Do democratic publics punish politicians for failing to provide public services? Sanctioning poor performance is a key means by which voters hold their government officials accountable. But when 700 million people lost power during the July 2012 blackout in India, public confidence in politicians increased, with troubling implications for dealing with abrupt failures of public service delivery in an age of climate change.
Democratic accountability relies heavily on voters’ ability to sanction and reward political leaders based on their performance. When voters assess their leaders, they can reward good outcomes such as high economic growth or high-quality public services.
Indeed, a great deal of evidence suggests that incumbents suffer at the polls for poor economic performance and failures in public service delivery. This logic of electoral backlash gives elected officials an incentive to work hard for their own political survival. (To be sure, voters also appear to punish incumbents even for events beyond their control, such as natural disasters and even shark attacks.)
However, evidence from India suggests that people may not always lose confidence in public officials in the wake of a massive failure in public service delivery. On July 30, after a circuit breaker tripped, seven northern Indian states plus Delhi completely lost power, followed by eleven more states in the northeast the following day. The July 30-31 outage was the largest blackout in human history, with 700 million people losing electricity.
Using data from the India Human Development Survey, which happened to be in the field during the July 2012 outage, we show in a working paper that the blackout caused an increase in people’s confidence in politicians. Moreover, the ruling Indian National Congress (INC) actually increased its vote share in the state elections that took place later that year.
We attribute these results to a “rally around the flag” effect: people increase support for their political leaders in times of crisis. Existing studies suggest that crises, particularly when they involve foreign enemies, tend to increase public support for politicians because of the fear and anxiety provoked by a traumatic event. This emotional reaction, in turn, leads people to seek a rapid, decisive solution to the crisis – people rally around the flag because they want their leader to solve the crisis. As a sudden, unexpected shock that threw much of the country into turmoil, the July 2012 blackout in India represented a period of national crisis from which voters sought relief from public officials and—at least in the short-term—held their anger for the failures of government energy policy at bay.
The implications of these findings are troubling. The less voters hold public officials accountable for policy failures, the less incentive politicians have to provide services effectively. If policymakers do not suffer during crises and disasters—even those caused by long-term failures of policy such as the outage—then preparedness efforts may hold less appeal than they should.
This is all the more alarming given that climate change is likely to make natural disasters more common in the coming years. Extreme weather events are going to strain public service delivery to India’s massive, growing, and poor population. If leaders in India expect a boost of confidence from abrupt failures in key services, their incentive to invest in disaster preparedness and climate adaptation is weakened. While the leaders gain, the people pay the price.
Note: This is a joint post with Brian Blankenship, a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Columbia University.