Governance and Electoral Integrity: Evidence from Subnational India

Date01 December 2020
Published date01 December 2020
Governance and Electoral
Integrity: Evidence from
Subnational India
Zaad Mahmood1
This article presents the findings of perceptions of electoral integrity survey for subnational elections
in India between 2015 and 2017. The perceptions of electoral integrity survey is an attempt to provide
a comprehensive, impartial and independent source of information derived from experts about elec-
tions conforming to internationally recognized principles and standards. The article then evaluates the
factors that account for differences in the perceptions of electoral integrity in India. We show that
higher-income states in India tend to have higher levels of electoral integrity. However, we argue that
differences in the quality of governance best explain subnational variation in the perceptions of electoral
integrity in India.
Electoral integrity, elections, governance, India, subnational
The subject of electoral integrity2 has gained currency with the increasing recognition of the limitations
of a purely structural understanding of democracy. While the existence of a democratic system is no
doubt important, it is not enough to justify fair and legitimate political processes. One of the defining
Studies in Indian Politics
8(2) 230–246, 2020
© 2020 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/2321023020963521
Note: The first draft of the article was written by Zaad Mahmood and Lawrence Saez. This article is dedicated to the memory
of Lawrence Saez.
1 Department of Political Science, Presidency University, Kolkata, West Bengal, India.
2 The data for this article were collected as part of the subnational PEI, Electoral Integrity Project. The subnational India PEI team
included Ferran Martinez-i-Coma, Max Grömping, Lawrence Saez and Zaad Mahmood. The research assistance for the project
was provided by Sagnik Dutta.
The arguments benefitted from the comments and suggestions of Pippa Norris, Alessandro Nai, Ferran Martinez I Coma,
Wilfried Swenden and the participants at the ‘Campaign financing and electoral results: current challenges to national and
subnational electoral integrity in federal countries conference’, Mexico 12–13 September 2017 and ‘Centre for South Asian
Studies Research in Progress Workshop, Edinburgh University 24–25 May 2018.
Corresponding author:
Zaad Mahmood, Department of Political Science, Presidency University, Kolkata, West Bengal 700073, India.
Mahmood 231
features of democracy is the conduct of free and fair elections. Contested and flawed elections can pose
a serious threat to the quality of democracy and political processes. As evidence from the World Values
Survey suggests, public perceptions of electoral malpractices erode trust and confidence in elected
authorities, discourage voter turnout, generate protests and even undermine regime stability (Norris
et al., 2014).
Existing literature on elections highlights several reasons for flawed elections, ranging from failure of
the administration of the electoral process (Kavanagh, 2015), the attitude of election administration
(Elklit & Reynolds, 2002; James, 2013), counting of votes (Alvarez, et al., 2008), unequal access to the
media and public resources, registration problems, vote-buying (Carreras & Irepoglu, 2013), disqualifi-
cation of opponents, manipulation of media, unfair disparities in political campaign finance, violence
(Norris, 2015), unjust electoral laws and management (Daxecker & Schneider, 2014) and so on.
Comparing the various dimensions of electoral failures, Norris et al. (2013) highlight two levels of
malpractices—first- and second-order—according to the severity of their potential consequences. First-
order malpractices revolve around violations of generally accepted norms of freedoms and rights.
Second-order malpractices concern more mundane issues of maladministration, lack of technical capac-
ity or human error.
The literature on electoral integrity has examined the causes for the disparities in the quality of elec-
tions and explored between-country variations in outcomes. However, one of the most under-researched
areas in the literature on electoral integrity pertains to within-country variations. This article focuses on
India—a durable democracy with federal structure—to identify within-country variations in electoral
integrity. Based on an original survey dataset of perceptions of electoral integrity (PEI) of state3 assem-
bly elections, the article shows that some subnational states have significantly higher levels of electoral
integrity than others. While anecdotal evidence and case studies have pointed out differences in the qual-
ity of election across Indian states this, to the best of our knowledge, is the first structured comparison of
the quality of elections.
On exploring the subnational electoral integrity, it becomes apparent that disparities in the socio-
economic status of the different states can account for much of the observed variation. Broadly speaking,
higher-income states have higher levels of electoral integrity. However, the survey reveals two important
anomalies, namely a low-income state (i.e., Bihar) that has significantly higher levels of electoral integ-
rity and a high-income state (i.e., West Bengal) that has very poor electoral integrity. The subsequent
section of the article explains this important anomaly and argues that differences in the quality of govern-
ance provide a better explanation for the subnational variation in the PEI.
Literature Review
Given the importance of the quality of elections and their potential lapses, it is important to analyse,
evaluate and investigate the conduct of elections. The assessment of elections is, however, challenging
because of the concealed nature of electoral frauds and the complexity of the electoral processes. To
meaningfully engage with the idea of the quality of elections, a number of studies and theoretical frame-
works have been developed. Organizations such as National Democratic Institute, International
Foundation for Electoral System and Electoral Assistance System of the United Nations have focussed
‘State’ in upper case refers to the Union of India while ‘state’ in lower case is used for subnational states. The word ‘state’ is also
used, in some cases, as a conceptual category, which is self-evident in the contextual discussion.

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