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Tariq Thachil

Associate Professor of Political Science

Madan Lal Sobti Associate Professor for the Study of Contemporary India
University of Pennsylvania

Tariq Thachil is the Director of CASI, Associate Professor of Political Science at Penn, and the Madan Lal Sobti Associate Professor for the Study of Contemporary India as of July 1, 2020.

Professor Thachil replaces Marshall M. Bouton (Acting Director & Visiting Scholar, 2018-20) and Devesh Kapur (Director, 2006-18). CASI was founded in 1992 by Francine R. Frankel (Director, 1992-2006).

Prior to arriving at Penn, Professor Thachil was Associate Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University, and before that was Peter Strauss Family Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale University. He holds a B.A. in Economics from Stanford University (2003), and a Ph.D in Government from Cornell University (2009).

His research examines political parties and political behavior, identity politics, and urbanization with a regional focus on India. His first book, Elite Parties, Poor Voters: How Social Services Win Votes in India (Cambridge 2014)—an examination of the growing success of the Bharatiya Janata Party among disadvantaged electorates—won numerous awards from the American Political Science Association, including the 2015 Gregory Luebbert Award for best book in comparative politics and the 2015 Leon Epstein Award for best book on political parties.

Professor Thachil's current research focuses on the political consequences of urbanization in India. An article from this project received the 2018 Heinz I. Eulau Award for the best article published in the American Political Science Review. His articles are published or forthcoming in a number of journals, including the American Journal of Political Science, American Political Science Review, Comparative Politics, Comparative Political Studies, Journal of Politics, and World Politics. He frequently writes for press outlets in India, including The Indian Express and Hindustan Times.

Elite Parties, Poor Voters: How Social Services Win Votes in India (Cambridge University Press, Studies in Comparative Politics Series, 2014)

Why do poor people often vote against their material interests? This puzzle has been famously studied within wealthy Western democracies, yet the fact that the poor voter paradox also routinely manifests within poor countries has remained unexplored. This book studies how this paradox emerged in India, the world’s largest democracy. Tariq Thachil shows how arguments from studies of wealthy democracies (such as moral values voting) and the global south (such as patronage or ethnic appeals) cannot explain why poor voters in poor countries support parties that represent elite policy interests. He instead draws on extensive survey data and fieldwork to document a novel strategy through which elite parties can recruit the poor, while retaining the rich. He shows how these parties can win over disadvantaged voters by privately providing them with basic social services via grassroots affiliates. Such outsourcing permits the party itself to continue to represent the policy interests of its privileged base.


Perspectives on Politics, Journal of Asian Studies, Journal of Politics, Critical Asian Studies, Pacific Affairs, Studies in Indian Politics, Foreign Affairs

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Migrants and Machines: How Political Networks Form in Urbanizing India 

How do party machines emerge in contexts of rapid urbanization and fluid population movement? A venerable literature in American and comparative politics has studied machine politics. Party machines are defined by their hierarchical organizational structures that link ordinary voters to political elites through tiered layers of political brokers, the lowest level of whom are entrenched in local neighborhoods and have face-to-face ties with voters. Much of the literature on party machines has focused on how these organizations distribute benefits to voters. More recently, scholars have examined how machines solve commitment problems inherent to such quid pro quo exchanges (ensuring brokers do not shirk, and voters reciprocate at the polls). These accounts, however, overwhelmingly treat machine organizations—and the local political brokers who give them a physical presence on the ground—as static givens.

Consequently, we lack an understanding of how party machines form, and how these formative processes affect how machines function—both during elections as well as between the votes. Migrants and Machines seeks to fill this gap. We argue that machine organizations take shape through interlocking processes of competitive selection among three levels of actors: voters (or clients), intermediaries (brokers), and politicians (patrons). Examining these processes of selection addresses several fundamental questions at the core of the study of party organization and distributive politics: how political brokers climb into positions of informal authority within localities; how, given scarce patronage resources, political brokers choose which local voters to cultivate as clients; and how political elites decide which local brokers to bring within their party network.

Empirically, we study these questions within the proliferating slums of India’s ballooning cities. Urban slums are a productive setting for our inquiry. Due to their low-income status, as well as the informal nature of their housing and employment, the poor migrants who reside in slums have long been viewed as preferred target populations for political machines. The relative newness of these settlements in India’s cities ensures the construction of party machine networks is a competitive and ongoing process. Slums are also of increasing substantive importance, given the rapid urbanization that is taking place across much of Asia and Africa. Yet systematic studies of slum politics remain rare. Within our study cities—Jaipur, Rajasthan and Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh—we draw on a wealth of original data, including a combined two years of ethnographic fieldwork, surveys and survey experiments conducted with 2,199 slum residents, 629 slum brokers, and 343 local city patrons.

Our findings show why questions of organizational emergence and political selection should be central to studies of machine politics, political brokerage, and distributive politics. We outline how a focus on competitive selection generates an array of insights on the agency of clients in shaping the machines that govern them, the motivations of brokers in joining machines, and the relative marginality of ethnicity in structuring machine organizations. Such insights, in turn, challenge conventional assumptions of representation, accountability, and responsiveness within clientelist politics, and the political consequences of urbanization across the Global South.

Broker slum rally in Bhopal, India (copyright: author)

Slum settlements in Bhopal South Constituency (copyright: author)


“The Impact of Seasonal Migration on Political Beliefs and Social Norms.” (with Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak, Maira Emy Reimao, and Ashish Shenoy).

“Rethinking India and the Study of Electoral Politics in the Developing World.” (with Adam Auerbach, Jennifer Bussell, Simon Chauchard, Francesca Jensenius, Gareth Nellis, Mark Schneider, Neelanjan Sircar, Pavithra Suryanarayan, Milan Vaishnav, Rahul Verma, Adam Ziegfeld).

“Governance in Small Cities” (with Adam Auerbach).