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CPR Perspectives: Interview with Neelanjan Sircar

Neelanjan Sircar

October 3, 2023

This month on CPR Perspectives — our flagship interview series commemorating the Centre for Policy Research’s 50th anniversary — we bring you a conversation with Neelanjan Sircar, a Senior Fellow at CPR, who has brought a combination of data analysis and qualitative research to a wide range of subjects including India’s political economy, urbanisation and climate change.

Following degrees in Applied Mathematics and Economics, Sircar received a PhD in political science from Columbia University and then carried out research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Centre for the Advanced Study of India before making his way to CPR.

At CPR, Sircar was instrumental in setting up the Politics Initiative, which provides high-quality research of India’s political economy from a non-partisan lens, helping us build nuanced models of why voters make their choices and how political parties operate within the broader system.

He is also co-editor of Colossus; The Anatomy of Delhi, a volume that seeks to unpack the complexity of India’s national capital region, building on a survey of the city that could serve as a model for other sampling efforts across the country. Sircar has also led CPR’s project to evaluate the welfare delivery systems of the Andhra Pradesh government.

In this conversation with Sircar, we spoke about making the move from applied mathematics to the policy world, what convinced him to come work in India and why the approach that undergirds CPR’s Politics Initiative is important. We also spoke about building frameworks and tools that other researchers can replicate, why scholars can benefit from working with governments and why it is important to look beyond India when considering complex research questions.

You can listen to the entire conversation as a podcast here, or read the whole transcript now.

And if you missed our previous interviews, read our conversations with Partha Mukhopadhyay, Navroz Dubash, Avani Kapur, K P Krishnan, Mukta Naik and D Shyam Babu.


(This transcript has been edited for length and clarity).

Let’s start at the very beginning and get a sense of how you made your way into the policy world.

I very much stumbled into policy. I had a degree in Applied Mathematics and Economics. I was working in startups in the San Francisco Bay Area and I was not too happy with the business environment and there was a lot of fluctuation in the economy back then. So I went back for postgraduate studies. At that time I only had a Math background. So I actually learned Statistics only after I joined postgraduate study and started a PhD in Political Science in New York at Columbia University. Initially, I was actually interested in income inequality, mainly in Western Europe and it’s only a couple of years into my PhD that I switched to thinking about India more seriously. And then one thing led to another. I became interested in a certain set of policy questions and political questions, did a post-doctoral fellowship at the University Of Pennsylvania at the Center for Advanced Study of India (CASI), and then from there I found my way to CPR.

How did you go from looking at Maths and Economics to politics?

There was certainly always an intellectual interest. I, like many others, was interested in economic problems. And yet so many people look at the questions purely in a technical manner and so much of what is unsaid is that it is actually a political, policy decision. And so starting to think a little bit about the intersection between policy decisions, economic decisions and political realities is something that really started to make me think about whether I should go on and study Mathematics or Economics. It’s very natural for somebody like me who had an undergraduate degree in mathematics from Berkeley to go on and do a PhD in Economics. But when push came to shove I didn’t think that Economics would serve my interest. I thought Political Science would serve me better.

Did you face pushback in making that switch? Was it a straightforward choice for you or was it something that you laboured over?

I laboured over it quite a bit. At the time of applying for my Ph.D., I was considering programmes in Statistics, Sociology and Political Science. I was interested in a number of social science disciplines and I was interested in what was happening in Applied Statistics at the time and what would sort of merge the two. One of the challenges that economists have traditionally faced and continue to face, but it’s been mitigated somewhat, is that many of the modern developments in Applied Statistics have yet to find their way into economics. Particularly at the time that I entered my PhD, there were exciting new tools that were being used in the analysis of social behaviour and political behaviour that hadn’t quite found their way into economics yet. So that made it particularly attractive to join a PhD in Political Science.

And similarly, what made you make that switch from looking at Europe to thinking about India?

The first couple of years in the PhD, I was doing very very abstract work. I was interested in questions of how capitalism is changing, how economic structures are changing and I wanted something that was a lot more relatable to the average person. At Columbia, I met Milan Vaishnav who is well known now and was a couple of years ahead of me. Actually he was studying Latin American politics at the time. So neither of us were engaged in South Asia. We were both sent to work at CSDS in Delhi in 2007.

At that point, I saw a different world. I saw a number of important empirical and theoretical questions that needed to be investigated and like Milan, I also very quickly switched my focus to India. Today we have many Political Economy scholars focused on India, but at that time it hadn’t quite come to the point that it has today. So there were a lot of questions to ask. It was an exciting time and an exciting place to investigate very very different questions.

This wasn’t a ninety-degree turn away from the Applied Mathematics that you studied earlier. You built on those approaches as you moved towards Political Science and towards India.

Anybody who very closely looks at my work over the last fifteen years will see a sort of evolution. At the time of my PhD, my earliest paper was a very abstract paper on Network Theory. The second used new ideas in statistical estimation. And my final paper was actually what ended up becoming the most influential for me, which was thinking about how family networks in West Bengal changed people’s political preferences in the 2011 election when Mamata Banerjee first came to power.

I was shifting from this very abstract framework to a much more grounded framework. The idea that animated my entire thesis at the time was how ideas of personal networks and social networks affect the ideas of politics and economics. That’s still something that flows through a lot of my work, thinking about networks and thinking about space, but I would like to think in a far more applied and grounded way than fifteen years ago.

Once the PhD was done, tell us about how you then eventually made your way to India and CPR.

I had very little interest in staying in academia. I had always imagined that I would go into the corporate world. But I knew that once you start in the corporate world, you’re very unlikely to come back to academia. I had spoken to Devesh Kapur who at that point was the head of CASI at the University of Pennsylvania. He said that if you’re interested in working on India, we should see if we can do some things together. I spent two years at CASI and it was absolutely fundamental in my shift towards studying policy and my understanding of India. In the middle of my time at CASI, I started two projects which I think would evolve into the things that I’m still working on today.

One was that, during my time at CASI, the 2014 election happened and Modi was elected to power. I did a number of analyses that were statistics-based and numbers-based around the 2014 election and those became somewhat influential in the universe of studying elections. That created a wing of research in which we tried to understand how the voter behaves in India.

The second project that I started at CASI was a study of urban space in general, but the National Capital Region (NCR) in Delhi in particular. That research work would eventually become my first book co-edited with Sanjoy Chakravorty, which is called Colossus: The Anatomy of Delhi. It’s essentially a social study of Delhi. In many ways, my couple of years in CASI set my agenda for the next several years.

While I was there, I became much more interested in all things India and I met with Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who at that point was the head of CPR. I’ll always remember what he told me. I was considering what to do next and he said ‘You can go into the working world, you can stay in the US. You probably won’t make as much money if you go to India. But the one thing I can guarantee is that if you go and you take it seriously, your marginal value in the Indian context is greater than it would be if you just joined the corporate world.’ And it’s something that stuck with me. I mean those are the kinds of things you want to hear. So then I said let me try it and in August 2015, I ended up at CPR.

Just to expand on that a little bit for listeners to get a sense of what he was saying, what did he mean?

The imagination of what would happen when I came is that we would be able to apply some of the Applied Statistics questions that I had already started working on and some of the understanding that I had of politics and policy in the Indian context. Some of the theoretical traditions I was drawing on were quite different than what existed in India at the time. The other thing that I became known for within CPR is that I was studying political behaviour and voting behaviour but not from the standpoint of having a predetermined ideological position or predisposition to one party, but more trying to understand the structural elements of politics. That’s what would eventually become the Politics Initiative.

Indeed, and the point being that often your impact when working in a corporate space is much more specific whereas in India it could be more wide-ranging. Still, is there a part of you that still wants to go see what it’s like in the corporate world?

I mean every time you look at your bank balance every one of us wonders whether we should look at the corporate world. But other than that I am very satisfied with the choice that I made. It was an unorthodox choice. It was not in the standard playbook that somebody who had been studying in the West would come back to India and take up a position in policy and political science. Of course, it had been done before. I’m certainly not the first, but the scale of people coming back to India was very very low and there was a very small number of us. We all knew each other. Numbers would increase as many of these new colleges and institutions came into being.

What I have been able to be a part of, in my last eight years in India and the different sorts of movement and different pieces of intellectual growth I’ve been a part of, certainly would not have happened if I stayed in a corporate setting but it also wouldn’t have happened had I stayed in the US or gone to Europe in an academic setting. The pace of intellectual growth and the intellectual shifts over the last decade in India is extraordinary. And unless you take part in it firsthand you don’t see what is possible here.

As you made your way to CPR, let’s look at these two strains emerging out of your projects at CASI separately. Tell us about the work on politics.

I came to India in August 2015. The Bihar state election was just around the corner. I had a few months to sort of figure out what I wanted to do and so just a month later, in late September I went to Bihar with my colleague who was at CPR at the time, Ashish Ranjan. And we were working alongside Bhanu Joshi who was also at that time at CPR. The three of us formed a group and despite my reputation as an applied stats researcher, my own view is that you really can’t study politics in India and you really cannot study the voter unless the vast majority of your work is qualitative in nature. You can look at the data that you’ll get from some survey or from election results. But you can’t make sense of it unless you really spend a lot of time on the ground.

And so I spent about six weeks in Bihar and went to every district. I spent a fair amount of time and developed a set of techniques. People look at our qualitative work sometimes and the reports that have come out of the work that we’ve done and it looks like we’re just kind of wandering around but nothing could be further from the truth. What we’re actually doing is that we’re trying to put together data sources in the background — of previous election results and demographics. We are trying to essentially figure out what places we want to visit to understand how certain communities vote or how certain competitive seats might vote. When we aggregate it together, we develop a picture of what’s happening in the state.

The process of how it became a major initiative is also a bit of an accident. What happened at that time is that a lot of newspapers were going through an aggressive stretch of cuts to what they call stringers. Basically, people who are district-level and specialised journalists, and very knowledgeable, were suddenly gone. So overnight a lot of the newspapers lost a lot of their local knowledge. I had actually written for The Hindu for various other things and at that time I got a call from the person who was coordinating the elections coverage, who would eventually become the main editor of the newspaper saying ‘would you consider as a part of your own work just writing a couple of pieces for us because we don’t have anyone to write on Bihar?’

So we did that and having academic-oriented people writing in the newspaper turned out to be quite popular. Having people making reference to theory and numbers turned out to be quite popular. And by sheer dumb luck that was an election where all of the electoral polls predicted a sweep for the BJP. And we were quite steadfast in saying that is not what we’re seeing on the ground. In fact, we’re seeing the opposite and it turned out that we were right and the polls were wrong. And so overnight, due to a series of historical accidents this kind of work got a lot of notice, as well as the academic method behind it. So, after one or two more elections of working like this, it became what is today known as the Politics Initiative. Of course today, it’s led by Rahul Verma who’s ended up taking it even further and doing amazing work.

You mentioned earlier that approaching political science from this non-partisan view was a key point. Could you tell me about why it was different from what came before?

There is a strange problem we have in the study of electoral politics in India. The most fertile time we actually have is the period before the Emergency. A huge number of people were writing about the ‘Congress System,’ about the various ways in which voters make decisions, and about how caste and elections intersect. But partially because of the kind of activism that happened around the Emergency, and partially because some of the scholars became less interested in elections post-Emergency, we have much less of that work now. It gets revived somewhat on television, oddly enough. Prannoy Roy and Yogendra Yadav do extraordinary work to bring electoral analysis back into the consciousness. I had done work with Yogendra Yadav during my PhD, and had met many of these people before I joined CPR.

That was formative for me in thinking about where things had to go. Still, the demands of television media would require a certain kind of masala in analysing elections. The kind of structural elements – when do voters care about their caste? When are voters being strategic? At what point do voters care about an economic benefit? At what point do they care about religion? – these are dry structural questions that have fundamental impacts on electoral outcomes. Once we got the green light to start investigating these sorts of things and we saw that there was a genuine readership for this, we began to realise that there was really an opportunity for what I call this unbiased nonpartisan method of analysing elections.

Taking up the TV point. You’re often taking your work to TV and into newspapers, whereas many academics prefer the confines of the academy. Is that a deliberate effort you’ve made, or do you like that sort of writing?

If I’m being brutally honest, I do not like doing television and even newspapers can be challenging just because of the timelines. I enjoy writing for newspapers, but it’s not the way that academics typically work. But early on, I understood that these different forms of media are themselves another form of academic communication today. There are academics who reach out to me and want to know about voting behaviour, want to think about political behaviour in India on the basis of having seen me on NDTV or having read me in the Hindustan Times. Now you know I can point them to an academic paper but it is true that if you make relatively academic arguments perhaps in a 10-second version rather than an article version, it does have a reach even among scholars.

Had I just been writing academic papers, a very narrow set of people would have been my constituents, my readership and I wouldn’t have to engage more broadly with other scholarly people. That changes once you start engaging with the media and given that I was in a nascent space, the set of people I was speaking to purely in academic terms is actually very small and some of this cross-fertilization with journalists [was beneficial]. Many journalists are doing very very good technical work in newspapers and doing this kind of analysis across India. Many of the young scholars who, in their PhDs, are doing this kind of work and doing it perhaps better than I ever could have but a lot of it comes from just the pure exposure that media gives. And I have to give credit to many of these media outfits for their willingness to give space to people like us so that we are read by our broader audience.

So you set up the Politics Initiative, which Rahul is now running. You continue to do work on the subject, from writing papers like the Politics of Vishwas to looking at other questions about how voters decide. Where does your work on Indian elections and politics stand today? What are the questions occupying your thinking?

I think the big prize for me always was and continues to be what I mentioned, which is that we don’t have the kind of broad sweep analysis that we require on Indian politics post-Emergency. It’s quite strange right? Much of what even academics cite in the post-Emergency are one-off articles. The Politics of Vishwas might be one. Or Second Democratic Upsurge by Yogendra Yadav might be another. But these are just articles. There are no book length treatments. There’s no go-to text for a postgraduate seminar on the kind of political development that you have in the 1980s and onwards. What we do have is very good investigations of the rise of Hindu nationalism, Mandal politics, or what happened to the Congress Party. But those are all separate lines of inquiry and what I always try to sort of encourage people to think more about is that whatever your line of inquiry was, many of these parties that came up in the 1990s look very similar. They have a charismatic leader at the top, they are often family-controlled. It might be a caste-based party. It might be a Congress breakaway. But they all look very similar and we had a huge proliferation of these parties in the 1990s.

So, we know that there are certain structural elements that are looking quite common from the 1990s onward in Indian politics. Some parts of it we’re starting to get bothered by. We also have seen a rise of criminality, we’ve seen a rise of cash in politics. What is driving all of these things? Is there a common story? Is there a common way in which we can characterise what was happening in the Indian political system in the 1990s and perhaps the changes have taken place today? These are the questions that continue to animate my work and I think that where my thinking has gone is to take some of these earlier investigations of the Indian voter along with the more abstract notions of religion and politics, the Modi Voter, etc., and try to actually now build a larger theory of what are the kinds of parties that are formed in the Indian system: How much inter-party democracy do they have? How do they appeal to the voter? And how might we characterise the overall equilibrium in the Indian party system? This is what animates me today.