Manipulating the System: Clientelism and Criminality in Politics


Why do voters often fail to reject corrupt or criminal politicians? In this paper, I argue that in settings where government institutions are weak and corruption is widespread, criminal politicians can gain control over state resources and use their delivery as a mechanism to buy voter support. To test this theory, I examine the causal effects of electing criminal politicians on India’s largest rural workforce program in the state of West Bengal during the 2011 to 2020 period. Using a regression discontinuity design, I find that the election of a criminal politician leads to a drop in the number of completed projects and a rise in work allocation. This effect is more pronounced for legislators who seek re-elections, are accused of serious criminal allegations, and contest from non-reserved constituencies. The results further indicate that criminal politicians spend a significantly larger portion of the funds on the labor dimension of the program rather than on materials. These findings suggest that criminal politicians use the program to deliver clientelistic public goods to their constituents. This could explain why voters might be willing to support such candidates, despite the criminal allegations against them.

Abhinav Khemka
Abhinav Khemka
PhD candidate in Economics

I am a PhD student in Economics at the University of Barcelona and IEB. My research interest are in political economy and development economics with a regional focus on India.