Slums are home to 850 million people worldwide, making them prime territory for distributive politics. In this episode of the Governance Podcast, Tariq Thachil (Vanderbilt University) sits down with Irena Schneider (King’s College London) to discuss the counterintuitive ways in which governance emerges amidst poverty and informality in Indian cities.
Subscribe on iTunes and Spotify
Subscribe to the Governance Podcast on iTunes and Spotify today and get all our latest episodes directly in your pocket.
For more information about our upcoming podcasts and events, follow us on facebook, twitter or instagram (@csgskcl).
Tariq Thachil is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University. His research focuses on political parties and political behavior, social movements, and ethnic politics, with a regional focus on South Asia.
His first book examines how elite parties can use social services to win mass support, through a study of Hindu nationalism in India, and was published by Cambridge University Press (Studies in Comparative Politics) in 2014. This project has won numerous awards, including the 2015 Gregory Luebbert Award for best book in comparative politics, the 2015 Leon Epstein Award for best book on political parties, and 2010 Gabriel Almond Award for best dissertation in comparative politics, all from the American Political Science Association. It also won the 2010 Sardar Patel Prize for best dissertation on modern India in the humanities and social sciences.
His current research focuses on the political consequences of urbanization, and draws on extensive qualitative and quantitative research among poor migrants in Indian cities. An article from this project, coauthored with Adam Auerbach, received the 2018 Heinz I. Eulau Award for the best article published in the American Political Science Review in the previous calendar year.
00:58: As a political scientist, what prompted you to take an interest in the politics of Indian slums?
1:53: You talk a lot about machine politics in India—It’s a core element of your book. Historically when we think about machine politics, you also mention in your book that the big examples are US democratic party machines in New York and Chicago which emerged in the 19th century by giving out material benefits to poor European immigrants in exchange for political support. We’re seeing similar trends happening across the developing world today. Masses of migrants are flooding to cities, living in slums, and end up being governed by powerful machines. But you’re observing something uniquely different about how politics emerges within Indian slums. Quite specifically, you’re noticing that the process is a lot more democratic than we thought. What have you been observing? What’s counterintuitive?
7:56: That’s really interesting because it really has to do with this unique competitive environment. Why is it so competitive? Why is no one able to take over and become a boss in some of these Indian slums?
11:23: You argue that slum residents don’t really choose leaders on the basis of petty gifts or cash. Clientelism doesn’t boil down to something so simple. What criteria do residents really use to choose their leaders?
14:13: The picture you’re painting is that slum residents are much more empowered to choose among competing brokers rather than being passive or manipulated rule takers. How much power do they really have over their local brokers and local politicians? Can they really hold their brokers accountable in ways that would mimic what would happen under a formal democratic institution?
18:54: One of your most interesting findings is that when people are choosing their slum leaders and brokers, they’re not necessarily using the basis of caste or ethnicity—and a lot of what really matters is things like education. Talk a little more about that. Are we seeing a crowding out of forms of choice based on old kinds of hierarchy?
23:16: I want to talk a little more about the brokers themselves. They’re intermediaries between the slum dwellers and the state. You’re finding interesting mechanisms that keep brokers honest. As intermediaries, there’s always the concern that they will take state resources for themselves rather than distributing them back to the population. You find that they’re not actually pocketing the resources. What incentive to do they have to be honest?
26:56: Do you see these informal institutions as a healthy phenomenon in Indian democracy? Are they effectively a really benign form of bottom up self-governance that fills in the vacuum of the formal state?
29:58: What does this kind of competitive local governance mean for Indian political development in the long term? Do you see political machines in the global south eventually declining in the same way they did in the US in the early 20th century?
35:20: Tying that into questions of economic development in India, as these slums develop over time and residents, having gotten used to a somewhat deliberative process and being somewhat involved in getting public service provision, do you think that will put a long term pressure on the formal system of governance?
37:48: This is a one country example. There is often the question in social science about external generalizability. What lessons are pertinent for the study of political development and urbanization around the world?
41:28: What are the future paths in your research program?
43:00: On a more methodological point, you’ve been using different kinds of methods, from ethnography to experimentation and survey work. Talk a little bit about the challenges of doing that ethnographic work. What have you been finding most rewarding and challenging? Any advice for young scholars trying to do this kind of fieldwork?
Welcome to the Governance Podcast at the Centre for the Study of Governance and Society at King’s College London. My name is Irena Schneider and I’m the Assistant Director of the Centre. Joining me today is Tariq Thachil, Associate Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University. His current research focuses on the political consequences of urbanisation and draws on extensive qualitative and quantitative research among poor migrants in Indian cities. An article from this project, co-authored with Adam Auerbach, received the 2018 Heinz I. Eulau Award award for the best article published in the American Political Science review in the previous year. So welcome, Tariq.
Thank you. Thank you so much for having me, Irena.
I wanted to start off with your current book project with Adam. And you’ve been doing a lot of extensive ethnographic and quantitative research on the politics of Indian slums as a political scientist. What prompted you to get interested in this topic?
It’s a great question. I think, you know, both Adam and I have been interested in urban and specifically urban poor spaces, usually just by witnessing and visiting Indian cities, and seeing the changes that are happening within them. And it’s hard to visit, not just, you know, big cities like Delhi and Bombay, but medium and even small Indian cities, and not witness the tremendous amount of proliferation of new settlements, often settled by recent migrants from the countryside. And I think that’s really what motivated us was seeing this change demographically happening in Indian cities and wanting to understand a little bit about, you know, to what extent are these new spaces being incorporated into city politics? Are they being incorporated? And if so, how? And trying to understand those questions is really what took us to this research.
You talk a lot about machine politics in India and that’s a core element of your book. Historically, when we think about machine politics, you mentioned in your book that the big examples are US Democratic Party machines in New York and Chicago. They emerged in the 19th century by giving out material benefits to poor European immigrants in exchange for political support. And we’re obviously seeing similar trends happening across the developing world. Masses of migrants are flooding to cities, living in slums, and sometimes end up being governed by these big powerful political machines. But you argue that politics emerges somewhat differently within Indian slums. Now, I’m not really sure if I can use the word democratic per se, but you’re noticing that the process is maybe a little bit more democratic than one would expect. So what have you been observing? What’s counterintuitive?
Yeah. So I think, you know, to begin with just kind of situating you know, what is this language of a political machine and as some of your listeners may know, you know, the political machine is a kind of a political body organisation that has been often understood to really take root among urban poor neighbourhoods and specifically upon urban poor migrant communities. So when we talk about the Democratic Party machine, in cities like Chicago or the Republican Party machine in cities like Philadelphia, often the soil in which those organisations took root was, you know, enclaves of transnational immigrants. And if we think about where they were kind of making their biggest mark, it was within those immigrant communities at times during periods of urban growth in this country’s history, in US history, I should say. And what interested us was seeing is there a similar kind of political party organisation that is emerging within Indian cities, because many of our models of Indian politics has really been rooted in studies of the countryside, and rightfully so that’s where the majority of Indians still live.
But the first decade of the 21st century was also the first in which India added more people to its cities than to its countryside in absolute numbers. So it is relevant to begin asking “What does urban politics in India look like and emergent urban politics in India look like?”. And one of the things that we saw was that parties in Indian cities are really looking to extend themselves into these newly settled migrant enclaves. Except the migrants now are not transnational immigrants but internal migrants from the countryside. And one of the things that struck us that was really important to understand is, so why are they doing this and much like they did in American cities, they realise the electoral potential of these communities. So migrant communities in migrants slum settlements in which Adam and I work turn out to vote at incredibly high rates. So something that might automatically strike you as perhaps surprising is far from being disenfranchised, over 90% of them have registered to vote in the city. And turnout rates among those who are eligible to vote is also in excess of 90%, which is far higher than average turnout rates, which are some 25 to 30 percentage points lower in other parts of the city. So not just are migrants coming to the city. They’re registering to vote and they’re voting a lot. In India these communities are called vote bags. They’re literally banks of votes that are there for politicians to harness. And so the question becomes, how do they do so? And they do so through these machine like organisations, which are these hierarchical organisational structures that link political elites in the city all the way down into migrant slums. And what Adam and I are trying to do in our book is trace out how these organisations actually form. How do they take root given that most of these migrant settlements were vacant land that have been settled, had very little in them, let alone, you know, they were mostly made out of kind of ramshackle tents, semi permanent construction, no real political authority figures existed within them. So this is very different from say, village India. And so who emerges as political authority figures within the slum settlement to connect these communities to the power centres of urban politics, that’s what we were looking at.
And the final point that you referenced is that we found that the way in which these local political authority NGOs, local slum leaders, slum locals emerge is much more a kind of competitive bottom-up process than we imagined. So I think the typical image many people have of Indian slums, many of your listeners might have is that they’re kind of ruled by these thuggish mafia bosses, the kind of what we jokingly call the Slumdog Millionaire version of Indian politics and some big bad boss who keeps these kind of passive orders under his control, these poor migrants under his sway, maybe at the bottom of a gun. And we found very little evidence that such kingpins are the connective tissue between slums and the city. Instead, we found that there are lots of slum leaders within Indian settlements, but it’s a very competitive landscape. So on average, our settlements – we worked in 110 settlements across two cities – we found on average six to nine settlement leaders who are competing for political authority within the settlement. And the way in which they come up is really that they are actively chosen and selected by residents. Often just in the kind of everyday decisions that residents make in whom to seek help from and follow, but also sometimes in kind of big discrete moments, things like informal elections that Adam and I observed in these settlements, where residents actually come together and have community meetings, sometimes informal elections, complete with paper ballots, where they actually cast lots for who should become the president of the settlement.
And so those processes we thought were counterintuitive because they suggested a degree of bottom-up agency and competition that really goes against, not just popular understandings, bollywood-eyes understandings of slums, but of machine politics, which often assumes there’s Tammany Hall or Boss Tweed, who has this very top-down coercive apparatus that really squelches competition and really controls localities. And we found that that was simply not the case in Indian cities, that even among poor vulnerable migrants. There is this competition and choice.
That’s really interesting because it really does have a lot to do with this unique competitive environment, why is it so competitive? Why is nobody capable of taking over and becoming a boss in some of these Indian slums.
So I think there are a couple of different reasons at different levels. So at the very ground level, there are certain forces that allow for competition. One is, as I said before, there is no settled hierarchy, because it is within the settlement because these are settlements in which everybody is a poor migrant, we find that there aren’t these traditional hierarchies that allow sometimes for a monopoly of control. So every single slum leader that we found was somebody who was a first generation migrant, almost none of them had formal sector jobs. They, on average, had the same level of income as other residents. So these are not people who are locally powerful, other than through their entrepreneurial sweat that brought them into brokerage. So that allows for a certain amount of horizontal competition because there isn’t somebody who’s starting out with a massive head start. This is unlike the formal world of Indian politics where you have to have lots of access to money, political connections, and often dynastic ties in order to be a credible candidate, but we find it as low level, that’s not the case. And that allows for a certain amount of competition.
The second thing is that I think Indian cities are politically very competitive at the top as well. So it’s not uncommon for there to be a lack of incumbent advantage in Indian politics. And that extends to the cities that we studied. So for long stretches that we were studying the Bharatiya Janata Party, the current ruling party, was in government. But in our study, cities that don’t over the Indian National Congress has actually been in power at different levels, the municipal level, the state level, and so the fact that at different periods of time we’ve had incumbent turnover and competition at the top intersects with the kind of relatively horizontal nature of political competition within slums to create quite a competitive environment. And so some of this is a hallmark of Indian politics. And then some of it is really a hallmark of Indian slums that produces this competition.
Interesting having a kind of egalitarian environment …
… within the settlement. You know, obviously, they exist in extremely inegalitarian cities, and by no means do we mean to romanticise Indian cities that, in fact slums are living testament to the inequalities within cities. But within settlements, what we found was really a lack of control by one or two social groups. So those could be caste groups or religious groups or one or two pivotal figures because of relative privilege or advantage. And one of the things that we found just related to this question is that, you know, you would imagine that perhaps parties can plant people that they want to become a slum leader. That never happens. So we actually surveyed 629 slum leaders and we took narrative histories from them as well as residents in their settlement. And almost in, I would say, over 95% of the cases, the slum leader was somebody who started out as a resident of the slum and the first step was for them to actually gain political authority in the settlement on the basis of which they were connected to political parties. Parties can’t just put in a preferred cousin or nephew into the slum because they lack local legitimacy. They have no popularity, no kind of what the Hindi word for kind of social influence and recognition is. And because of that, parties really have to do business with those that the slum residents are throwing up as their leaders, they can’t reverse engineer that. And I think that also puts a limit to monopolistic control within the settlement.
What criteria are residents in the slums really using to choose their leaders?
So I think this is a really important question, both for scholars of political science and urban politics, but also scholars of India. So the term I’d use earlier, vote banks, which is an Indian term that’s used widely in India, is often deployed with the sense that there’s a kind of automaticity of these votes, that if you can, you can collect all of these votes and usually do so just by distributing, you know, cheap liquor and food around elections. And we certainly see plenty of that in slums with parties trying to distribute handouts during elections. And that dovetails with literature on vote buying and comparative politics that assumes that these strategies can be very effective, especially among the poor. Because given that the poor have very little access and very little leverage for making greater demands, in terms of public policies, or greater kinds of services from the state, they’re willing to be bought by a relatively cheap gift around an election. And I think we join, I think, a number of scholars now who are pushing back against that and saying that that’s a very simplistic view. More often what we see and there are other scholars who have made this point that more often what we see is Indian politicians do these things around elections more as skin in the game, more to show that they’re credible than with any hope that that cheap food and liquor around an election is actually inducing the vote. And we heard this from politicians themselves. We heard this from some leaders, some leaders on average that we surveyed said they thought less than 5% of residents within the settlement actually had their vote influenced by gifts around the election. So I think we feel quite confident and that accorded with everything that we observed over the many, many months of our ethnographic work as well, that really, goodwill and connections are bought between the vote, and are forged between the vote, I should say, not bought up during the vote. And I think the thing that residents really care about is everyday problem solving. So residents don’t care about: do I get a little bit of cash once every five years, what they care about, well, did you help me get my voter ID card? Did you help me get my ration card for subsidised food grain? Did you help get a petition for a streetlight in front of my house or sanitation, access to pipe drinking water? And those are the kinds of things that brokers can really make the name for: did you actually respond to resident requests and the brokers we spoke to receive a delusion of requests from slum residents and in fact, some of the hardest decisions they have to make is who to help and who to prioritise helping. But often what they do and how they respond and how effective they are in responding is the key to their popularity and therefore the influence of the vote. So it’s really in our sense in our understanding, goodwill generated by problem solving, rather than a kind of transactional buying, that applies within the Indian settlement.
So slum residents, the picture you’re painting is there actually a lot more, perhaps empowered to choose among different kinds of brokers, they evaluate them on their effectiveness and problem solving. They’re not just passive. They’re not manipulated, they’re not just rule takers. How much power do they really have over their brokers or their local politicians? Can they really hold these brokers accountable in ways that would mimic what would happen under a formal democratic institution?
So yes, and no. And I think it’s, you know, I think, let me start with where is their accountability here, and then maybe I can talk a little bit about where I think the limits to that are. So I think where we’re often pushing back is against a model in which these are people who are literally in the language of clientelism, clients, they are passive targets, who are kind of trapped within the system. And I think we’re pushing back on that saying they can actually shape the machines that govern them. You know, poor Indian slum residents can at least shape the local nodes of brokerage, which are their interface with the larger world of city politics. And they can do that by selecting through both informal elections and everyday decisions. And there’s also the converse of that, if somebody starts being ineffective or gets a reputation for not actually getting things done, because there’s so much competition in the slum, residents can choose to seek help from and follow a different leader. And we see that quite often. So in the slums that we worked in now, and I’ve worked in them for the past five years, Adam has worked in them for nearly the past decade, we’ve seen some leaders rise and fall. So we’ve seen some leaders who came up and then there’s a new crop of some leaders who have displaced them because they’ve got a reputation for being more effective. Often the model will be somebody who’s more educated, a younger slum leader comes up who’s more educated maybe has better knowledge of modern technologies, and ways of getting things done online. And that can often be very valuable for the kinds of problem solving assistance that residents seek. Somebody like that could displace an older leader. And this doesn’t have to be, you know, again, this is not an image of some kind of war between kingpins, it’s really a much more gradual process of fewer and fewer people come to the person who’s not proving effective and more and more people are going to another leader. And so that is the way in which I do think there is control. We saw very little evidence that residents were ever coerced into sticking with a leader that they were finding ineffective, residents openly told us that they stopped going to one leader, that they would approach one leader and then another leader if they found that they were not being helpful. And so we got very little impression of any kind of coercion to stick with a particular broker. So I think there is genuine accountability that almost mimics a democratic system or a formal institutional system.
But having said that, I think we should be cautious about overly romanticising the system to the degree that there’s clearly limits on what this ecosystem has been able to achieve for slum residents. So I think, and Adam shows this beautifully in his first book, there has been transformations within the settlements. Again, these are settlements set up with nothing, they are set up on land that was often left vacant because it was under dispute from private parties or environmentally hazardous and unfit for human habitation. And there was nothing on them. From those they have now, many of those slums being able to graduate to places that have street lights, sanitation, paved roads, and all of that is through this brokerage system. Very little is coming through formal channels, these are all informal settlements that don’t actually have formal recourse to urban budgets. So a lot of this is happening through a dent in this system. But on the flip side, there are things that they’re not getting, nobody could go to an Indian slum settlement today, including the ones that we work in in jeopardy and football and say that these are, these are spaces that are being well done by the political system. So for example, I think the best example of this is the number one thing that most residents want when we asked them was a formal title to their land. And most slum residents, almost all of the slum residents we surveyed have not got those. They may get temporary lease holds in some of the cities for particular periods of time, but almost none of these slums have been, in fact I would say that of the ones that we studied none of them have been made permanent. Very few have been evicted, I would say less than 10% of our sample during the time that we’ve studied them. But very few will become permanent. So what we really have is a picture where they’re kind of in limbo, in between being dumped out and between actually having formalised titles, and so they can get public goods and services. But have they got wide sweeping urban policies in their favour? No. Have they got the widespread titles that they see? No. And I think politicians have an incentive to kind of keep them in this limbo, where they really, you know, continually dependent on the politicians’ favour to remain where they are, and improve their lives at the margins, which are very important for people who are living in poverty or a street light, a paved road or septic tank can make a big difference. But I don’t think we should romanticise this as the kind of silver bullet that solved the problem of the illusion of urban poor.
One of the more interesting findings that you guys found was that actually when people are choosing their slum leaders and brokers they’re not necessarily often using the basis of caste or ethnicity, or kind of similar ethnic background. And a lot of what actually really matters is things like education. Talk a little bit more about that. And are we seeing a kind of crowding out of old forms of choosing leaders based on old forms of hierarchy?
Yeah, this has been one of the most interesting things that we’ve come across in our work. So I think another kind of stylized fact often about Indian politics is the preeminence of caste identities and the comparative politics literature are often called ethnic identities. And, you know, one of the things that we thought was very interesting, just demographically about our settlements, and this is a point I hope listeners will find interesting is that one of the really novel things about Indian slums is that they are incredibly diverse along caste lines. And so there is a I think, at least in Jaipur, about the cities I can speak of, there is a mischaracterization of Indian slums as many villages, so many people think of them as just you know, the countryside has literally been replicated in the city, which means all the forms of caste based spatial segregation are simply replicated in the city. We and I say this quite categorically for the cities that we work in, we just find no evidence of this. So we find evidence of not just incredible ethnic diversity, but that those ethnic communities are interspersed and integrated within a settlement. So it’s not that there’s one portion a slum that goes from one ethnic group in one group and another portion of slum. So there’s micro segregation within a settlement: we find upper castes and lower castes living within the same alleyways, the modal, the biggest caste in each of our settlements was only 5% of the slum. And so the fractionalization index for those of your listeners who know what that is, is point eight seven, which means the odds of any two residents who are selected at random being from different castes is 87%.
So these are very different diverse settlements. And I think that’s important for a couple of reasons. One is that what really unites the settlement is that everybody there is poor. That’s why they’re there. So we have settlements that are a mixture of poor upper caste, poor lower caste, intermediate caste, Hindus and poor Muslims. Most of our settlements have both Hindus and Muslims in them. And this incredible diversity at a local level has implications for politics. So caste cannot form a basic building block that can be aggregated into winning coalitions, as it’s often theorised to do in India and elsewhere at a level in which caste is so diverse, even at a local level. Even local slum brokers can rise to positions of prominence by just mobilising people from their caste background. That’s a losing strategy. They have to craft multi-ethnic multi-caste coalitions, even at a very local level, and so because of that they have incentives to try and craft an appeal across different caste groups. Similarly, residents do not necessarily see the profit in assembling mechanically behind somebody from their caste group, and we see this in the choice experiments that we run with residents where residents express fast, stronger preference for somebody who is likely to be an effective problem solver. So when we ask residents to choose between two hypothetical slum leaders, they’ve always strongly preferred better educated leaders. And the effect of education is higher than the effect of coming from the same caste which is positive, but not nearly as impactful.
And we thought that was particularly interesting, because when we replicated that experiment, but asked people to indicate their preferences for a neighbour the results were inverted. So it’s not when residents are asked, you know, who would you prefer as a neighbour, they still prefer people of their caste. So we’re not finding patterns that those kinds of social attitudes are necessarily going away when somebody comes to the city. But very quickly, somebody might retain a preference to live near people from that caste, but they no longer transfer that attitude towards their political choices. And we thought that was pretty instructive in a context in which you know, aphorisms abound, such as when you cast your vote in India, you vote your caste. Well, at least for slum leaders within Indian settlements, we don’t find that to be the case.
I want to talk a little bit more about the brokers themselves. So they’re the intermediaries between the slum dwellers and the state. You’re finding interesting mechanisms that keep these brokers honest. So, as these intermediaries, there’s kind of always the concern that they will take state resources for themselves, rather than distributing them back to the population, you find they’re not actually pocketing the resources. So what incentive do they have to be honest?
So it’s, you know, what motivates brokers is a really important question. And I think, again, typically, we’ve characterised what motivates them as the chance to kind of syphon off petty resources from what parties give them. So the idea would be that if I’m a broker, I become a broker. The party gives me a bunch of money to distribute it on the election again to buy votes. That vote by model we talked about earlier. And I try and keep as much of it in my own pocket as possible and give as little as possible. So I think that the first thing we’re saying is that that’s not the model, the model is based on everyday problem solving. And it doesn’t mean that they’re not resources brokers can get from those activities. So sometimes brokers will charge very low fees for helping with filing a petition, again, low given the people who they’re catering to don’t have the resources to pay. And often some of the petitions they do for larger services, things like street lights and sewer lines, there’s no fee involved. It’s really just trying to get that good for the settlement. And you know, it’s not that if they do so there’s no opportunity for them to get a small kickback from a constructor, from a construction firm, etc. that may get the contract to build that road or put in that street light. But again, we found on average, that was not the main motivation of brokers.
Now this doesn’t mean that they’re altruist. This doesn’t mean that there’s selfless social workers. What instead motivates brokers is really the chance of a career in politics. So brokers are entering this system, people are becoming slum leaders not to remain slum leaders, but in the hope that that can launch a political career, where there may be more lucrative opportunities. So if you become a locally elected candidate, or if you rise to becoming a kind of district president for your party, then you can naturally have some of these more lucrative rent seeking opportunities. And so what brokers are good in is really hoping that by becoming a broker, they will be offered a formal position in India called a bud within a political party. And this was by far the biggest motivation for brokers themselves, what do you want for doing this? What is the number one thing that you want? Well, out of, well, more than four and five of them said we want a formal party position. And this is not simply wishful thinking. When we track the organisational history of brokers, the 629, we surveyed we found 415 of them had obtained but moreover, about half of those 415 had obtained multiple bugs and on average, those bugs tended to follow an upward trajectory. So I had a positional rank as I go on through my career, in other words, there’s a slippery slope, and it’s a competitive game. But there is a political career that might be able to be launched by starting as a broker. And you might say, well, given that it’s a slippery slope, why choose that as something to invest in, but you have to understand the choice that most of these people who are poor migrants are facing in Indian cities, very few of them, far greater than 90% of them are informally employed. And so even if the odds are long to make it as a political career, the odds might be even longer to get a job in other sectors, including in the private sector or informal, formal government office. And so in that choice set, you know, the risks of politics may be worth it, and that’s often what they’re in it for. So I think that is really, it’s not that they’re not seeking it, it’s really about getting that inclusion and moving up the ladder that motivates them.
Do you see these informal institutions as a really healthy phenomenon in Indian politics? Is this an example of how democracies are supposed to work? Are these kinds of governance mechanisms just a benign form of self-governance that comes from the bottom mob that has legitimacy and fills the vacuum of the formal state.
So I think that they have come up sometimes to fill, you know, to fill the vacuum that the formal state sometimes left in that I think the very fact that we see such competitive brokerage conditions has to do with the inherent informality of these settlements, which renders every single thing that you need has to be lobbied for, and need some form of mediation. And the fact that the Indian state, not just elected officials, but bureaucrats need to be pressured to deliver services and therefore need people with political heft behind them is often what’s driving the formation of these chains of brokers and the networks and political machines they’re embedded within but I think It would be hard to say that this is a kind of a benign outcome and maybe even a solution to a failing state. Recall that much of these brokerage activities target the state. So the brokers who are coming up are not self providing these services, they’re not getting an informal system to self provide these services, they’re lobbying the state for them, and often lobbying the state in a way that will prove discretionary. So there are certain slums that are going to benefit from the system. If you’re a larger slum, you’re more likely to get goods and services. And that’s something that Adam shows in work that he’s done before. If you’re in a slum with more of these leaders, or leaders who are more powerful, you may be more likely to get things and others so that means that they’re, you know, like any everything else this might be replicating systems of inequality within slum settlements, where certain slums rise to prominence and others fall behind.
And so, when you continue to have a system that’s based on discretion, that requires a certain amount of political leverage to get things done in a piecemeal and an ad hoc way rather than a systematic way that has kind of urban policy heft and kind of widespread planning behind it, then you do leave yourself open to this and so, of course, centralised planning and centralised urban planning in India has had its own pitfalls. But I think viewing this as purely a solution to the feelings of a state is dangerous. A) because the state is still heavily involved in the centre of the action for these lobbying networks. But secondly, because it papers over the real inequalities and and discretionary nature of the transactions, that these brokerage networks are still enmeshed with them. And so I think I would caution against thinking that it was a solution, I think it’s best thought of as a way to understand how people are actively trying to shape the best outcomes they can get within a system that is characterised by a high level of dysfunction and sometimes venality.
What does this kind of competitive local governance mean for Indian political development in the long term? So do you see political machines in the global South, eventually declining maybe in the same way that they did in the US in the early 20th century?
That’s a really good question. I mean, I think right now, there are kind of two countervailing trends in Indian politics that are kind of rubbing up against one another. So on the one hand, you know, if you just stay in the world that Adam and I have stayed in, which is an intensely local one, we’re really focusing at the level of the municipal ward and individual settlements, were studying kind of hyper local politics, which I think can be very valuable in some ways. But one of the things that it might do is kind of overstate the degree to which those local dynamics can shape our national political cultures or national political systems. And I think in the Indian case, while at the local level, we’re uncovering a high degree, at least in the cities, we study a high degree of competitive local governance. We’re highlighting the fact that there’s this competitive selection of slum leaders, that there’s then competitive selection among parties. That is not really consolidated incumbency, that there are these truly kind of competitive democratic processes.
There are countervailing trends at the national level. At the national level, we see a centralization of power within the national government, especially under the BJP Modi government has been an incredible centralization of power, not just in Delhi, but within the Prime Minister’s Office, there’s been an incredible increase in the expense of elections, which really has increasingly necessitated and constrained who can even run for office at higher levels. So you need to be financially connected and have considerable access to funds in order to really be a viable national candidate. So the degree to which some of these bottom up processes we’re talking about, you know, could a slum leader actually run to be a member of parliament, I think there’s a very clear ceiling they’re going to hit against because there are wild you know, they may be able to penetrate local politics and kind of push up, have their voices heard at that very local level, the higher level of politics in some ways we’re seeing a consolidation of offer political elite that is going to be hard to permeate.
And so if we take those two trends in, in conjunction with one another, and, you know, a second set of countervailing trends, we see is ethnic diversity leading to actually a decline in the salience of caste and these local competitive selection decisions. But then we have a party that’s openly espoused Hindu nationalism, and it’s governed by a ruling ideology that is one of Hindu nationalism, a party I’ve studied extensively in my first book that’s come into office, and that is promulgating a set of policies that are seen as key agenda items of a Hindu nationalist vision.
So on the one hand, we have this kind of celebration of local ethnic diversity within settlements and what it’s doing at the local level. And yet at the national level, somebody could look and say, well, there’s a completely countervailing trend of one where Muslims are feeling increasingly threatened and including the excluded from the halls of Indian policy in power, and there’s a body with a kind of chauvinist nationalist vision that’s consolidating power at the national level. So I think to me, your question really intersects with this idea of there are almost misalignments between some of the local trends that we’re observing, and some of the trends in national Indian politics that I think is going to put a ceiling on how far up the trends that Adam and I are documenting can actually travel.
That said, it also creates little pockets of breathing. So I think at local level, the fact that there’s still so much competition allows for a certain level of oxygen within the local system that it can’t be completely closed. For example, somebody might well think that, you know, the BJP’s dominance at the national level should transfer all the way down. So maybe all the slum leaders now are just like rushing to try and ally themselves with the BJP. We don’t see that, we see the Congress actually has a number of some leaders retain their positions within the Congress. The split is quite even within our studied cities, it’s almost 50/50 not quite about 60/40 but it’s far from kind of BJP dominance. At that local level, and this is despite the fact that the Congress has really made no headway in the national picture over the last several years. So there are, you know, these countervailing trends that are kind of knocking off against each other at the local level and the national level. And that’s where I kind of see things standing now. Which one will kind of dominate the other as we go forward is a question I wish I could answer. But right now, things are so uncertain and India is on so many different levels, I don’t feel confident answering.
You see these different layers of governance that have one formal, one informal and the informal one is not mapping onto the formal one. It doesn’t just transform into formal politics.
Yeah. Or if it does, it’s only going to be at a very localised level and the kind of importance of money, politics as well as an increasing nationalisation of formal politics, at the highest levels is going to put a lid on how far up these bottom up forces can actually penetrate the political system. And I think right now that ceiling is very, imagine the kind of local ward level, which is important for a lot of slum residents. That’s the level of which much of their lives are lived. But it means that, you know, its implications for the wider world of Indian politics, I think we have to be more circumspect about
Tying that into questions of economic development in India, as these slums develop economically over time, and, and residents having gotten used to a sort of deliberative process of choosing their leaders of being somewhat involved and getting public service provision. And do you think that that sort of trend in the long term, given that cities are going to grow and people are going to become richer, there’s going to be more of a pressure on the formal system of governance to kind of break into it?
So one area in which your question has been something that we’ve been thinking about is, you know, so what are the implications of this for urban policy and urban governance and something that the centre is interested in, as well. And I think one place that we think our work may have implications is the kind of profusion and interest in so-called community-driven development programmes, a lot of urban governance has been taking seriously the idea of community-driven development. But when actually trying to implement that, the vision of what that looks like has been, I think, compromised in several ways. So, the Indian government itself has issued policy to boards where it’s highlighted the need for community-driven development, but in the same breath said that often, the local leaders within urban slums lack legitimacy or are coercive figures and so many community-driven development schemes in India have often looked to bypass local leaders usually by kind of appointing and installing their own leaders, you know, dumping somebody the point person for a social programme. And now by virtue of that you become a local leader. And often those are figures who lack you know, everyday legitimacy and have not had a history of kind of working within communities. I think one place we have tried to push back is say not to assume that local slum leaders are these corrupt thugs who have to be worked around, that there might be utility to include them within these community-driven development processes, including the cities we studied Jaipur and Bhopal, where they have not been, or largely have not been.
And so I think that’s one area where thinking about models of urban development and where can the systems that we’re uncovering potentially be used. And again, it’s not to suggest that these are romanticised figures who don’t have their own interests, but often their own interests are in enabling better outcomes for their settlements. Doing so might get them an even more senior position within the political party they want. And so they have incentives that may align with community-driven development. And so we shouldn’t be necessarily suspicious of that. I think that’s one area where we see a potential implication of our work maybe being helpful.
Obviously, you’ve been studying– this is a one country example. There is often the question in social science about external generalizability. So what are you finding? What lessons are pertinent for urbanisation, the study of political development around the world?
So let me begin with a further caveat before I talk about generalizability, which is I think we’re also very cautious about saying even within India itself, generalising is fraught and we are starting two cities in North India, we pick those two cities as what in Indian terms, by Indian standards mid-sized, meaning a million plus cities. Rather than most studied mega cities like Delhi and Bombay, there are 50 such cities in India. So, I think it’s important to study that tier of cities, but those 50 cities vary greatly. And so, it’s possible that the patterns we uncover may not be true in other cities, there’s been recent work that’s documented, for example, tremendous religious segregation in the city of Endala in Kujab. And so it may be that if we did an equivalent exercise there, we might find more ethnic segregation than we find in Jaipur and Bhopal. Other cities are not ruled by just the Congress and BJP, as our cities are in India, there are regional parties, caste based parties, language based parties that hold sway. So I want to begin with that caveat and say much more is needed even for pulling out the picture within India.
That said, I think there are certain patterns that we talked about here that should lend themselves to at least being asked in other contexts. So the first is not to presume outcomes about slum settlements. So slums house now nearly a billion people worldwide. They remain severely under studied, especially in quantitative work. For example, the party machine this famous example from Argentina, which inspired much of the work on clientelism is often based on the study of the party in its strongholds in Buenos Aires. And the invocation of the urban poor and certainly urban poor neighbourhoods are studied in studies of modernism but slums are systematically either under sampled or completely made out of those studies by the admissions of Argentine scholars themselves. And the same is true for Sub Saharan Africa. We often have survey work in one or two famous slums, the slum of Kibera in Nairobi, for example, but we have very little systematic work that tries to do this mapping out of informal settlements in part because it’s hard.
These are informal settlements, often don’t have official lists of them constructing survey samples. But I think the first point is that when we did this exercise, even in two Indian cities, we immediately started uncovering realities that differed from the portrayal. So just the fact that we haven’t studied these faces hasn’t stopped social scientists from making a lot of proclamations about what life in slums looks like. And I think our first call would be: let’s study it before we make that claim. And one of the things we think is most likely is likely to be found as the combination of poverty in informality that characterise Indian slums is true of slums in most parts of the world. And it is that combination that often drives and in migration from different parts of the country, again, common to many slum settlements, it’s those patterns that often drive the competitive brokerage environments that we’re witnessing. And we’ve seen, you know, anecdotal and some qualitative evidence that the figures of slum leaders that we document are present in slums in other parts of the world. The parts that were to come into leadership may differ from the Indian context, but the fact that they’re happening in these spaces that have remained unmapped is the place that we should I think begin. And I think if we do so we’re likely to see that politics in these spaces is far more influential, even if circumscribed, even if limited by larger forces in the city, than we often give it credit for I think, if I had a prediction about which of our findings is most likely to travel, I think that would be the one.
What are the future paths in your research programme?
So I think, you know, hopefully finishing up this book. So we’ve been working on this book for the last five years, and I think hopefully, we’re in Social Science Time, hoping to submit soon which I don’t know how many months that means, but hopefully sometime this year, and a place that our interest is shifted to in the future is actually looking at even smaller cities. So a lot of urbanisation, what we call small scale urbanisation, is happening in India. So a lot of where urban areas are growing is actually even smaller cities than Jaipur and Bhopal, so really places that are tiny towns that are kind of growing in an even more haphazard and unplanned manner than the cities we’ve studied so far, because of the nature of those cities, because they are kind of even more obscure, even less studied. And one of the things that we’ve started asking ourselves is, you know, how are these cities dealing with even setting up for the first time kind of municipal services attempting to tax their populations, identity and to make a priority list of what infrastructure to build? And are they even able to do the minimal things for which the governments are required. And, you know, these are really, in some ways, the urban frontier of Indian cities right now. And in many parts of the world actually such small scale urbanisation is a big part of the urban story. But the attention to kind of capital cities and big cities has often crowded out our understanding of what’s happening in these spaces. And so I think that’s a direction in which we hope to move in the future.
Just to ask you one final question on a more methodological point, you’ve been doing a lot of different methods from ethnography to experimentation and survey work. Talk a little bit about some of the sort of challenges of doing that kind of ethnographic work. What are the pros and cons? What have you been finding most rewarding? What’s most difficult? Any advice for young scholars going into the field and trying to do this kind of work?
Yeah. So I think, you know, one, maybe thing that would be helpful for young scholars is, you know, often as a student, your competitive advantage is time, not money. And one of the things that time can help you get is a really finely textured sense of a place on which to design your questions, even if you end up doing quantitative work. And I think something both Adam and I have done in our own work and something that brought us together and we continue to do is not to kind of immediately start, you know, conducting surveys and building up quantitative data exercises before we have a really keen sense of the lived reality of the spaces we’re working in. And so I think our ethnography has been helpful. Not just when we’ve conducted ethnographic fieldwork both together and apart. And one of the things that has been crucial for is not just generating its own set of insights, but for helping us inform the design and implementation of our quantitative data collection, whether it’s been surveys, whether it’s been the design of survey choice experiments. In our case, I really can’t even imagine how we would have done it, how we would have phrased the questions in a way that was respectful and intelligible for our respondents had we not down to the phrases that we used, had we not done prior ethnographic work. And I think that is sometimes a point that is lost among scholars who see the potential for the kind of quantitative work that we’re doing, but maybe miss the significance of the qualitative work that preceded it, and really was the foundation for it. And I think that is something that students even if you don’t have a large research budget, if you have enough to have a plane ticket to go out to a place like India, you can do and understand a lot from little and it’ll also help you make sense of the findings. And so we, you know, I think really hang our hat on the importance of that fieldwork. And we returned to those settlements every year, both together and apart. And I think, you know, keeping a lived experience of going to those places and keeping in touch with people, understanding how things are evolving, even as we’re writing this work has been really important for us.
Yeah. Fantastic. I really look forward to reading this blog. It sounds like a really wonderful project. Thank you so much for sharing your research with us today.
Yeah, thank you. Thank you for having me.
To all of our listeners: thanks for joining us on this episode of the Governance Podcast with Tariq Thachil. To learn more about our upcoming podcasts and events at the Centre for the Study of Governance and Society, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In the meantime, we look forward to seeing you again soon on the Governance Podcast.