The Puzzle of Democratic Monopolies: Single Party Dominance and Decline in India

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The Puzzle of Democratic Monopolies: Single Party Dominance and Decline in India

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Title: The Puzzle of Democratic Monopolies: Single Party Dominance and Decline in India
Author: Dasgupta, Aditya
Citation: Dasgupta, Aditya. 2016. The Puzzle of Democratic Monopolies: Single Party Dominance and Decline in India. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
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Abstract: How to explain political monopolies in democratic institutional settings? Dominant parties in countries with robust formal democratic institutions are surprisingly frequent, yet poorly understood. Existing theories explain away the puzzle by characterizing dominant parties as `catch-all' parties that survive on the basis of historically imbued mass voter legitimacy. This dissertation develops a theory of how dominant parties in fact routinely win free and fair elections despite counter-majoritarian policy biases and why they decline, utilizing the uneven decline of single-party dominance across regions and localities of India as a historical natural experiment.

The puzzle in the Indian case is that the Congress party was able to monopolize power in a poor and rural society for over four decades after independence despite a counter-majoritarian urban bias and free and fair elections. The dissertation develops a political economy model that rationalizes this --- showing how extensive but implicit ties of patronage enable dominant parties to maintain power and counter-majoritarian policies in conditions of formal democratic institutions. The theory generates two new empirical implications about why dominant parties decline and how this reshapes distributive politics --- which are tested through sub-national comparative historical analysis, quantitative analysis of historical data, and in-depth fieldwork.

First, the theory suggests that dominant parties do not simply fade away with the passage of time or societal modernization, but decline as a result of protracted distributive conflict with rising but politically excluded economic interests. In the Indian context, I provide evidence that this took the form of political mobilization by agricultural producers in the aftermath of the green revolution. Exploiting exogenous variation in the diffusion of high-yielding variety crops, the first empirical chapter provides evidence that economic growth in the politically excluded agricultural sector intensified rural-urban distributive conflict, accounting for the rise of agrarian opposition parties and half of the Congress party's long-run decline.

Second, the theory suggests that the decline of single-party dominance democratizes distributive politics, in two ways. One is that policies shift in favor of the rising but previously politically excluded economic interests. Another more complex channel is that in an effort to regain lost political ground, dominant parties strategically reinvent themselves as pro-poor parties, initiating a process of competitive credit claiming for social policy. The second empirical chapter applies a structural break methodology to estimate the timing of dominant party decline across Indian states, and utilizes this variation to show that the decline of single-party dominance led to the rise of agriculture-favoring policies and social spending. Through fieldwork in two states as well as analysis of the electoral effects of India's largest contemporary social program, the third empirical chapter provides micro-level evidence that the emergence of a nascent welfare state is driven by a logic of competitive credit-claiming.

In contrast to existing theories, the case of India suggests that dominant party decline in democratic settings bears a resemblance to the decline of political monopolies generally, representing a process of de facto democratization in de jure democratic institutional settings. I show that the argument can help to explain trajectories of dominant party decline and distributive politics in a number of other cases, including Japan, Italy, Mexico and the American South.
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