Deliberative Democracy in an Unequal World: A Text-As-Data Study of South India's Village Assemblies

Ramya Parthasarathy, Stanford University Vijayendra Rao,  World Bank Nethra Palaniswamy, World Bank


PARTHASARATHY, R., RAO, V., & PALANISWAMY, N. (2019). Deliberative Democracy in an Unequal World: A Text-As-Data Study of South India's Village Assemblies. American Political Science Review, 113(3), 623-640. doi:10.1017/S0003055419000182

This paper opens the "black box" of real-world deliberation by using text-as-data methods on a corpus of transcripts from the constitutionally mandated gram sabhas, or village assemblies, of rural India. Drawing on normative theories of deliberation, we identify empirical standards for "good" deliberation based on one's ability both to speak and to be heard, and use natural language processing methods to generate these measures. We first show that, even in the rural Indian context, these assemblies are not mere "talking shops," but rather provide opportunities for citizens to challenge their elected officials, demand transparency, and provide information about local development needs. Second, we find that women are at a disadvantage relative to men; they are less likely to speak, set the agenda, and receive a relevant response from state officials. And finally, we show that quotas for women for village presidencies improve the likelihood that female citizens are heard.

This paper is a product of the World Bank's Social Observatory. Financial support from the contributions of (1) UK Aid from the UK government, (2) the Australian Government's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and (3) the European Commission (EC) through the South Asia Food and Nutrition Security Initiative (SAFANSI), which is administered by the World Bank, is gratefully acknowledged. The authors are indebted to R. V. Shajeevana, the former Additional Project Director of the Pudhu Vaazhu Project, for her advice and assistance; Kevin Crockford and Samik Sundar Das for their support; and Madhulika Khanna, Nishtha Kochhar, Smriti Sakhamuri, G. Manivannan, and GFK-Mode for their help with the fieldwork. The authors also thank Avidit Acharya, Lisa Blaydes, Nick Eubank, Adriane Fresh, Justin Grimmer, David Laitin, Jeremy Weinstein, and participants of the Indian Political Economy working group in Washington, D.C., for comments and suggestions. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the UK, EC, or Australian government's official policies or the policies of the World Bank and its Board of Executive Directors. Replication files are available at the American Political Science Review Dataverse: