Posted November 5, 2014 by Ammar Khalid

Patronage politics, particularly that brand in which social groups are organised along ethnic lines, is a phenomenon Pakistani (and South Asian) politics is all too familiar with. While technically the system of patronage politics entails that politicians have the liberty to favour a certain group in society, in the Pakistani context the system is associated more with cronyism – politicians greatly favour their own voting block (their own ethnicity, clan or other kinship group) and/or their close associates. While such resource distribution does create a mirage of goodwill in the short run, in the long run, the skewed resource distribution alienates those who feel they cannot access such patronage. It also hinders investment in issues that really matter across the board, for instance, education, infrastructure and health.

Many recent academic works – that of Atul Kohli, Ayesha Jalal & Akhil Gupta stand out – have sought to study this phenomenon and have come up with varying explanations. However, the rest of this piece will dissect the findings of Kanchan Chandra, one of the foremost voices in this field of research; in particular, those from her paper titled Counting Heads: A Theory of Voter and Elite Behaviour in Patronage-Democracies. Therein she talks about how in patronage democracies, due to severe information constraints, both politicians and voters tend towards promoting ethnic politics.

Chandra (correctly) asserts that a system of patronage politics features a monopolistic public sector, having elected officials who have considerable discretionary powers regarding how to allocate jobs and services available at the state’s disposal. This, one may posit, applies particularly to the case of Pakistan’s rural areas where public institutions are often the biggest employers and the formal private sector is largely non-existent. Moreover, due to a lax legal system, elected officials have great discretionary powers. One may observe that in Pakistan’s rural areas people also have ‘an overwhelming preoccupation with politics,’ as Chandra posits is the case in patronage democracies; politics is very much entrenched in the social fabric.

Furthermore, rent-seeking in a system of patronage politics takes ‘the form of votes rather than bribes’. This may be deemed questionable since politicians could actively pursue rent seeking in the form of both, votes and bribes. The bribes could be used to, not only build up personal riches – a certain amount of capital is needed to launch (and then sustain) a political career – but also, as forms of patronage, other than the goods and services at the disposal of public corporations. In fact, it is likely that near the elections, politicians’ actively seek votes but otherwise the form of their rent-seeking is a mixture of both bribes, and a promise to vote.

Chandra, in what is the main take home from her work, explains how, in a system of patronage democracy, it is in the interest of voters to extract material benefits from politicians and for politicians to seek rent for the provision of basic public goods. It has also highlighted how voters have an incentive to organise themselves along ethnic lines, so as to appeal for these material benefits, while politicians also benefit by targeting voters who are organised into ethnic groups. Ethnic lines in particular, are to be chosen for organisation purposes, due to ‘the lack of differentiating markers attached to non-ethnic identities’.

However, the paper points out that in most modern democracies, politicians would be bound legally to not ‘openly promise to favor some voters in the allocation’ of public goods. Other than facing the legal repercussions (if any) of such a policy, the politician would simply be put to test in the next elections if s/he has openly favoured a select few from his voters; this is where, ideally, the accountability within a democratic setup comes into play.

It is also important to point out that the urban masses, who are fast gaining a foothold over the national political scene, do not have the sort of linkages to clans or other societal groups, and thus have more of an individual identity. Also, since they are mostly young, and unemployed, politicians cannot offer all of them a share of public resources. Thus, greater accountability could result from the fact that voting behaviour is less likely to be dictated by cliental/patronage networks.

While discussing accountability within a democratic setup, an assumption that the author bases the argument upon is also worth questioning. It is hinted on multiple occasions that in patronage democracies there will always be a gap between rhetoric and implementation; there will also be a gap between legislation and implementation. This, one may argue, may not always be the case. Some politicians might actually deliver on their promises, especially in the case of their ‘own’ communities. Instead of doling out individual benefits, the politician might just provide a commodity – a road, for example – which might benefit an entire community (or at least the social group that was promised the commodity as part of the ‘rhetoric’).

A host of factors that would mitigate the incidence of ethnic politics are outlined in the literature. It is important to note, however, that other than the suggestion to move towards decentralization, whereby power is delegated to lower-tier politicians, and the suggestion to aggregate beneficiaries, the other two – having completely heterogeneous/homogenous communities and/or a mediated democracy – do not qualify as solutions. Having complete homogeneity or heterogeneity is unrealistic. Having a mediated democracy, whereby there are only a few autonomous voters who know about each other, would disenfranchise many people and thus, would also not strengthen democracy.

If it’s more accountability that we are after then certainly the answer, many would argue, lies within the process of devolution. Overcoming the obstacle posed by the lack of information would ensure that at the micro level, both politicians and voters know each other well and would not judge each other along ethnic lines. Aggregating the beneficiaries would in fact reduce the likelihood of people passing judgment/organising themselves along ethnic lines, as it would be hard to apply ethnic markers to larger groups.

In conclusion, the Pakistani version of patronage politics has plagued the system ever since its inception; it has, time and again, resulted in public resources being concentrated in a few hands. However, there are signs that the Pakistani demographic and subsequently, the political landscape is undergoing a transformation, whether this will weaken the patronage networks that orchestrate Pakistani politics or transform them, remains to be seen.

Chandra, Kanchan. 2007, “Counting Heads” in Herbert Kitschelt and Steven Wilkinson, eds. Patronage and Clientelism (Cambridge University Press)

Mr. Ammar Khalid is a Research Assistant at IDEAS. He recently completed a BSc (Honors) in Economics from LUMS, with a minor in Political Science. Questions of political economy relating to governance, ethnic politics and urbanization greatly interest him. Ammar tweets @paharibakra

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives