Book Review: Jennifer Bussell. Clients and Constituents: Political Responsiveness in Patronage Democracies

Published date01 June 2021
Date01 June 2021
Subject MatterBook Reviews
Book Reviews
Jennifer Bussell. Clients and Constituents: Political Responsiveness in Patronage Democracies. Delhi, India:
Oxford University Press, 2019. 369 pages. `1,100.
Do Indian politicians act only in a partisan and clientelist manner when fulfilling their roles as political
representatives and distribution agents of state resources? This is the big and bold question Jennifer
Bussell is addressing in her painstakingly researched work. Bussell shows, counterintuitively, that ‘high
level Indian politicians’—that is, MPs and MLAs—act in an impartial manner when approached by most
citizens with small service requests which are not costly in terms of finances and time. Bussell calls this
non-contingent and non-partisan behaviour of political leaders, constituency service. She argues that
constituency service by high-level politicians is ubiquitous and very much a product of the otherwise
patron-client nature of Indian democracy. When local level leaders fail to service citizen requests because
of partisan or ethnic affiliations, citizens approach high-level politicians. Bussell’s analysis is not naïve
and she highlights that politicians very much have an electoral motive for constituency service. It helps
them tap into unattached voters, ones which aren’t catered to by local politicians and can be converted
into future supporters.
Bussell’s work adds to the recent literature that highlights the less recognized or dismissed aspects of
political representation and representatives in India such as Vaishav’s (2019) When Crime Pays. Bussell
dissects an average politician’s day job and presents the image of a public servant routinely getting
through piles of citizen requests, which is quite different from the one conjured by the dominant
arguments about India’s patronage democracy; that of a surly politician cutting deals for large localities
or groups of co-ethnics to secure re-election. Bussell also alludes to the moral underpinnings of
constituency service that makes politicians see themselves as public servants, desiring to treat all
constituents alike, although this not investigated in-depth.
The book is excellent at disentangling practically every question that may arise about constituency
service. It does not just stop at defining constituency service, its scope, monetary worth and utility, but
also contextualizes it in the fine complexities of everyday Indian politics by looking at questions such as
why other players in the local political ecosystem, such as fixers and brokers, fail to provide the services
constituency service covers. The book presents a comprehensive discussion of the various facets of
constituency service, including what conditions enable it; how widespread it is; why patronage and
clientelism can’t achieve this; and whether India is a unique case, globally, of constituency service in a
patronage democracy.
The originality of the political phenomenon of constituency service as an aspect of political
representation, however, needs more theoretical grounding. What and who is getting represented, and to
what degree, through constituency service has not received as much attention as Bussell’s insights
Studies in Indian Politics
9(1) 132–141, 2021
© 2021 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/2321023021999180

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