Why did the Left redistribute land in West Bengal?
Whether it is UV guest blogger Tacit or Sunilda, everyone applauds the Left Front for redistributing land during their 34 year long rule in West Bengal. Implicit in these narratives is a view that the Left Front did something difficult out of ideological conviction. Is this view correct? Not necessarily, according to Pranab Bardhan and Dilip Mookherjee, two US-based Indian economists.*
Why do democratically elected politicians adopt certain policies when they are in power?
One theory, proposed by Anthony Downs, holds that political decisions are ultimately driven by policy preference of voters and special interest groups, not politicians themselves. Essentially, in this view, if elected politicians do something (like land redistribution policy, or transit to India, or retaining Bismillah in the constitution), they do so because this something will give an electoral edge to those politicians.
A different theory, owing its origin to works of Seymour Lipset, argues that politicians do what they do in office because of ‘ideology’, which includes policy preference of the said politicians’ core constituencies.
When it comes to the land redistribution experience of West Bengal under the Left Front, these two theories give pretty distinct, testable predictions.
West Bengal has had a pretty stable two party system, with pretty clear stance on land policies. On the left is the Left Front, with well publicised redistributive policies. On the right is Congress and its offshoot Trinamool, which has traditionally represented big landowners in the rural areas. Even though at the state-level, thanks to a first-past-the-post voting system, the LF dominated every election between 1977 and 2006, at local level things had been far more competitive. And the local governments were the key implementing agencies of redistribution.
Now, if the ‘electoral competition’ theory is right, villages where the LF and Congress were both strong would have been the places where redistribution should have occurred. In the areas where the LF was weak, it had no reason to pursue a difficult task. And if they had already been strong in an area, they again had no incentive to do any redistribution. By contrast, if the ‘ideology’ reason is right, redistribution would rise in areas as they swung to the LF.
In an article titled ‘Determinants of Redistributive Politics: an empirical analysis of land reforms in West Bengal, India’, published in the American Economic Review in September 2010, Bardhan (of Berkley) and Mookherjee (of Boston) test these theories with data. They find that, consistent with the ‘competition’ theory of Downs, variations in land reform implementation are due to the extent of electoral competition: villages with closer electoral contests tend to witness greater land reform implementation.
So much for ideology then!
*Full disclosure: I have been lectured by both in a previous life, Bardhan is more interesting of the two.🙂