Somabha Mohanty

Patterns of political participation by the urban poor in India

My dissertation project analyses patterns of political participation by the urban poor in India, specifically asking how electoral strategies of political parties – namely clientelistic exchanges with individual voters, and ‘votebank politics’ targeting specific demographic groups – shape political mobilisation by the urban poor through affecting their strategies for collective organisation, for political contestation, and for making the government more responsive to their communities.

The research is primarily based on periodic empirical fieldwork from 2017 through 2019 in Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Orissa, where the ruling party and its leader have dominated electoral politics at state and local levels for about 20 years and, having just won a fifth electoral term, look to dominate for the next five years as well. The fieldwork examines how slum-based community leaders and activists attempted to mobilise their constituent communities in Bhubaneswar, and strategically engage with both ruling and opposition party workers and politicians to negotiate demands in the lead up to the recently concluded state and national elections. Field observations over nearly three years reveal that the urban poor display opportunistic patterns of political participation, from collectively mobilising to protest government policies but using the ballot to vote for the government rather than their own activist leaders, to paid participation in election rallies for multiple rival political parties. Given coercive actions by parties and their representatives along with limited access to information and legal recourse when their rights are denied, there also tends to be widespread mistrust about partisan affiliations and fragmentation along partisan lines within slum communities. Despite all this, slum communities also appear to be politically pluralist, i.e. they vocally defend their right to support parties of their choice, and engage with a range of political organisations, ideologies, and approaches to their welfare through informal community dialogue, open debate and active participation.

In its analysis, the dissertation aims to identify mechanisms of political mobilisation and mechanisms that link electoral politics to such mobilisation, along with insights about marginalised citizens’ attitudes toward political participation more broadly. Methodologically, it primarily relies upon qualitative fieldwork with a variety of data sources (including field observations, open-ended interviews, structured interviews and social media communication) but hopes to include a survey experiment that ideally contrasts the case of Bhubaneswar with that of another city (Jaipur, Rajasthan) with contrasting electoral dynamics, in order to draw stronger conclusions about the interaction of electoral politics and political mobilisation by the urban poor. Theoretically, the dissertation draws from the clientelism and electoral politics literature within comparative politics, and the clientelism, political participation, and urban politics literature from [political] sociology.

Broader Research Interests

My research interests broadly centre on democratic governance, and on deepening theories of democracy and democratic governance to better reflect empirical realities within countries of the Global South. Within this – and in keeping with my dissertation project – my interest tends toward the interaction between electoral politics and social movements, both in terms of formal and informal institutions, and in terms of citizen participation.

During my masters at Indiana University Bloomington, I was a student under Dr. Elinor Ostrom within her research group called the Workshop for Political Theory and Policy Analysis. The analytic focus there was on collective action dynamics and institutional analysis approaches to the study of governance. To a large extent this still informs my own research perspective and interests. For example, I noted during my fieldwork how the urban poor engage in multiple layers of collective action, with each contributing to an overall complex relationship between them and their political representatives. For instance, women’s self-help groups set up under economic livelihood schemes are conveniently extensively targeted at election time – by election candidates as an efficient vote-buying strategy (since a single group can yield multiple votes within a given slum), and by the ruling party for material concessions (usually bigger loans with lower interest). Conversely, the fact that many women’s self-help groups (SHGs) have over time been able to scale up their mobilisation to form large scale federations gives them broad political leverage; low-income women were recognised as a critical votebank for the ruling party in the recent elections, and SHG members are often community leaders in slums, playing an important role in negotiating benefits for their community with parties and government officials. Examining the dynamics of routine mobilisation can thus reveal interesting linkages with electoral politics, sources of political power, and spaces of democratic participation.

Going forward, I am strongly interested in exploring this research area through comparative studies across different countries of the Global South, while maintaining an analytic focus on grassroot communities and marginalised citizens. For instance, many of the urban politics sociology studies that I cite in my own research pertain to urban poor communities in Brazil. This holds strong potential for comparative research across Brazil and India, both in patterns of political participation within these communities, and the larger consequences for democracy. As I mentioned in my motivation letter, I look forward to using the opportunity presented by this workshop for better analysing the concept and scope of democratic participation, for being able to rigorously link theories of democracy to empirical realities in the Global South, and for reflecting more deeply on innovative ideas for developing (and re-designing) democratic institutions.