CPR Faculty Speak: Rahul Verma

30 September 2021
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Rahul Verma is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR). He is also Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, Ashoka University. His research interests include voting behavior, party politics, political violence, and media. He is a regular columnist for various news platforms and has published papers in Asian Survey, Economic & Political Weekly, and Studies in Indian Politics. He has a PhD in Political Science from the University of California at Berkeley, US. He completed his MPhil in Political Science from Delhi University, MA in Development Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, and BA from Kirori Mal College, Delhi University.

In this edition of CPR Faculty Speak, Verma talks about his work and interests at CPR, why they matter, what impact he hopes to achieve and more.

Tell us about your research work and interests at CPR.

At CPR, I lead a team of researchers that broadly work on themes related to Indian politics and political economy. Specifically, my interests lie in voting behavior, party politics, and political violence. At present, we're analysing the Parliamentary debates of the 15th and 16th Lok Sabha. I'm working on a manuscript with my colleague, Asim Ali on the Congress Party in India, and organising fortnightly discussions with scholars who study political parties on transformations within state-level parties across India. We are also in the final stages of completing an edited volume titled, “Dalits in the New Millennium” with Prof. Sudha Pai, Shyam Babu and 25+ chapter contributors. These research projects are supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (RLS).

In addition to these issues, I work closely with the State Capacity Initiative (SCI) here at CPR where, for instance, we're doing some work on Panchayats and Panchayat Secretaries which ties in with frontline bureaucrats - one area the SCI focuses on. Another key area of my work is the YouGov-Mint-CPR Millennial Surveys (conducted bi-annually) to understand the anxieties and aspirations of millennials situated across India's towns and cities; financial, political, interpersonal, among others. We are in the process of building such collaborations with different organisations. For example, we have been organising a discussion series on topics of contemporary importance with the Trivedi Centre for Political Data (TCPD) at Ashoka University and a similar series with Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). The idea behind undertaking all this research is to stress the importance of politically informed policymaking, in other words, to bring politics back into discussions related to public policies. Finally, apart from training young scholars, we wish to create a community and  network of scholars across the globe to interpret emerging politics in India.

Why do these issues  interest you?

I've always been interested in the 'political' as influencing everything around us. I believe that the imagination of modern India, especially post-independence, has been a political project. This is not to suggest that we do not have deep civilisational roots and ethos, but since 1947,  the "Idea of India" is deeply political. A project which many thought wouldn't succeed. There were doomsday predictions about India's chances to survive as a democracy. Not only have we defied those predictions, but Indian elections are the greatest show on the planet. For sure, democracy has changed India, but it is time that theorists engage seriously with what is happening in this part of the world as we are the busiest laboratory of democracy.

There are now many changes sweeping through our country, with sites of contestation growing, and it is interesting to understand how politicians and parties affect these. As actors with their own set of vested interests who are undoubtedly fallible, there's no denying that they make mistakes. This strand of political psychology is something we're looking to bring more into our upcoming research; understanding what shapes and motivates such actions-- the ideology, beliefs, preferences and biases they hold. Caricatures aside, these complex actors are central in understanding politically and historically-informed policymaking. Simply put, it's important to study these leaders as they are not simply prisoners of the past, but making history as we speak!

How have these issues evolved in the country and globally over the years?

Most often issues evolve slowly, even though one feels they've woken up to a sudden change. Globally we've been seeing a recession in democratic values. Simultaneously, newer forms of campaigning have emerged, and voters have become complex because of a whole host of emergent contingencies and issues. We see the political space fragmenting like never before; but all of this took time. It is just as important to study that interstitial period as it is to understand the contemporary political landscape. Again, we're in a period of flux and paradoxes that necessitate research, even more so here in India, which offers fertile ground to study complex interrelated phenomena: the rise of a dominant-party system after 25 years of a coalition government, in the midst of a proliferation of numerous representative parties; the conservative beliefs amongst millennials coming up against the increasing political awareness and participation in protests among student-activists, material conditions having improved but citizens continuing to remain strongly rooted to their identities; the examples are many. These contradictions are inherent in the system itself; it has evolved in this way and will continue to do so.

What impact do you aim to achieve through your research?

 As I said, the idea is to put the spotlight on politics in understanding the public policies. Institutionally, the idea is to see CPR develop as a hub of cutting edge research on politics and political economy in India. In doing so we would like to scale-up collaborations with scholars in India and across the globe, undertake research for a global audience, mentor young researchers into being ambassadors for CPR and ensure ours is an organisation which becomes a platform for robust debate, disagreements and discussions- the 3 Ds which are so essential in a democracy!

What does a typical day look like for you at CPR?

The pandemic created a 'new-normal' but now that some members of my team and I have returned to office, we are making efforts to return to the 'old-normal'. The work day remains the same - I normally have meetings with my team: either in person or online, to discuss on-going projects and brainstorm on future plans. I try to keep the first half of the day reserved for my personal reading and writing. Apart from this, the day goes by in responding to emails, meeting with faculty colleagues at CPR, making other calls, or in the workshops or talks that we're organising. I also enjoy spending time with my team, getting to know them more through conversation (and through what they bring for lunch!). This academic year, I'm also teaching at Ashoka University (as Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science), so engaging with students takes up a large part of Tuesdays and Thursdays.

What are you currently working on and why is it important?

As I mentioned in the beginning, the team is working on a number of projects right now. Similarly, with the colleagues at the SCI we have created a research agenda on how politics and politicians impact state capacity. Our work on mapping the manifestos of three main national parties since Independence to understand similarities and differences in the issues they focus on is on its way to completion, while our draft manuscript on the Congress party is halfway done. We also have our fortnightly workshops to deliberate on the changing nature of state-level parties, and their future. These research topics coalesce to lend insights into the changing nature of India's political landscape whereby the country's arrival into the fourth party system has been informed by significant changes in the form and substance. The emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the nationally dominant party and the shrinking of the main opposition are the most important of these. Additionally, ideological shifts currently underway have the potential to transform citizen-state relations and federal dynamics in the coming years. Through our work at CPR, we wish to draw attention towards the operationalisation of this political change and what it means for India's future.

To know more about Rahul Verma’s work and research, click here.

The views shared belong to individual faculty and researchers and do not represent an institutional stance on the issue.