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).

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

Slum settlements in Bhopal South Constituency (copyright: author).

Slum settlements in Bhopal South Constituency (copyright: author).