Bypassing the Patronage Trap: Evidence from Delhi Assembly Election 2020

AuthorAsim Ali,Ankita Barthwal
Date01 December 2021
Published date01 December 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Bypassing the Patronage Trap:
Evidence from Delhi Assembly
Election 2020
Ankita Barthwal1 and Asim Ali2
Scholars have long theorized on the limits of patronage politics and the possibility of counter-
mobilization it produces against clientelist strategies. Analysing the recent win of the Aam Aadmi Party
in the 2020 Assembly election in Delhi, this article shows that programmatic policies of welfare can help
parties to circumvent this trap and avoid targeted patronage networks. We find that this broad-based
appeal increases the social base of the party to even include those segments of voters who remain aloof
to patronage-based exchanges. Additionally, we test the salience of majoritarian issues in the presence
of universal welfare. We find that by locating themselves on issue positions of relative advantage, and
reducing the ideological distance with their chief competitor, a policy-focussed party may capture not
just ideology-agnostic, but also peripheral voters who might be opposed to the other challenger. Using
a logistic regression model, we find that policy concerns catapulted AAP to victory, while its ideologi-
cal distance from the BJP added to this. Our analysis has significance for understanding the underly-
ing changes to patronage-based linkages, especially in the presence of heightened ethnic appeals that
increasingly characterizes electoral contexts in the country.
Delhi Assembly elections, Aam Aadmi Party, political economy, Indian elections, patronage politics,
What role do state-funded welfare policies play in Indian elections? A large body of literature on the
subject has examined this relation within a clientelist paradigm, with its various actors—politicians,
voters, local bureaucracy and intermediaries—intertwined in a quid pro quo exchange ritual. This
assessment, however, is facing increasing pushback as new research looks at the importance of other
factors such as constituency service (Bussell, 2019), institutional reform (Heath & Tillin, 2018), cultural
bonds between actors (Piliavsky, 2014) and ideological concerns (Chhibber & Verma, 2018) that shape
electoral behaviour.
1 University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway.
2 Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, Delhi, India.
Corresponding author:
Ankita Barthwal, Research Fellow, University of Oslo, Olav M. Troviks vei 54 H0101, 0864 Oslo, Norway.
Studies in Indian Politics
9(2) 254–272, 2021
© 2021 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/23210230211043081
Barthwal & Ali 255
Yet, not many have paid adequate attention to an emerging phenomenon influencing vote choice in
India—programmatic politics of welfare (PPW). In this article, we argue that a PPW is taking shape in
the country, and the results of the Delhi Assembly elections 2020 were a clear signal of its presence. This
PPW has been gathering importance as an axis of political competition in several states, and even at the
national level. Recent studies have shown that, in states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and in the
general elections of 2009 and 2019, a gradual transition is taking place away from a particularistic
politics of patronage to a universalistic one of welfare and service delivery (Deshpande et al., 2019;
Elliott, 2011; Manor, 2014; Wyatt, 2013; Yadav & Palshikar, 2009).
Using survey data from a post-poll conducted in 14 assembly constituencies of Delhi, we suggest that
the 2020 Delhi Assembly election presents one of the clearest examples of the presence and scope for
PPW in Indian elections. Demographic, economic and political conditions specific to the context of
Delhi are a major contributing factor to this possibility. Nevertheless, our study tries to sharpen our
understanding of the political appeal of this PPW much beyond Delhi.
Using the ethnically charged context of these elections, we also test whether majoritarian appeals can
be successful in contexts of universalized welfare provisioning. While patronage politics relies on ethnic
motivations, PPW is thought to undercut these considerations. On the contrary, our findings suggest
coexistence of both welfare and ethnic appeals. We find significant consensus over majoritarian
government policies, but the effect of this on vote choice is mediated by partisan affiliations. This could
be a signal of strong partisan tendencies, which have hitherto only been interpreted along patronage
lines. Our finding suggests the possibility of ideological alignment that goes beyond clientelist interests
and have consequence for the increasingly rightward shift within Indian politics.
Literature and Hypothesis
Clientelism-based approaches represent an enduring way of interpreting citizen–politician linkages, especially
when representing electoral competition in democracies of the Global South. Broadly defined, clientelism
refers to the exchange of material benefit for electoral support. This can take the form of ‘pork-barrel’ schemes
that involve targeted legislative benefit to one’s voters or supporters, or it can be delivered through ‘patronage
politics’ where public goods and services are allocated as private benefit. Such a conceptualization leaves
ground for overlap, and hence one cannot always distinguish between different kinds of clientelist strategies.
While Stokes (2007) distinguishes patronage from clientelism on the basis of the political (and legal) authority
that rests with the agent (the politician), Chandra (2004) and Kitschelt and Wilkinson (2007) use the two
terms interchangeably. In India, where policy implementation is highly discretionary and gives asymmetrical
power to local functionaries, whether bureaucratic or political, we find that the latter approach is more
suitable. Hence, going forward, we use ‘patronage strategies’ to refer to actions of politicians that make
goods, whether private or public, available to the electorate on a discretionary basis.
PPW is more easily defined: it refers to advocating or instituting policies that benefit all those in a
defined category or policies that are universal in nature (Medina & Stokes, 2007). While both patronage
politics and programmatic politics are different ways to construct bases of political support (Remmer,
2007), there are certain advantages to PPW. Patronage strategies are generally associated with rent-
seeking, corruption and diminished economic growth; PPW is seen as the provision of public welfare
goods, and thus has a positive connotation within the political economy literature. Focussing on PPW
instead of direct patronage allows parties to develop a broader support base. Because patronage linkages
tend to often revolve around ethnic relations between the patron and the client, it limits a party’s appeal
to its co-ethnics; at the same time, the distribution of benefits to one ethnic community tends to alienate

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