Who said slum voters can be bought?

ADAM AUERBACH TARIQ THACHIL | Updated on January 16, 2018

Deceptively diverse: slums Defy political stereotyping

Indian slums and their leaders are made up of diverse communities. Politicians must perform and reach out to all to win

In part one of this two-part series (Why India’s slum leaders matter, October 12) on India’s informal slum leaders, we discussed how some slum residents rise to become leaders of their settlement, and their range of activities.

In this issue, we draw on our second survey, conducted in the summer of 2016, of a sample of 629 actual slum leaders across those same settlements. Finding slum leaders, let alone a systematic and large sample of them, is extremely challenging. This survey represents one of the few surveys of local political intermediaries in low-income democracies. We draw on this leader survey to outline the social and economic profile of slum leaders in Jaipur and Bhopal.

Who are these leaders?

India’s slum leaders are predominantly older, relatively well-educated males; 87.76 per cent of the slum leaders in our sample were men. Their average age was 47.75 years with a one standard deviation of 11.79 years. The youngest slum leader in our sample was 22 years old; the oldest was 90. The median level of education was 8th grade, which exceeds the average education of ordinary residents by three years. Ninety per cent of the sampled leaders were literate, compared to 61.85 per cent of sampled residents. These results lend support to our experimental findings that residents prefer more educated slum leaders.

Slum leaders engage in a variety of occupations. The largest proportion of leaders in our sample (26.55 per cent) operated small businesses such as general stores, tea and tobacco stalls, motorcycle and bicycle repair shops, and barbershops. Others had small-time government positions (7.15 per cent) or vocational jobs (9.54 per cent), with the latter category composed of carpenters, tailors, electricians, blacksmiths, and butchers. Slightly less common were private salaried workers (5.41 per cent), drivers (5.72 per cent), and unskilled labourers (7.31 per cent). As many as 4.45 per cent were professionals — doctors, lawyers, and engineers — while the rest were artisans, contractors, educators, property dealers, security guards, skilled labourers, and social workers.

How do the occupational profiles of slum leaders differ from those of everyday residents? Forty five per cent of sampled residents engaged in unskilled labour, transportation jobs, and vocational work. This is roughly twice the percentage of slum leaders who worked in these same occupations. The second most common job was homemaker (25 per cent), predominantly held by women in the sample. Eleven per cent of sampled residents had small businesses of the variety discussed above. Students made up another 5 per cent, with the remaining categories all falling below 3 per cent of the sample — security guards, educators, artisans, and professional jobs.

India’s slum leaders, therefore, are more likely than everyday residents to be small business owners, government workers, and professionals, and less likely to toil as unskilled labourers in India’s informal economy. These findings square with residents’ preferences for leaders.

These leaders are remarkably diverse. As many as 160 castes ( jatis) populate our sample of slum leaders, representing all strata of the Hindu caste hierarchy and a large number of Scheduled Tribes and Muslim zat. About 71 per cent were Hindu, while the remainder were mostly Muslim (26.87 per cent), with a small percentage of Sikhs, Christians, and Buddhists (2.39 per cent). Most were from Rajasthan (58.19 per cent) and Madhya Pradesh (26.71 per cent), the two study States. Others migrated from Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Uttar Pradesh.

The vast majority of slum leaders in our sample had an expressed connection to a party. Of the 544 (86.49 per cent) sampled leaders with a party affiliation, 215 supported the INC and 321 supported the BJP. As many as 415 leaders (76.29 per cent) were padadhikari, or position holders within a party organisation. Given the importance of vertical ties for securing public services, as well as the material rewards associated with brokerage activities, the prevalence of partisan ties among slum leaders is not surprising.

How do they build coalitions?

Our data challenge several conventional assumptions regarding Indian politics. First, while leaders openly acknowledge distributing gifts and cash during elections, very few think it does any good. In fact, leaders think that on an average only 10 per cent of the residents allow their votes to be affected by such gifts. Instead, leaders believe the goodwill earned by everyday activities they perform between elections is crucial to their success. Second, leaders do not simply favour members of their own ethnicity.

The vast majority of our slums housed residents from dozens of jatis, multiple faiths, States, and linguistic communities. Because of the diversity of settlements, leaders must build multi-caste coalitions of support. We asked leaders to name the ethnicities of the last five residents who sought help from them. Seventy seven per cent named residents from multiple jatis. For leaders, focusing on building a client network exclusively of members of their own caste community is simply not a politically effective strategy in India’s diverse slums.

Third, our survey also demonstrates that slum leaders must continuously work to keep resident affections. India’s slum residents are not simply under the thumb of a single slum leader or party boss, and constantly re-evaluate their leadership options in densely competitive slums. Like more privileged voters, slum residents frequently switch their support if they feel a different leader or party is more likely to bring benefits to the settlement. Ninety five per cent (2,078 out of 2,199 respondents) of residents stated that they vote in elections. Of those 2,078 respondents, one-third claimed to have voted for different parties across the last several elections. Finally, voting behaviour in these spaces often diverges from commonly held assumptions regarding party-voter linkages in India.

For instance, of the 542 Muslim respondents in our resident survey, 112 (21 per cent) supported the BJP. And of the 169 Muslim slum leaders in our sample, a similar 27 per cent (46 respondents) supported the BJP. Thirty four of those Muslim BJP supporters had formal positions ( pads) within the party. It bears remembering that we cannot claim any of these insights are nationwide patterns, as we have data from only two cities. Still, we believe they offer important, if incomplete insights, regarding the evolving political ecosystems of Indian slums.

Informal authority

Harnessing — or inducing — local participation has become a hallmark of contemporary international development policies. In line with these trends, India’s urban development programmes, since the early 2000s, have increasingly emphasised local citizen participation. Our fieldwork and survey highlights the bottom up forms of informal leadership and political organisation that emerge in slums. These are the actors and networks that development practitioners confront on the ground, and thus require careful consideration in both the design and implementation of community development interventions.

Auerbach is with the School of International Service, American University. Thachil teaches at Vanderbilt University. This is the concluding article in a two-part series. By special arrangement with the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania

Published on October 25, 2016

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