Do Voters Appreciate Responsive Governments? Evidence from Indian Disaster Relief
Executive Summary — In a functioning democracy, politicians' ability to win reelection declines when they perform poorly. This idea fits well with models of political accountability. Recent evidence suggests, however, that voters may punish politicians even for events outside their control. This behavior may violate standard models of democratic accountability, and has been advanced as evidence of voter irrationality. This paper uses detailed weather, electoral, and relief data to identify the relationship between government responsiveness to an emergency and electoral decisions. Specifically, the authors look at the decisions that Indian voters made in provincial elections, using the intensity of the monsoon rains as an exogenous shock to welfare. They find that voters, on average, punish incumbent politicians for being in office during weather events beyond their control. However, the degree of voter punishment is reduced somewhat when the government responds more vigorously to the crisis. Key concepts include:
- Voters do a better job of holding governments accountable during these emergencies.
- Voters punish politicians following adverse weather events, but the degree of punishment depends critically on the quality of the ruling party's response: Those distributing greater amounts of relief aid suffer smaller subsequent electoral losses.
Using rainfall, public relief, and election data from India, we examine how governments respond to adverse shocks and how voters react to these responses. The data show that voters punish the incumbent party for weather events beyond its control. However, we find evidence that fewer voters punish the ruling party when the party responds vigorously to the crisis. Moreover, severe crises are associated with increased voter sensitivity to disaster assistance. These results are consistent with models of government accountability, and provide an explanation for Amartya Sen's claim that democratic governments respond better to salient emergencies than to less conspicuous ones. Even so, the results suggest that even the most responsive government will fare worse in the subsequent election than had there been no disaster.