23 March 2023

The urban poor in India: significant shapers of local democratic politics

The urban poor in India who live in informal “slum” settlements significantly shape local democratic politics through their vote, active political deliberation around rights, and efforts to participate in local governance. This is what Somabha Mohanty shows in her PhD thesis, which analyses slum residents’ attitudes toward the issue of vote buying, ways in which they electorally mobilise to hold political representatives accountable, and their political contention around demands for land and housing rights.

How did you come to choose your research topic? 

I had worked on issues of urban poverty alleviation in India prior to starting my PhD at the Geneva Graduate Institute. More specifically, I had spent two years leading a government-funded initiative to support the economic livelihoods of slum residents in the city of Bhubaneswar, the capital of the eastern state of Odisha. This in-depth engagement gave me insights into the economic and political dynamics within slum communities which I wanted to explore further through my PhD. I ended up doing most of my fieldwork in the same city as well.

Can you describe your thesis questions and the methodology you use to approach those questions?

My dissertation comprises three papers, all of which focus on slum residents in Bhubaneswar, using a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods. 

The first paper uses a field survey experiment and statistical analyses to examine slum voters’ preferences for election candidates who offer cash handouts to voters or who attempt to coerce poor voters by making statements about providing or taking away their benefits depending on their electoral support. It also uses a smaller second experiment to explore the willingness of slum voters to mobilise around supporting other community members who have faced economic exclusion as a result of such electoral politics. 

The second paper uses a qualitative case study approach to examine the cases of two slum community leaders who seem to engage with local political representatives in quite different ways – one through leading citywide protests around land and housing demands, the other through private negotiations – but who both attempt to make local governance more transparent and participatory.

The third paper also uses a qualitative approach. It focuses on the 2019 national elections and concurrent state elections in Odisha to analyse the multiple ways in which slum residents engage with elections and election campaigns, beyond the act of showing up at the ballot box and casting their individual votes.

What are your major findings?

My research finds that the urban poor in India – especially the most vulnerable poor who live in informal settlements and face tremendous economic insecurity – significantly shape local democratic politics. Contrary to popular perception, slum residents don’t simply support politicians who offer them cash or other material handouts in exchange for their votes, they don’t support exclusionary tactics by politicians within their communities even when they stand to gain benefits as individuals; they engage in substantial deliberations within their communities around ideas of political accountability, civic participation and economic rights, and they also strategically mobilise during elections in attempts to bring their collective interests onto the local electoral agenda and ensure political accountability.  

What are you doing now?

I am currently working as a consultant with UN Women in India, to help incorporate strategic policy measures for gender and social inclusion into the deliberations and outcomes of the G20 multilateral process. I hope to continue my career in the policy space within international development, broadly focusing on economic inclusion and sustainable development. 

*  *  *

Somabha Mohanty defended her PhD thesis in International Relations/Political Science in February 2023. Associate Professor Sung Min Rho presided over the committee, which included Professor Elisabeth Prügl, Thesis Supervisor, and Associate Professor Adam Auerbach, School of International Service, American University, Washington DC, USA.

For research-related questions or to access the PhD thesis, please email Somabha Mohanty at

Citation of the PhD thesis:
Mohanty, Somabha. “‘Contentious Clients’: Democratic Participation and Clientelistic Politics at the Urban Grassroots in India.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2023.

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office. 
Banner picture: photo collage by Somabha Mohanty.