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Wilkinson: Votes and violence

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Wilkinson. 2004. Votes and violence: Electoral competition and ethnic riots in India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


A political theory of ethnic (religious, racial, linguistic) violence: When politicians need minority support, they prevent violence. When they don't, they don't. And if they need to incite ethnic polarization (e.g. in order to bring more of their ethnic group into the majority party), then they might just promote ethnic violence.

Chapter 2: Town-level factors

Although Wilkinson's theory is state-level, he uses this chapter to examine the town-level causes of ethnic violence. Why a state-level theory? Because although local factors may influence whether violence breaks out, it is the state-level authorities who must order in police and reinforcements to contain it. Even federal troops can't be deployed unless the state government orders it. Thus, they key argument in this book concerns the state-level decision of whether to prevent or encourage violence. However, local can also matter. Hence, this chapter.

Electoral benefits of ethnic violence

The Hindu nationalist parties tend to represent primarily the upper castes. These upper castes cannot attract lower-caste Hindus with promises of redistribution for two reasons: The promise wouldn't be credible, and it may alienate the upper caste supporters. So if the election is going to be close, what can an upper-caste party do to win more votes? Incite Hindu-Muslim riots. This will pull more lower-caste Hindus into the upper-caste party.

Inciting these riots is costly. Often, the mechanism for doing so is to schedule a religious processional (innocuous enough, right?) to go through a Muslim neighborhood, or to raise a Hindu flag over some disputed piece of land. But organizing these processionals and whatnot takes time, money, and so on. In addition, riots can have economic costs. So we should expect these mechanisms to be used primarily when the extra electoral support is most needed, namely:

Other explanations from lit

Chapter 5: Electoral incentives for Hindu-Muslim violence

Primary argument (see Fig 5.1): In states with high partisan fractionalization (i.e. high partisan competitiveness), parties have greater incentives to compete for the Muslim/minority vote (under certain conditions), therefore there should be less violence. The argument has three elements:

  1. Politics In India are multidimensional, though this varies. As politics becomes more multidimensional, we can expect more overtures to minorities. For example, Northern white industrialists (in the US) had incentives to court the Southern minority vote to gain political power over Southern white planters (in the 1920s-50s). As the number of cleavages rises, the potential for such overtures increases.
  2. It is worthwhile to compete for the minority vote if the electoral benefits of winning the minority vote exceed the political costs of giving the minority what it wants. Since India's Muslims tend to be poor and populous, they tend to have a single demand: security. This might change as Muslims become wealthier and better educated (they might start demanding bgovernment employment, economic privileges, and so on). But for now, there are many Muslim vote that can be bought with security.
  3. Providing security is not costly. It might be if providing minority security threatens the majority; for example, if it involves putting substantial numbers of Muslims in the police and military forces. But most Indian police and military forces have very few minorities, so providing security isn't costly.

How Indian states fit this model

First, there is multidimensionality. Though Muslims favor security, most Hindus are more concerned with economic redistribution and other issues than with holding Muslims down. Second, since Muslims demand less than most Hindu voting blocs (they only want security), they are a low-cost constituency, so they are attractive to parties that need more votes. Finally, less than 1% of the armed forces is Muslim, so granting security doesn't scare Hindus.

Test #1: Statistical relationship btw ENPP and violence

Test #2: Do A, Bi, and Bii states fit the model (see Fig 5.1)

As shown in Table 5.4, Gujarat is the only Bii state (see Fig 5.1). It's also the only state that allowed violence.

Test #3: Evidence of politically strategic considerations?

Yes. Looks at a couple case studies. People apparently are thinking the way he says they are.


In addition to those mentioned in the summary, this is major: What about reverse causality? In light of Chapter 2, shouldn't we expect ethnic provocations (riots) to lead to less partisan fractionalization, since lower-caste Muslims join the upper-caste party? Violence makes ethnicity the primary cleavage, potentially reducing ENPP.

Chapter 7: Applying the theory comparatively

General idea

This chapter applies the book's theories to historic cases. Basically, it argues that an increase in electoral competition can lead politicians to pay more or less attention to preventing violence. "Governments ... decide whether to prevent antiminority violence by calculating whether doing so will help or hurt them politically." If the ruling party needs the minority's support to win, it will suppress violence. But if it doesn't, it might allow violence. And if it needs a few more votes from the majority, it might encourage violence, since ethnic violence will polarize the ethnic groups and (possibly) bring more of the majority ethnic group into that group's party. Examples:


Research on similar subjects


Wilkinson, Steven (author)Comparative PoliticsEthnic ConflictDemocratizationNationalismReligion and PoliticsElectionsFederalismViolence

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