long term. P(Win) the probability of the party’s winning an election in the long term, and P(Org) the probability of obtaining a suitable position in the part organisation for any individual elite."

A low P(Win) can be compensated by a high P(Org), which means it is all right if your party loses as long as you’re its president. Soniaji, please note, Sushma may like to say, but one never knows how tables may turn a month later.

At the end of the first phase of polling, when many political leaders were on the telly, one could notice how there was something uniform across parties - that they had bad throats as a result of too much campaigning. They can save on lozenges if somebody told them that they need not harangue on their manifesto. Voters everywhere discount parties’ issue positions, notes Chandra, for two reasons: "First, it requires a significant investment of time and resources for voters to familiarise themselves with party platforms. Second, party platforms typically include exaggerated promises that often go unfulfilled."

A quote from Morris P. Fiorina can do some rubbing in: "Citizens are not fools. Having often observed political equivocation, if not outright lying, should they listen carefully to campaign promises?" For people in patronage democracies, where meetings confront us at every street corner, there is more reason to be sceptical, notes the author. Mathematically speaking, truth value of promises may be inversely proportional to the decibel levels.

Elsewhere in the book, Chandra talks about leverage - not financial or operating, but of vote-banks. "The measure of leverage, Lit, that scheduled castes have in constituency (i) for an election at time (t) is constructed as follows: L-i-t = X-i - Mi-(-t-1-) ."

Percentage of SCs in the electorate is `i’ and it remains constant across elections. Mi(t-1) is the margin of victory in constituency in the previous election, an indicator for the current election too.

If you are math-minded, willing to allow some Greek to rub shoulders with ethnic study, there is an appendix that describes `the ecological inference method’, where for instance, the proportion of non-scheduled castes who turn out in constituency `i’ is given as ?i+w.

The last chapter is crucial: "Ethnic head counts and democratic stability".

Even as many political scientists keep vigil through the night of the long knives of ethnic disquiet, Chandra is optimistic: "We may have reason to be less pessimistic. The strong incentives that political elites have to manipulate the definition of ethnic categories in patronage democracies may prevent the emergence of `permanent’ results."

But don’t feel too happy too soon, because "elections in a patronage-democracy are in essence covert auctions in which basic services which should, in principle, be available to every citizen, are sold instead to the highest bidder."

When competitive spirit and public good get subverted in a `going-going-gone’ scenario, one may be able to measure governance by a headcount, as off baskets on the other side of guillotines.

See online : Business Line

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