My main research focuses on identity politics and development. I am particularly interested in how social status shapes public goods provision. My projects employ a combination of methodological approaches, including statistical analysis, survey experiments, ethnography, interviews, and comparative historical analysis. I also maintain a research agenda on urban politics, which is partly motivated by my previous training in urban planning. Included below are summaries and links to some of my papers and ongoing projects. Email me if you are interested in the latest version of any of these papers!
Status Politics and Redistribution
1. The Politics of Dignity: How Status Inequality shaped Redistributive Politics in India (under review) (paper; appendix)
How does social hierarchy affect redistribution? While mainstream theories of welfare are premised on the material interests of social classes, I argue that in societies with long histories of ascriptive discrimination, status inequality is central in shaping distributive politics. High-status groups seek to maintain their ascriptive privilege by opposing redistributive policies. Low-status groups, in contrast, seek descriptive representation in addition to economic redistribution with the aim of reducing social hierarchy, which I refer as the politics of dignity. I test this theory through a mixed-methods research design on India. Using original state-level data over five decades, I find a strong negative association between high-status (i.e., upper-caste) political elites and redistribution, which is consistent with our understanding of the economic elite. Unlike the working-classes, however, the relationship between low-status (i.e., lower-caste) elites and redistribution is less clear. Politically mobilized lower-caste groups have instead pursued representation in the bureaucracy through caste quotas. Rather than just patronage or symbolic politics, I find that the interaction of descriptive representation in the bureaucracy and legislature is associated with higher redistributive spending. Qualitative evidence from fieldwork suggests that a representative bureaucracy can weaken elite patronage networks, thereby reducing barriers to redistributive politics.
Media: Hindustan Times; Ideas for India; I4I Hindi
2. Status and Development: How Social Hierarchy Undermines Wellbeing in the special issue on “Status: What Is It and Why Does It Matter for Inequality”, Eds. Hazel Markus and Cecilia Ridgeway, RSF: The Russel Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences. 8(6): 28-49, November 2022
Although social status has been shown to be a fundamental motive for individuals, theories of development have largely overlooked the role of status in shaping economic and social outcomes. In tracing the historical roots of social hierarchy through the cases of race, colonialism, and caste, this article outlines the specific mechanisms through which status inequality exacerbates economic disparity between groups and challenges redistributive politics. Whereas mainstream scholarship on identity has focused on cultural representation, I argue that status is fundamentally tied to economic systems and connects cultural injustice to economic exploitation. I propose that representation of low-status groups in public institutions can reduce the real and imagined social distance between groups, which can in turn have positive implications for redistributive politics.
Media: I discuss some ideas from the project for the Open Magazine (pre-print version with references).
Ranking Indian states in forms of caste inequality
3. Conceptualizing and Measuring Ethnic Inequality: Findings from India (under review) (paper; earlier version focused on India)
Though concerns of status have been at the heart of ethnic mobilizations at either ends of the ideological spectrum, existing research on ethnic politics has largely focused on economic inequality between groups. This paper draws on theories of equality in political philosophy and uses the empirical case of caste in India to operationalize three forms of ethnic inequality: i) economic inequality, based on the idea of equality of outcomes, ii) social inequality, based on equality of opportunity, and ii) status inequality, based on the principles of recognition. Subnational patterns of caste-based inequality based on the measures show a strong North-South divide, consistent with qualitative studies on caste. The findings from India further generate testable hypotheses for future research on ethnic politics – conditions of low socioeconomic inequality along with high status inequality between groups could predict both elite backlash and subaltern mobilization.
4. Why are some Indian states more Redistributive? (working paper)
Why some places enjoy better living conditions than others, is one of the most important questions in the political economy of development. This paper reviews the major theories of redistribution and tests their validity in India through longitudinal data on state-level public spending over five decades. Contrary to expectation, I find that most explanations – political ideology of ruling coalitions, strength of social cohesiveness, levels of political participation, ethnic diversity, and social bases of voters are not consistently associated with redistribution. Richer states do spend more on development, but wealth does not translate to prioritization of redistributive policies, thus emphasizing the need to distinguish state capacity from the policy preference of states. Further, echoing the claims of the larger literature on the welfare state and political regimes in India, cluster analysis shows that several states have consistently prioritized social sector or growth-oriented policies, hence pointing towards distinct subnational welfare regimes.
5. Can Growth motivate Redistribution? The Variant Politics of Education and Health in India (with Dinsha Mistree) (working paper)
The concept of redistribution is generally operationalized through spending in social sectors, most notably education and health. Most existing studies aim at explaining variation in social development across political units, based on the implicit assumption that some places are motivated by greater concerns of redistribution. A careful examination of public spending patterns in India, however, reveals considerable variation in spending across social sectors. We focus on the trajectory of education and health policy since Independence to argue that contrary to the dominant understanding, public investment in education was driven by structural changes in the economy following economic liberalization rather than concerns for pure redistribution. Mass education found support from elites across political parties as a means to fuel economic growth, but we don’t observe a similar trend in health policy. Our findings hence emphasize the need to reconsider the constituents of redistribution in the mainstream literature on development.
Status Politics and Redistribution: Extensions
6. Who Owns the State: Does the Identity of Bureaucrats Matter? (with Aaditya Dar) (data collection in progress)
Representation of historically excluded groups is widely supported on the normative principles of decolonization and social justice, but the effects of representative bureaucracy on development are not well understood. Should we expect officials from marginal groups to be more responsive to the masses? This project builds upon the findings of my book project to examines if and how the identity of the individuals who run the state influences state capacity to deliver redistributive policies. I focus on Bihar, one of the poorest states in India that is home to more than 100 million people. Bihar witnessed a dramatic shift in 1990 when the first lower-caste political coalition led by Lalu Prasad Yadav assumed power. His government prioritized representational policies as one of its key agendas, which increased the share of lower castes in the bureaucracy. This project examines if this transformation improved development outcomes in the long-term. I use a mixed-methods research design, combining statistical analysis with ethnographic and qualitative research. The quantitative part of the project examines the effects of the caste identity of Block Development Officers (BDOs) on public goods provision, measured through satellite images of light density at night and public health outcomes. BDOs are the main government officials responsible for implementing development projects at the local level. Ethnographies of BDO offices and elite interviews will provide insights into how changes in local patronage networks influence policy implementation. This research should advance our understanding of how ethnic diversity affects state capacity, a theme I am exploring as a possible second major project. Empirically, this will be the first major study on the policy implications of the identity of street-level bureaucrats in India.
7. Social Bases of Redistribution in India, 1980-2010 (with Amory Gethin) (data collection/cleaning in progress)
This project traces the distribution of public resources across ethnic groups in Indian states by combining data on social expenditure with large-scale household surveys in the last three decades. While the strength of caste-based political cleavages in India is well established, existing studies do not find an association between these cleavages and patterns in public spending. The caste of voters or the type and ideology of the ruling party or party-types do not seem to influence social spending. This is surprising given what we know class-based coalitions and redistribution. Sectoral budgets, however, do not tell us much about who these resources are directed towards. We address this gap by identifying the beneficiaries of social programs through various rounds of the National Sample Survey (NSS), National Family Health Survey (NFHS), and India Human Development Survey (IHDS) as a means to estimate the social bases of redistributive spending. We also investigate if this spending is shaped by political cleavages, measured through caste identity of the political elite and their voters.
Justice Party Members in the 1930s
8. In Defense of Patronage: (Re)interpreting Distributional Politics in Gilded Age United States and Colonial India (research in progress)
Patronage – the proffering of goods in return for electoral support, is widely considered to be harmful for democratic institutions and welfare. This paper problematizes the prevailing wisdom on clientelism by arguing that under certain conditions, “patronage” can deepen democratization by offering a means of inclusion for historically discriminated groups. By tracing the non-programmatic roots of distributional politics in political machines in nineteenth century American cities and caste politics in colonial Tamil Nadu, I show that patronage led to the representation of Irish and Italian immigrants and lower castes in state institutions in the respective cases. It also reduced the dominance of the Anglo-Protestant and Brahmin elites and paved the way for progressive social reforms. While contemporary debates on descriptive representation in the bureaucracy have largely revolved around questions of meritocracy and efficiency due to affirmative action, the history of patronage politics can offer important insights into democratization and welfare politics.
Minority Politics and Public Goods Provision
9. Persecuted Minorities and Defensive Cooperation: Contributions to Public Goods by Hindus and Muslims in Delhi slums (with Melani Cammett & David Romney) (R&R at Comparative Political Studies) (paper; pre-analysis plan)
How does intergroup inequality, specifically minority experiences of persecution, affect contributions to local public goods? Based on an original survey experiment and qualitative research in slums in Delhi, we examine how Hindus and Muslims respond to social norms around promoting cooperation on community sanitation. Mainstream theories of development predict greater willingness to contribute to public goods in more homogeneous areas. In contrast to the “diversity-deficit hypothesis” however, we find that social accountability mechanisms are more effective among Muslims, a group that routinely faces discrimination and violence in India. We propose that this reflects "defensive cooperation," or a set of coping strategies developed by minorities to navigate a hostile sociopolitical environment. Our findings point to a new mechanism that helps to enforce prosocial norms and, hence, public goods provision in multiethnic contexts.
10. Social Accountability and Public Goods Provision: Testing Informal Mechanisms to Improve Community Welfare in the slums of Delhi (with Melani Cammett & David Romney) (under review) (paper; pre-analysis plan)
Efforts to uncover the microfoundations of the negative association between diversity and public goods provision point to the role of social norms in facilitating collective action. Based on a survey experiment in slums in Delhi, we test three forms of social accountability: i) horizontal accountability through peers, ii) pressure from local elites or vertical accountability, and iii) shaming by signaling ingroup underperformance in the presence of outgroup members or the black sheep effect. Contrary to expectations, we find that none of these forms of social accountability affect willingness to cooperate on aggregate. Levels of ethnic diversity also do not condition the outcomes. However, exploratory analyses show that the effects vary by religion. While Hindus do not respond to the treatments, Muslims express greater intent to participate. Our findings call for research on how minority status might shape contributions to local welfare.
The condition of drainage in one of our field sites in Delhi
11. Persecuted Minorities and Defensive Cooperation (with Melani Cammett, David Romney and Akshay Dixit) (design stage)
This project builds upon the findings of our survey experiment on social accountability and minority status (summarized above) with the aim of uncovering the mechanisms through which in-group policing among Muslims facilitates preference for cooperation around public goods. We are currently developing a pre-analysis plan that incorporates theories of in-group policing in response to the real and perceived threat from the majority group. This includes psychological mechanisms through which minority members self-police their behavior, as well as social norms and institutions (such as peers and community leaders) that sanction the behavior of in-group members and foster in-group solidarity. We plan to gather feedback on the pre-analysis plan in Fall 2022 with the aim of fielding the survey in India early next year.
12. Voters, Activists, and Politicians: Forms of Middle-Class Participation in Urban India (previous version)
The Indian middle-class has been characterized by its aversion to electoral politics and is seen to exert its citizenship through activism in the civil society instead. This paper challenges the political/civil society dichotomy by examining the variation in forms of middle-class participation. Relying on ethnographic fieldwork in Delhi spanning almost eight years, I find that the nature of middle-class political engagement is mediated by two factors – its perceived electoral potential, and its preexisting networks within the state. If the political establishment identifies middle-class groups as electorally significant, it is likely to engage with them through existing institutional channels as voters. Electoral alienation of the middle-class generates two distinct outcomes. Sections with informal networks within the higher reaches of the state are likely to engage in activism in the civil society almost exclusively. But those who lack such networks seek to become part of the formal state through mobilization in formal politics.
13. Inclusion or Exclusion? Emerging Effects of Middle‐Class Citizen Participation on Delhi's Urban Poor. IDS Bulletin 38(6): 96-104, 2008
Although there has been much debate about the means of citizen participation, it is generally accepted that participatory democracy improves the quality of public policy. The first initiative towards institutionalising citizen participation in governance in an Indian city was taken by the Government of Delhi through the Bhagidari programme in 2000. But unlike more conventional forms of participatory governance, Bhagidari was restricted to the middle class parts of the city. Evaluations of the programme point towards improvement in urban services in neighbourhoods where Bhagidari was implemented. Based on the perceived success of Bhagidari, similar programmes have been initiated in other parts of the country. However, most studies so far have focused on the impact of the programme on urban services; the political impacts of the programme have largely remained unexplored. This paper explores the ways in which Bhagidari and developments surrounding the programme have and could influence public policies intended for the urban poor.
14. Does Party Organization matter for Programmatic Politics? Case of Aam Aadmi Party (with Ankita Barthwal) (data collection/cleaning in progress)
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) represents a significant departure in Indian politics for many reasons. It is primarily urban. Unlike most contemporary parties, its origins are rooted in a mass movement. And its success has largely been attributed to programmatic welfare policies rather than ethnic patronage. Should these characteristics make it more likely to rely on party organization to mobilize voters? We use fine-grain data on door-to-door campaigning during party formation and size of local-level volunteer base over time from internal party sources and booth-level voting data, combined with interviews with key party officials to examine the relationship between organizational strength and electoral outcomes. Further, booth-level data on municipal property rates, used as a proxy for wealth, allows us to examine if this relationship is mediated by class. The findings have implications for understanding the linkages between party organization and programmatic politics, especially in the context of urban class politics.
AAP leader, Arvind Kejriwal, campaigning in the New Delhi constituency before the 2013 Delhi Assembly Elections
15. Impact of Information Campaigns on Claims-Making in Urban Slums (working paper)
How does access to information influence citizen action for improving state accountability? Through ethnographic fieldwork in five slum settlements in Delhi, this paper examines how campaigns on political awareness shape how citizen access the state. I find that information campaigns facilitated the emergence of a new form of leaders in these communities. Instead of relying on traditional patronage-based networks in parties, the “new leaders” employed formal channels to approach the state, interestingly by invoking the language of rights and entitlements. Collective action through rights-based claim-making, however, is more likely to be effective when social entitlements as well as the responsibilities of political representatives are clearly defined. Slum residents continue to rely on party brokers for public goods that were under the jurisdiction of multiple actors.