Who Has Voice in a Deliberative Democracy? Evidence from Transcripts of Village Parliaments in South India
The role of deliberation among citizens to determine and forge agreement on policy is often seen as a crucial feature of democratic government. This paper provides the first large-N empirical evidence on the credibility of voice in a deliberative democracy in an non-laboratory setting, using a unique dataset collected from transcripts of deliberation that occurred between January and September 2003 in 127 functioning village parliaments (gram sabhas) in Southern India. We exploit a natural experiment in the arrangement of India's state borders across ethno-linguistic lines that led exogenously to increased caste fragmentation and a reduced degree of consensus on public goods priorities. We then examine the patterns of deliberation. We reject the presence of pure cheap talk in both heterogeneous and homogeneous villages. Instead, we show that in caste- fragmented South Indian villages, where there is less village-wide agreement on the relative importance of different public goods, the probability of an individual's highest priority being discussed increases as the household become more credible: its preferences approach the pivotal agent in a pure representative democracy, the median household. These effects are lower in ethnically homogeneous villages where there is greater consensus on the prioritization of public goods. Taken together, our results suggest that India's village parliaments, rather than being mere talking shops or being entirely captured by elites, seem instead to be both democratically representative and to be assigning roles to credible agents in their deliberative processes.
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