Ideas, Interests, and Political Behavior in India:

A review of Ideology & Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India by Pradeep K. Chhibber and Rahul Verma 

Before I embarked on my doctoral research, I received a nugget of wisdom from the eminent James C. Scott that has stuck with me over the years: the most important task of the social scientist is to challenge conventional wisdom. In Ideology & Identity, Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma have done just that.

At least since the pioneering work of Paul Brass (1965), Myron Weiner (1967), Stanley Kochanek (1968), and Rajni Kothari (1970), the standard view of Indian politics is that ideology plays a secondary role to patronage and parochialism. India, indeed, has been characterised as the quintessential “patronage democracy” (Chandra 2004). By this it is meant that Indian political cleavages are not based on enduring ideological divisions but on personalistic factions and group identities, each most concerned with the material advantage of its own sectional interests. Factional and group leaders in turn gain the support of voters through the distribution of patronage, whether jobs, benefits, or other goodies.

If, during the era of Congress dominance from independence through to the late 1960s, these factions remained within the Indian National Congress (INC) party fold (Brass 1965), from the 1967 general elections onwards, factions increasingly broke away to form their own political organizations, Charan Singh’s Lok Dal in Uttar Pradesh being the prime example (Kenny 2017). This process only accelerated with the emergence of ever more state-based political organizations in the 1990s (Ziegfeld 2016). Whether these sub-national political factions took on a linguistic mantle, like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu, or a caste one, like the Samajwadi Party (SP) in Uttar Pradesh, state and local politics appeared to be about only one thing: a competition for the spoils of government (Berenschot 2011).

Chhibber and Verma instead suggest that ideology is the key organizing principle of Indian politics. Ideology & Identity draws on an unprecedented body of nationally representative polling data from the original rounds of the Indian National Election Study (NES) (1967-1985) through to the 2014 NES, along with a series of original survey experiments conducted in Chennai, Dehli and Uttar Pradesh, and more recent national opinion polls conducted by Lokniti-CSDS in 2016 and 2017. With this trove of data, Chhibber and Verma endeavour to show that political behaviour in India is very much driven by political beliefs.

However, Chhibber and Verma argue that the key ideational cleavage identified in Ideology & Identity is not the typical left/right or liberal/conservative divide observed in the majority of Western European countries. The classic organizing cleavages observed in Western Europe – capital and labour, center and periphery, urban and rural, and church and state – provide limited explanatory leverage in the Indian case. Rather, in India the principal ideological cleavage has two dimensions: beliefs about the appropriate role of the state in determining the social order (statism) and about the need to correct group based inequalities of opportunity and outcome faced by minorities (recognition).

Ideology & Identity first shows that voters in 2014 were sharply divided between those who both opposed statism and opposed the politics of recognition and those who were in favour of one or other of these beliefs. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the votes of the former – the largest bloc of voters – while the Congress, the Left Front parties, and the other state-based machines picked up the remnants. The results of the 2019 elections, with the BJP strengthening its dominance, seem only to confirm the authors’ contention that Indian politics is structured around an increasingly coherent ideological cleavage. Moreover, contrary to the dominant characterization of India as a patronage democracy, Ideology & Identity goes on to show that clientelism provides a very weak explanation of political behaviour in India. There is almost no evidence to suggest that receiving some discretionary benefit from a political party actually influences vote choice.

Not content with demonstrating a correlation between opposition to statism and recognition and support for the BJP (and conversely, opposition to the Congress), Chhibber and Verma utilize a number of survey experiments to probe the mechanisms at work more closely. They show, for instance, that opposition to the reservation of government jobs and places educational institutions for members of minority groups, namely low caste, backward caste, and Muslim groups, is at least partly driven by interests rather than just prejudice, especially among members of general castes.

Chhibber and Verma go on to argue that this ideological divide in Indian politics has deep roots. They trace the intellectual lineages of the politics of statism and recognition from the late colonial period through independence, the early years of state building, the crisis of the 1970s, and the reconsolidation of the party system with the growing success of the BJP bloc in the 1990s. On statism, the Congress of Nehru in the 1950s toed a moderate line between hardcore socialists on the one hand, who advocated for total state control over the economy, and conservatives who envisaged more of a watchman state that would secure private property. Similarly, with respect to the politics of recognition, although Nehru supported caste based reservations to redress the iniquities and inequalities faced by India’s poorest citizens, the Dalits, he generally opposed reservations for Muslims and pushed for a more secularly defined state in general. The consolidation of opposition to the Congress’s centrism precipitated the gradual decline of Congress dominance, beginning in the 1960s with the rising demands of Other Backward Caste (OBC) groups, and culminating with the party’s near destruction in 2014.

The major contribution to comparative politics made in Ideology & Identity is nicely summed up in a sentence near the end of the book: “The mechanisms that shape party politics in the Global South and in multiethnic states do not differ much from those that shape party politics in the Global North” (p. 261). This is an incredibly important point to stress. After so many years of arguing for the exceptionalism of the former colonial world, this book demonstrates that Indian voters are not so different to those in the West. They are largely rational, choosing the best option they can, given the context.

While not detracting from the books’ main contribution, there were some gaps I would like to have seen addressed. First, even though on the authors’ evidence that clientelism does not directly influence how individuals vote, it would be rash to dismiss its relevance to Indian politics. Indeed, to their credit Chhibber and Verma are careful to note that clientelism is ubiquitous, even if it’s apparently ineffective (p. 261). This finding is of a piece with a growing body of research being conducted across Southeast Asia. There, clientelistic practices are characterized as an “entry ticket” (Aspinall, Davidson, Hicken, and Weiss 2015). On polling day, politicians in Indonesia launch what is called the “morning attack”, doling out thousands of envelopes of cash to voters. Voters, for their part, have no qualms about accepting multiple envelopes (Aspinall 2014, Muhtadi 2019). Giving cash to voters doesn’t guarantee a vote, but not giving cash as good as guarantees no vote. Although perhaps going beyond the aims of the present volume, there is a missed opportunity to explore why this apparently vicious equilibrium persists. Whose interests are advanced by its maintenance? What conditions would be necessary to alter it?

A second issue concerns the operationalization of the ideological concepts of statism and recognition. For the 2014 election in particular, whether the one- and two-item scales respectively truly capture statism and recognition as ideologies is not clear. The ideology of statism, for instance, is operationalized via a single question: “Government should spend more on infrastructure than subsidizing for the poor.” Given that statism is at times intended to capture state intervention with respect to both society and the economy, the question itself is rather ambiguous. Additionally, as in the United States, where “welfare” has very clear identity politics implications, the issue of “subsidizing the poor” is not neutral with respect to group politics (or the politics of recognition) (Gilens 1999). Moreover, across the various national surveys used, the question or set of questions used to proxy for statism and recognition changes. These limitations are, of course, imposed by the data. But it would have been useful to see a little more discussion of the problems inherent in inferring ideological views from a small number of continually changing survey instruments. How reliable are the scales? How would they travel beyond the Indian context? 

Neither of these points takes away from the book’s seminal challenge to the conventional wisdom about Indian politics that ideas carry little political weight. Policy preferences matter, especially as regards the state’s role in the economy, and its role in communal and group relations. Ideology, as John Zaller (2012: 620) puts it, is just a set of “policy positions recommended by informal coalitions of political pundits, intellectuals, and interest-group representatives. Although ideologies generally appeal to principles and values, they are not defined by them, but by what members of the informal coalition can agree on.” I think that Ideology and Identity’s treatment of ideology sits squarely within Zaller’s conceptualization. As long as we keep in mind that ideology is no more profound than this, we can take Ideology and Identity as a model for better understanding political behaviour in India and elsewhere outside the West.

Works Cited

Aspinall, Edward, Michael Davidson, Allen Hicken and Meredith Weiss. Inducement or Entry Ticket? Broker Networks andVote Buying in Indonesia. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, San Francisco. 2015.

Aspinall, Edward. "When Brokers Betray: Clientelism, Social Networks, and Electoral Politics in Indonesia." Critical Asian Studies 46, no. 4, 2014: 545-70.

Berenschot, Ward. Riot Politics: Hindu-Muslim Violence and the Indian State.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Brass, Paul R. Factional Politics in an Indian State: The Congress Party in Uttar Pradesh.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965.

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

Gilens, Martin. Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Kenny, Paul D. Populism and Patronage: Why Populists Win Elections in India, Asia, and Beyond.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Kochanek, Stanley A. The Congress Party of India: the Dynamics of One-Party Democracy.  Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968.

Kothari, Rajni. Politics in India.  Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970.

Muhtadi, Burhanuddin. Vote Buying in Indonesia: The Mechanics of Electoral Bribery.  London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

Weiner, Myron. Party Building in a New Nation: The Indian National Congress.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

Zaller, John. “What Nature and Origins Leaves Out,” Critical Review, 24:4, 2012: 569-642

Ziegfeld, Adam. Why Regional Parties? Clientelism, Elites, and the Indian Party System.New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

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Paul D. Kenny is Fellow and Head of the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University and is the author of Populism and Patronage: Why Populists Win Elections in India, Asia, and Beyond (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Visit Paul D. Kenny’s website here.

Visit Pradeep K. Chhibber’s website here.

Visit Rahul Verma’s website here.

Find the book here.