Interview Insights: Dr Soumyanetra Munshi

Dr Soumyanetra Munshi is Associate Professor of Economics at the Economics Research Unit, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. She received her PhD in Economics and M.A. in Economics from Rutgers University, New Jersey, M.S. in Quantitative Economics from ISI, Kolkata, and B.Sc. in Economics from Presidency College, Calcutta. Her research interests are in Political Economy, Public Economics, Microeconomic Theory, Industrial Organization, Game Theory and its Applications, Economic History, and Economic History of Women. Prior to working at ISI Kolkata, Dr Soumyanetra worked briefly at IGIDR and IIM, Bangalore.

What are your current research interests and what prompted you to pursue those specific areas?

At the moment, I am studying various facets of clientelism and its interplay with politics. In general I am interested in using economic tools to understand various real-life outcomes, especially political and social outcomes and clientelism is one such ubiquitous phenomenon.

What is clientelism?
The Wikipedia definition of clientelism states: “exchange systems where voters trade political support for various outputs of the public decision-making process”. In other words, clientelism broadly refers to the buying of votes and hence power, by politicians (patrons) in return for direct benefits to the electorate (clients). Hence there is a quid pro quo arrangement between the patrons and clients which sees direct transfer of benefits to the clients but in which general governance doled out by the patrons remain poor and which mainly serves the interests of the patrons. An economist clarifies, “In return for giving political support to the vulnerable population, the political parties demand their allegiance. This political exchange, on a quid pro quo basis, forms the core of electoral politics for a large number of less developed countries yielding perverse results for their democracies.” Hence clientelism subverts and distorts to some extent democratic institutions and hence constitutes a malaise for democracy. Democratic outcomes in such a system, does not necessarily reflect distributive outcomes preferred by broad categories of citizens (e.g., income and asset redistribution through taxes and social benefits schemes). At the moment, there are two broad projects pertaining to clientelism that I am working on, which are as follows:

Clientelism or public goods: Dilemma in a divided democracy – In a clientelistic transaction, we know that there is a direct exchange of the citizen’s vote for direct favours (direct payments or access to employment, goods and services). In this paper, we study such clientelistic transactions, albeit, under specific circumstances. Briefly, we study when clientelism is likely to be adopted in a democracy where an established political party is trying to attract a voter population, that has hitherto not been part of its core support base. Borrowing from the literature, we call such a party an ‘elite’ party.

An ‘elite’ party typically caters to ‘elite’ voters, while a ‘non-elite’ party caters to ‘non-elite’ voters. Several political parties have these features – like the BJP (elite) and the Left (non-elite) in India, the PKS (elite) and the PKB (non-elite) in Indonesia, and the FJP (elite) and Salafist Al-Nour party (non-elite) in Egypt. Now, the ‘elite’ party wants to expand its support base to include ‘non-elite’ voters. It can do so using one of two possible strategies – it can provide them public goods or it can dole out clientelistic benefits to them. Under what conditions, is the elite party likely to turn clientelistic and when is it likely to provide public goods? This is question we attempt to answer in this paper.

Criminality and Clientelism: A Game-theoretic exploration – We conceptualise a scenario that juxtaposes two well-known and hitherto separately studied aspects of today’s democratic polity – criminality and clientelism. Our game-theoretic model is based on certain empirically established facts: that parties are increasingly nominating criminal candidates in elections; that these criminal candidates are wealthy and outperform non-criminal candidates electorally; and that there is increasing clientelism (direct transfer of benefits to the electorate). This paper propounds the following channel: wealthier candidates are more able to grant clientelistic benefits to the electorate which are valued by the voters, even though they may morally not like supporting criminal candidates. Parties grant candidacy to these tarnished individuals because they electorally perform better, irrespective of their criminal charges and even if parties themselves may not ideologically like supporting criminal candidates.

What, in your opinion, does Economics have to offer to captivate the mind of a beginner? What advice would you give to a high-school student who wishes to make a career out of economics?

To me, the single most important feature of Economics that was its biggest appeal, was its ability to rigorously (scientifically/mathematically) model a mind-boggling range of real-life issues like conflict, terrorism, politics, child-labour, dowries etc., and thereby offer extremely important and interesting insights into why these phenomena at all exist and how they evolve. For example, an overarching theme that I have been working on in recent years is conflict. Below are specifically the contexts in which I have studied it.

In one of my papers (“On Government-industry Nexus And Indigenous Armed Resistance”), I study the relationship between the government, industry and indigenous community, especially in the context of mounting violence surrounding displacement of indigenous communities by governments for the purposes of commercial use of their habitat. It specifically takes into account the possibility of alleged ‘nexus’ between the government and the industry and explores its implications on the level of allocation and utilities of the players. I find that the bias in allocation that occurs when the government and the industry enter a ‘nexus’ can be rectified when there is resistance from the indigenous groups.

In another paper (“Jaw-jaw and war-war: A Game-theoretic Exploration of Violence in Electoral Politics”), I study conflict as manifested in eruptions of violence in electoral politics. Often political parties not only compete electorally with each other but also use violence in the electoral processes. I try to game-theoretically model the interplay of such ‘extra-electoral’ investments and electoral outcomes in an otherwise standard probabilistic voting model. I find that the political party who is likely to be more popular is also more likely to expend greater resources towards ‘extra-electoral’ elements, in turn spawning greater violence, even when such investments are disliked by all voters. It can afford to do so
precisely because of being more popular – popularity lends them immunity to electoral retribution by the electorate.

There is a newspaper article (The Telegraph, Delhi edition) that actually draws from this work and quotes me quite a few times:
https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/why-student-activism-is-spooking-the-government/cid/1737272

I also have other papers on conflict like “Analysis of Conflict within a Contested Land: the Case of Kashmir” Again, in a more social context, I have studied the phenomenon of dowry using contract theory. “Arranged’ marriage, Education, and Dowry: A Contract-theoretic Perspective” propounds a contract-theoretic model that addresses the empirically observed conundrum of increased education of the groom being associated with increased dowry transactions.

I have a paper studying voting rights for women as well.

What do you think of the idea that the concept of literacy should be expanded from classroom teaching to digital modules?

A conservative that I am, I think there is really no substitute for classroom teaching – the real-time interaction between teachers and students actually form a very important part of learning in both the students’ and the teachers’ lives, and stays with them forever!

In retrospect, is there anything about your academic journey that you particularly regret? How could you have avoided that?

Well, given current frontiers of the field are extensively data-driven, it would be better if I could have been more empirically and technologically equipped to keep up with changing times (like grasp machine learning techniques etc.) I believe I couldn’t have avoided it given my inherent knack was for more theoretical stuff! So I guess I have to live with my regrets!

What according to you is the greatest impediment to learning?

An unsupportive and unappreciative family can really kill all your latent potential.

If you had to choose an alternate career, what would it be?

I would definitely be a professor of English!

What other academic or non-academic subjects interest you?

I am a Bharatanatyam dancer and have performances once in a while.

What additional resources would you recommend if I want more information about what you are teaching?

I am best reached via email ( soumyanetra@hotmail.com ) and I try to get back to the best of my ability.

What do you like to do for fun?

I write (both poems and prose) for fun and sustenance! I have a published book of poems titled “You’re the Mecca I never want to visit” (here’s the Amazon link: https://www.amazon.in/Youre-Mecca-never-want-visit-ebook/dp/B07VPWRYQK/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=soumyanetra&qid=1564473554&s=gateway&sr=8-1 ).

And I have several articles and short stories, mostly in The Statesman. Here are the links to some of them:

‘Killing Our Mockingbirds’ (The Statesman, January 28 2019) https://www.thestatesman.com/opinion/killing-our-mockingbirds-1502728095.html

‘Riverine Divinity to Polluted Lifeline’ (jointly with Rita Chattopadhyay, The Statesman,
October 18, 2018) https://www.thestatesman.com/opinion/riverine-divinity-to-polluted-lifeline-1502697816.html

‘The shadows behind successes’ (The Statesman, 5 August 2018) https://www.thestatesman.com/opinion/the-shadows-behind-successes-1502669477.html
and many more…

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