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Interview: Dr. Neelanjan Sircar


This piece is an interview of Dr. Neelanjan Sircar by Kaainat Pundir. To introduce Dr. Sircar, he is a senior fellow at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. His research interest lies in electoral behavior and urbanization in India, with special focus on the national capital region and around Delhi. The interview delves deeper into electoral behavior in India with focus on recent and upcoming state elections among other things. Mr Sircar is also a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania. He received a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics and economics from UC Berkeley in 2003 and a PhD in political science from Columbia University in 2014.

Interview Questions:

To what extent do you think the policy of appeasement followed by the political parties, along caste and religion lines, affect the decision of the urban voters?

The complicated yet essential question is how identity is being used by various parties. Take for instance, in UP there was a lot of counter-mobilization against the notion of minority appeasement by Samajwadi Party and BSP. However, in Gujarat or what is expected in Karnataka is a more successful use of identity based appeals. Ultimate issue is the parameters of appeasement. Since, every party in India is using identity to some extent to construct its political basis. The only difference is explicit ethnic or caste patronage is becoming less viable in the political system and is used against political actors who have used it in the past.


Speaking of UP, what do you think was the motivation of BJP behind not declaring CM candidate while going into the state elections?

We will never know at what point did the idea of Yogi Adityanath being the CM came up. If it was a possibility, then its plausible to think that BJP did not want to name him ahead of time since it could have been used against them in the electoral campaign. More generally, BJP was continuously working towards the notion of counter-mobilization, explicitly against Yadavs, Muslims and some of Dalit community. In that context, vagueness regarding caste represented by the leadership was required. Now, looking at who got the ticket and who’s elected there is a very large Thakur and upper caste presence in the BJP leadership.


Let’s talk about the upcoming Karnataka elections, do you think the Reddy family’s entrance in the political scenario will affect status quo of the politics?

Personal instinct- politics there is remarkably standardized. Their entry doesn’t change the way in which voters there are actually thinking. The characters- B. S. Yeddyurappa, Siddaramaiah are well-known and are strong personalities. An analyst informed me that Siddaramaiah is interested in making a Siddaramaiah versus Modi fight that is the only kind of change we will see. If that is amenable to both Congress and BJP, then Yeddyurappa may come to limelight. But, it is hard to imagine any major change since he is not a larger than life character, to make any huge change.

In what ways can we make the voters more informed? What should a citizen demand from a political system?

India’s representatives are remarkably poor in terms of their representative functions. But, if I live in a place with relatively weak state capacity with large amounts of government leakage- should I really demand those kind of state policies of which I believe benefits will not accrue to me. This is the reason why great informality exists in local politics. Local Politics is the only place in which people feel connected to the party and the political system. While it is corrupt, there is vote buying, there is caste mobilization, etc. yet it is the only place where citizens can regularly interact.

How do Informal forms of leadership (grass-root level) function within the formal system of political parties?

I had a professor who I deeply respect, Devesh Kapur. He told me about his observation that during election time, the number of people supporting a political party triples or quadruples. This phenomenon is like a huge amount of contract labor sprouting up during election time. These supporters aren’t life-long political party workers for any of the parties. They just enter the party temporarily and work for them. We call it the Uber model of political party building. The model is based on the idea that everybody has a price, depending on what the demand is in the system. If you need a ride you call the driver, a similar function exists in politics. Since, it’s very hard to reach the crowd and these informal actors control a lot of the action. These actors are often bidding their services to the highest bidder.

Looking at a number of states in India, there exist, what would traditionally be considered very poorly organized parties. The candidates and leaders are switching across parties. The constant is that there are certain powerful actors who irrespective of the political labels are able to command a large support base.

Are the informal local leaders only active during election time or do they also function in between two elections?

They are helpful all through, that’s how they are building their base. They become very helpful for parties during elections.

Let’s make this more complicated, say I’m in a village with 200 households, there are some number of people who decide that I’m going to become an informal leader, a middleman. It is a very competitive market, It is not just one person. There are around 5-10 people all competing to control the supply lines. If I can control the line of supply from a political party to the people in my village then I have a large amount of power in the system. That ability to control supply lines is due to perhaps some amount of corruption or violence but often it is actually just owing to political skill and more connected to bureaucrats and parties above. Or I am more charismatic and better at realizing who needs what and when.

Extremely competitive space with lots of leaders in one place, people distinguish themselves by being able to deliver and figure out the needs of local citizens when the state isn’t meeting those needs.

What is your opinion about conducting simultaneous elections at different levels?

This involves two aspects: first the bureaucratic or administrative challenge and second the policy question.

With regard to the bureaucratic challenge it deals with what does it take to simultaneously run elections? If the Election Commission of India has not been able to figure out how to run elections just in UP in less than seven phases, the honest truth is that given our knowledge of the Indian system, the state capacity and the paramilitary capacity; the capacity is not there in the system to run simultaneous elections. That is a pure bureaucratic or administrative or resource constraint.

The policy question is whether it is better or worse to have elections simultaneously with state elections? In principle, I cannot imagine it working out in any number of ways. The challenge though is in a highly federal structure where governments fall, parties don’t finish their terms, how does one consistently create structures that mandate simultaneous elections? The most extreme version is ofc, we know India is prone to coalition governments. If the national government falls, then almost certainly you are going off cycle. You’ll have to call fresh elections for everywhere, every time anything happens. There are certain actual policy challenges. So it hasn’t been a very though through idea.

In the US what happens is there is a single day every year, effective that’s not quite right, effectively one day in November when all the elections are held every year. The national election, elections for the president are held every four years. There are certain elections that take place for the lower house and upper house every year. That’s how the US elections are structured. That to me is the closest we can realistically get to simultaneous elections, which minimizes the number of days in which we are in election period. However, I do not see how realistically we can mandate simultaneous elections given the complexity of governments falling and so on.

Will the US format of conducting elections work in India? If imposed, what changes can we expect in Indian politics?

The motivation behind simultaneous elections is to mobilize voters with greater ease. In the situation wherein one party is pushing for it much harder because they believe that they have an advantage in simultaneous elections. I actually think that is not the correct reading for BJP, but that’s a different issue.

The idea that you put national and state elections, that there is some sort of preference *thinking**creek* from a state election to a national election surely. But we don’t know that which is why we think it’s a bit dangerous for any party to think the way they are, about it is that we don’t know which direction that *creekthing/ greeting* goes.

In other words, we can imagine, let’s take a very concrete example, whether the national elections get moved up to November and December with Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and the other states. One argument is we tend to think the farmers are unhappy right now, the BJP might be helped by having the national election now while Modi is still incredibly popular. The wave thinking about it is that the BJP is reasonably comfortably ahead right now, according to many polls Nationally. If the situation is really bad in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh that could also spread and it could be a snap loss. So, it’s not clear how these things work out, empirically. I know it’s read in a particular way by political actors but it’s not at all obvious to me that that is true.  

Interviewed by: Kaainat Pundir, Associate Editor IInd year, B.A. LL.B. , Jindal Global Law School.

Featured Image: CPR

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