Does Electoral Democracy Reduce Displacement?

October 25th, 2014

Liza Weinstein

A healthy 51 percent of Mumbai’s eligible voters came out to vote in last Wednesday’s Maharashtra State Assembly elections. Many of these votes were cast by slum residents, pavement dwellers, and others with tenuous claims to housing security, and candidates campaigned vigorously for them, promising expanded tenure security and improved service delivery if elected. While these promises are often maligned as “vote bank politics” — clientelism at best and downright corruption at worst — they raise important questions about the effects of electoral democracy on housing security.

Few studies have taken these questions head on. Disentangling the direct links between elections and evictions requires data sets more robust than those currently available in India or elsewhere. Ethnographic accounts, however, suggest a positive relationship between electoral democracy and housing security, at least in the short run. Over longer periods, the benefits of voting are less clear, as quid pro quo politicking tends to reinforce existing power imbalances and keep informal residents in a state of precarious stability. Clearly, electoral democracy is just one piece of the larger struggle for housing security, but its importance should not be overlooked.

One thing we know is that the urban poor in India — as in democracies throughout much of the world — vote, and do so in at least equal numbers to their more affluent counterparts. Scholars tend to treat the high electoral participation of the poor as a puzzle, especially in light of the daily wages lost and other adversities faced in getting to the polls. In a recently published study, Political Scientists Amit Ahuja and Pradeep Chhibber found that poor voters in India are motivated more by their perception of voting as a civic duty or a basic right than the expectation of material benefits from the government. While this finding is not surprising in light of the constant neglect and daily humiliations the poor experience at the hands of the state, it runs counter to the typical characterization of India’s poor communities, and urban slums in particular, as “vote banks.”

According to the vote bank narrative, poor communities (but potentially all collective constituencies) operate as bank accounts into which politicians make occasional deposits, such as basic services or protections from eviction, from which they can withdraw votes during elections. This model characterizes electoral democracy as purely instrumental, with politicians motivated by votes and the urban poor motivated exclusively by the material benefits, including the tenure security, that politicians can grant them. While these exchange relations have been criticized by liberal political theorists and celebrated by some subaltern scholars who emphasize their redistributive potential, the account is complicated by urban ethnographers who demonstrate voting as just one piece of a more complex political field in slum communities.

Lisa Bjorkman’s ethnographic account of water access in the Mumbai settlement of Aziz Nagar, for example, reveals that residents collectively support politicians who they perceive to possess the specialized knowledge and sociopolitical networks needed to navigate the regulatory frameworks and messy politics of urban infrastructure. But while Bjorkman finds that voters in Aziz Nagar are motivated by their material concerns, they do not respond to the immediate and simplistic incentives suggested by the vote bank model.

The links between electoral democracy and housing security, while indirect, were clear in last week’s election in Mumbai, which gave the nationally dominant Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a plurality of seats in the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly. Although housing security and displacements were not major issues this election, the state’s incumbent Congress Party government decided to hedge its bets in July and extend housing protections to an additional 300,000 of Mumbai’s roughly nine million slum residents. According to the policy, those who can prove continuous residence since before the cut-off date cannot be evicted without due process and alternative housing. The July change, viewed by many as a desperate attempt by the Congress to hold onto power, extended these protections to households who took up residence (and had the documents to prove it) between January 1, 1995 and December 31, 1999. While it did little for the Congress Party, who took a mere 42 out of 288 seats in the Legislative Assembly, the move ensured some residents protection from uncompensated displacement.

Elections also have a slowing effect on development, which typically (but not always) reduces the number of people displaced. The disruptive effects of elections are codified in the Election Commission of India’s Model Code of Conduct policy, which limits the actions of candidates and elected officials before an election. The Code took effect across Maharashtra about one month before last week’s voting day, during which period no new projects could be launched, no ribbons could be cut, and all development schemes in the state were essentially put on hold to avoid politicizing development or advantaging one party or the other. With national elections called only six months before, a two-month suspension of development activities had been in effect across the country between mid-March and mid-May of this year. While one-month here and two-months there may not seem like significant obstacles to development, the regularity of national, state, and municipal elections ensures that projects proceed slowly. Once the election dust settles, it typically takes several months before the new government’s development priorities are clarified and existing schemes are re-launched.

My own research has revealed this slowing effect at work in Mumbai’s beleaguered Dharavi Redevelopment Project, a slum housing and development scheme in the planning stages for the past ten years. The launch date for the project, slated to displace or rehouse more than ninety thousand families, has been pushed back each time an election is called. And with a new BJP-led government taking office in the next few weeks, the project’s fate is once again unclear. While many, both within and outside of Dharavi, lament the “slow pace of progress,” the displacements proposed under the scheme have so far been avoided.

While elections do not necessarily prevent evictions, they appear, at least in the short run, to reduce displacement. All political parties in Mumbai, as elsewhere throughout India, have overseen mass displacements and demolition drives while in office, but they usually suffer at the polls after they do. Meanwhile, some degree of housing security is ensured by neighborhood level brokers and by populist policies enacted in the lead up to elections. But in the absence of more meaningful and binding forms of tenure security, such measures may be little more than Band-Aids. More research is needed to further clarify the direct and indirect relationships between electoral democracy and displacement, but electoral democracy, in all its messy — and sometimes illiberal — incarnations, is clearly a critical piece of the struggle for housing rights.

Liza Weinstein is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Northeastern University and author of The Durable Slum: Dharavi and the Right to Stay Put in Globalizing Mumbai (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), and DRAN-affiliated Faculty.