The political effects of programmatic development policy: Can Bihar break the clientelist trap?

  • A perennial challenge for reformist politicians is how to sustain their governance reforms beyond their first term in office.
  • This study evaluated how Bihar’s governance reform since 2005 has changed the attitudes and behaviour of the state’s citizens by comparing those living within 4km of either side of the Bihar-Jharkhand border.
  • The study found that programmatic policies can generate political support and reduce voters’ vulnerability to clientelism through highly visible and widely shared experiences of public service improvements that create collective confidence.
  • However, by liberating voters from clientelist networks, these policies may also reduce public engagement and trust, failing to embed an aversion to clientelism.
  • Bihar may need to shift from a focus on policy reforms to institutional reforms that permanently anchor citizen expectations and attitudes supportive of programmatic governance. These may include greater bureaucratic transparency, alternative avenues of participation, improved economic security, and more durable, disciplined political parties.

This study found that Bihari citizens have greater expectations of public benefits, greater confidence in electoral accountability, and are less embedded in government networks of clientelism than their Jharkhand counterparts. Receiving a rule-based policy boosts support for programmatic incumbents.

This suggests that reformist politicians in contexts of intense clientelism need to deliver large and widely-shared improvements in public service delivery if they are to achieve re-election. Only by creating collective confidence among voters that the reformist incumbent is likely to win is it possible to alleviate the clientelist trap and ensure voters are at less risk of supporting a losing reformer. Well implemented rule-based policy can facilitate this by signalling to voters the incumbent’s abilities and coordinating voter support.

However, a permanent shift to anti-clientelist politics will need to rely on more than just a set of shared expectations tied to the present incumbent. The study also found that Biharis are less trusting of institutions, less likely to participate in Gram Sabha meetings and are no more likely to express a normative aversion to clientelism than are citizens in Jharkhand. These by-products of reform may be an unfortunate side-effect of liberating voters from clientelism.

For programmatic reform to persist beyond the current Bihari Chief Minister’s period in office, mitigating policies to raise trust in institutions and boost the political demand for good governance remain essential. These may include greater bureaucratic transparency, alternative avenues of participation, improved economic security, and more durable, disciplined, political parties. Bihar will benefit from a shift from policy reforms to institutional reforms that anchor citizen expectations and attitudes in favour of programmatic governance.

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