A Review of Clients and Constituents: Political Responsiveness in Patronage Democracies 

            In Clients and Constituents, Jennifer Bussell illuminates an important yet strikingly understudied arena of politics in India—routine forms of constituency service, performed by elected representatives for citizens who directly approach them for help in accessing public services. Anyone who has waited outside the office of an elected representative in India will find the image of a crowd of citizens seeking the audience of a politician to be a familiar one. These citizens are requesting assistance with a wide variety of issues, from obtaining ration cards, caste certificates, and old-age pensions to securing local public goods for their neighborhoods, such as streetlights, paved roads, and shared water tanks. While the potential targets for such petitions are numerous—local elected representatives (village panchayat members or municipal ward councillors), party workers, and the constellation of officials who staff local government departments—many citizens take their requests to the highest levels of elected representation in India, to their member of the legislative assembly (MLA) or member of parliament (MP).

            Clients and Constituents establishes the prevalence of constituency service among these “high-level politicians” (defined as “representatives with large constituencies who are unlikely to know most of their constituents personally” (p. 4)), provoking several key theoretical questions. Why do high-level politicians allocate substantial amounts of time to constituency service when they cannot reliably condition their response on prior electoral support or the future promise of it? What generates the groundswell of citizen requests that make their way upward into the offices of MLAs and MPs, and why are these requests not fulfilled at lower levels of government? Bussell provides a novel theoretical framework to answer these questions, with each facet of that framework supported by a rich foundation of qualitative and quantitative evidence. Clients and Constituents is a groundbreaking book that is sure to make a deep and lasting mark on the study of Indian politics, as well as the comparative study of democratic representation and distributive politics more broadly.

            Constituency service is defined in the book as “non-contingent, non-partisan attention to the needs of citizens” (p. 6, emphasis added). Bussell marshals an impressive array of evidence—qualitative observations of the daily activities of politicians; large-scale surveys of citizens, state legislators, and national legislators; and a field experiment with state and national legislators—to show that constituency service is indeed mostly conducted in a non-contingent, non-partisan manner. Set against the backdrop of a literature on distributive politics that has been preoccupied with the study of clientelistic exchange and partisan targeting, the pervasiveness of constituency service in India is substantively important and theoretically puzzling. In India’s “patronage democracy,” why do political elites engage in everyday acts of constituency service?

            Bussell demonstrates that partisan targeting in local distributive politics fuels citizen demand for constituency service from high-level politicians. Those citizens who are “blocked” from public services due to their position outside of local patronage networks must look elsewhere for assistance, producing the traffic of petitions that fall at the feet of MLAs and MPs. High-level politicians have incentives to assist these blocked citizens because they offer a pool of potential supporters with whom to build a personal following. Interestingly, then, Bussell finds that partisan bias and clientelistic exchange in local distributive politics generates conditions ripe for non-partisan, non-contingent constituency service at higher levels of elected representation.

            An entire chapter (Chapter 5) in Clients and Constituents is devoted to descriptively sketching the contours of distributive politics in India. Building on prior influential studies of Indian politics (Chandra 2004; Piliavsky 2014), Bussell argues that India is an archetypical “patronage democracy” in which the provision of public services is frequently discretionary and politicized. Patronage democracies, Bussell asserts, are common across many regions of the Global South, expanding the geographic reach of the book’s theory and findings.

            The data collection that went into Clients and Constituents is nothing short of extraordinary. This includes the shadowing of several dozen politicians across five states, which afforded rich qualitative insights into their daily, face-to-face encounters with citizens. It also includes large-scale citizen and legislator surveys as well as a massive field experiment with state and national legislators. Bussell masterfully combines these diverse types of data to provide a persuasive base of evidence for each of the book’s empirical chapters.

            Clients and Constituents provokes several exciting areas for future research. A first area is to further delve into the factors that structure political responsiveness to group-based claims. Chapter 10 offers experimental and observational evidence that partisan bias can shape political responsiveness to such claims. The field experiment that Bussell draws upon in the chapter varies whether the good requested by a fictitious citizen is either a private, individual-oriented good (a ration card) or a local public good (a streetlight), in addition to varying the partisanship and ethnicity of that fictitious citizen. Information on the neighborhood for which the streetlight is requested—for example, its ethnic composition, partisan leanings, and population—is left out of the experiment. Politicians, however, are likely to simultaneously assess the attributes of the individual making the claim—who is sometimes a political broker with an explicit party affiliation—and the attributes of the neighborhood for which the claim has been placed. Future studies should further theorize and test how the relative weight of attributes at these two levels guide political responsiveness to group-based claims.

            Relatedly, petitioners requesting private, individual-oriented goods may—in the eyes of politicians—systematically differ from petitioners who make group-based claims, in at least one key respect. Presumably, a group of residents have tasked the latter to spearhead a collective claim for the neighborhood because he or she is seen as an effective claim-maker with some social clout. Politicians, therefore, may infer that those making group-based claims are locally influential—someone socially positioned to spread word of the politician’s assistance (Shaffer and Baker 2015). In my ethnographic fieldwork and survey research in India’s urban slums, I find that group-based claims are frequently made by informal local leaders (Auerbach forthcoming). Residents support and turn to these slum leaders because they possess attributes that make them effective claim-makers—occupational connectivity to city officials, sufficient formal education to navigate state institutions, and charisma, to name just a few of those attributes (see Auerbach and Thachil 2018). As such, politicians seek to bring slum leaders into their partisan fold to boost local electoral support and turnout. If politicians infer that petitioners for group-based claims are locally prominent, they may assess their petitions in ways that are distinct from assessments of petitions for private goods, made by more ordinary citizens. Such potential distinctions constitute a productive area for future research.

            A second area for future research is to further examine how different pathways of claim-making shape political responsiveness. Field experiments on political responsiveness often use emails or text messages to communicate with politicians. While emails and text messages lend themselves to such experimentation, they represent just one (perhaps relatively narrow) pathway of communication among a wider set of pathways that citizens use to articulate their demands on the state. To provide just one example: ethnographic studies of local governance in India (and South Asia more broadly) document how paper petitions and official documents loom large in citizen-state relations (Tarlo 2003; Das 2011; Gupta 2012; Hull 2012). Citizens often write detailed petitions for local public goods and submit those petitions to officials. Petitions then start their circuitous journey across the desks of various bureaucrats and politicians. These material forms of claim-making—and the variety of content and political symbols embedded within them—deserve more attention from scholars of distributive politics.

            More specifically, during my fieldwork in Bhopal and Jaipur’s slum settlements, I observed residents and their informal leaders submitting flurries of written petitions to politicians and officials. Some of these petitions are composed on the party letterhead stationery of a local party worker. Others are written on neighborhood association letterheads that purposefully avoid partisan signals. Petitions are often appended with pages of resident signatures and fingerprints, and are brought to politicians by crowds of residents to signal lokshakti (people power). Some petitions discuss the caste and religious composition of the settlement while others forgo mentioning such information. In short, much of the flow of group-based claims takes on these paper forms, which may involve distinct (and more discursively complex) content and strategies from those requests sent via email or text message.

            A third area for future research is to investigate the logic of political responsiveness among politicians out of office. Reading Clients and Constituents reminded me of an encounter with a perhaps unlikely provider of constituency service—a former, recently defeated MLA in Jaipur. While waiting outside of this former MLA’s office in the summer of 2018, I was struck by the crowd of citizens (roughly a dozen) sitting beside me, all seeking his assistance with a personal or neighborhood problem. I asked the former MLA why people turn to him for assistance, given that he is no longer in power. He replied, “politics is not a one day game…it is a game of being in regular touch with the assembly constituency, the [party] workers, and voters. For the last five years I’m not in power; in any case, I’m in regular touch…they come to me and I go there to sort out problems…” I then asked if such problem solving is more difficult while out of power. He agreed it is, but that he still gets work done through his connections with city and state officials: “If I go for any type of work to an officer… generally those officers give respect…” Former MLAs and MPs may contest elections again in the future, suggesting that it is expedient for bureaucrats to respond to their requests, as the former may come back into power and thus have influence over the trajectory of their careers.

            How might the “distributive repertoire” of politicians out of office differ from that of politicians in office (the latter being the predominant focus of Clients and Constituents)? What are the distributive implications of this wider field of problem solving and “mediation from above”? Bussell’s discussion on formal and informal power (outlined in Chapter 5) provides an excellent starting point from which to consider this question.

            Along similar lines, citizens can and do of course go directly to non-elected officials—sanitation inspectors, water works officials, electricity department engineers, block development officers, and municipal clerks, to name just a few—to gain access to public services (Kruks-Wisner 2018; Bussell 2019, Chapter 7; Auerbach forthcoming). Future studies can push forward on this theme by examining how citizens attempt to command responsiveness from non-elected officials—beyond the use of political intermediaries and political intervention—and explain variation in the success of such efforts.

            To conclude, Clients and Constituents is a landmark book that significantly advances our understanding of political representation and responsiveness in India. Engagingly written, theoretically novel, and supported by a wealth of original qualitative and quantitative data, it is an absolute must-read for scholars of Indian politics and scholars of democratization and distributive politics more generally.

Works Cited

Auerbach, Adam Michael. Forthcoming. Demanding Development: The Politics of Public Goods Provision in India’s Urban Slums. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Auerbach, Adam Michael and Tariq Thachil. 2018. “How Clients Select Brokers: Competition and Choice in India’s Slums.” American Political Science Review 112, no. 4: 775-91.

Chandra, Kanchan. 2004. Why Ethnic Parties Succeed: Patronage and Ethnic Headcounts in India. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Das, Veena. 2011. “State, Citizenship, and the Urban Poor.” Citizenship Studies 15, nos. 3-4: 319-33.

Gupta, Akhil. 2012. Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hull, Matthew. 2012. Government of Paper: The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kruks-Wisner, Gabrielle. 2018. Claiming the State: Active Citizenship and Social Welfare in Rural India. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Piliavsky, Anastasia (editor). 2014. Patronage as Politics in South Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Schaffer, Joby and Andy Baker. 2015. “Clientelism as Persuasion-Buying: Evidence from Latin America.” Comparative Political Studies 48, no. 9: 1093-26.

Tarlo, Emma. 2003. Unsettling Memories: Narratives of the Emergency in Delhi. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Adam Auerbach is an Assistant Professor in the School of International Service, American University. His forthcoming book, Demanding Development: The Politics of Public Goods Provision in India’s Urban Slums (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics) accounts for the uneven success of India’s slum residents in demanding and securing basic public services from the state. Auerbach’s research on urban politics and development in India has appeared or is forthcoming in the American Journal of Political Science, American Political Science Review, Journal of Politics, World Development, and World Politics, among other journals.

Visit Adam Auerbach’s website here

Visit Jennifer Bussell’s website here.

Find the book here.