OMNIA Q&A: A New Leader at CASI

Tariq Thachil, the new Director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India, discusses his plans for the Center and coping with the pandemic.

Monday, August 17, 2020

By Susan Ahlborn

Tariq Thachil, Director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India

Tariq Thachil arrived at Penn to become the new Director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) on July 1, during a global pandemic that has shut down most air travel and many in-person events—a special challenge for an international center.

Thachil also joined the Department of Political Science as an associate professor and, as Director of CASI, holds the Madan Lal Sobti Chair for the Study of Contemporary India. He studies political parties and behavior, social movements, ethnic politics, and urban migration, with a regional focus on South Asia. His current research examines the political consequences of rapid urbanization and internal migration in India.

Thachil’s book, Elite Parties, Poor Voters: How Social Services Win Votes in India, received several awards, including the Gregory Luebbert Book Award for best book in comparative politics from the American Political Science Organization. In 2019, he earned the Heinz I. Eulau Award for Best Article in the American Political Science Review. Thachil holds a Ph.D. in government from Cornell and a B.A. in economics from Stanford.

Since its founding in 1992, CASI has advanced understanding of contemporary India by engaging in policy-relevant research focused on present-day challenges; serving as a forum for seminars, workshops, and conferences; producing scholarly publications; and providing undergraduate and graduate students with unparalleled internship and research opportunities in India. We spoke to Thachil about his research, how CASI is continuing its mission during the pandemic, and his plans.


What has you most excited about coming to CASI?

I'm really excited about the chance to continue CASI's legacy of providing a space to convene interdisciplinary conversations around contemporary India that might not otherwise happen in major U.S. universities. And I’m excited to move to a role where the primary task is enabling collaborative research and opportunities for showcasing the work of other scholars, policymakers, and journalists.


Can you talk a little bit about your own research?

My earlier research was on political parties and democratic politics in India. My first book really focused on a puzzle emerging within the Indian democratic context, which was the rise of the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), that for many years had toiled in obscurity and had a support base that was really constrained to urban middle classes and Hindu upper castes. And suddenly, dramatically, the party was gaining support from some of India's most disadvantaged electorates, specifically Dalits (members of formerly ‘untouchable’ castes) and Adivasi (indigenous tribal) communities. These shifts were happening well before the victory of Narendra Modi, India’s current Prime Minister. I wondered, why were some of India’s most marginalized populations voting for a party of the privileged?

I found that the BJP didn't really change its policy platform to cater to Dalit and Adivasi voters. Instead, it relied on many of its affiliates within the wider Hindu nationalist social movement who had grassroots welfare chapters that were proliferating across the country. It was really through the provision of some very basic welfare, like one-teacher schools and very basic medicines, that the party was able to get a presence within communities and electorates that it never had before. It was that division of labor that helped it assemble this unlikely coalition of extremes.

More recently I’ve been looking at the political consequences of urbanization and internal migration within India. Specifically, I have focused on studying how politics and political networks take shape among newly urban populations, including migrants from the countryside, and within informal slum settlements.


What should we know about India today?

Like many parts of the world, I think India is going through several churns at once. As I said, the churn I study most closely is the churn produced by people moving from village to city. The challenges produced by migration have often not received the attention they deserve from scholars. But the Covid-19 pandemic has heightened public awareness in India of the importance of these concerns, especially the stories of rural migrants who were left stranded by the country’s abrupt lockdown. Millions of these migrants faced harrowing, and sometimes fatal, journeys to their home villages.

The challenges produced by migration have often not received the attention they deserve from scholars.

This tragic crisis has sharpened awareness of the longstanding issues migrant communities in India face. Further, India is facing and will continue to face a series of governance challenges as its cities grow—including tiny little towns that are growing rapidly, often with very little municipal planning or preparation, very low levels of infrastructure. That's actually a research project that CASI is going to be embarking on in the future: identifying governance challenges in small towns where urbanization is happening by stealth.

A second churn India is facing is with its economy, which was sputtering even before the pandemic. Now, the added miseries produced by the virus have produced the prospect of India suffering its first year of economic contraction in many decades. Estimates say that GDP will shrink by up to 5 percent, maybe even more, next year. For a low-income country like India, any year with a negative growth rate is exceedingly painful, even more so than for far wealthier countries, including the U.S.

A third churn is the turmoil of public health. India has long underinvested in its public health infrastructure, a problem that the current crisis exacerbates. As of the moment of this interview, India has the third highest prevalence of active cases, behind only the U.S. and Brazil. And it has far fewer resources in terms of its hospital infrastructure. To give just one example, a single university-based lab in north India recently reported serving as the sole testing facility for ten districts with a combined population of 30 million people.

And as a political scientist, it would be remiss of me not to note a fourth churn, which is political. India has seen transition in the main party around which its national politics revolves. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has completely displaced the more centrist Indian National Congress, India's party of independence, as the major pool of Indian politics. And that has reverberations across the country, especially as the BJP’s most recent victory in 2019 has seen the party more aggressively seek to implement its core agenda.


How is CASI carrying out its mission during the pandemic?

As with practically everyone, we at the center have been heavily constrained by the pandemic. We can't travel to India, nor can people from India come to visit the U.S. right now, and a lot of our research and data collection efforts have had to be halted.  

On the flip side, what's been really exciting is seeing the potential and the enthusiasm for virtual content. We are continuing to run our seminar series, and actually turnout on the virtual platform was higher than it was in person, in part because we could get many people from across the world, and especially from India. For a center with an international orientation, that's especially valuable.

I also just did an event with Penn Global, as the inaugural speaker for the Penn in India lecture series, in which faculty at Penn who do work in India talk about their research to alumni based in India.

In some ways, this moment forces us all to think globally. I could be in New Delhi right now, I could be here, it doesn't matter. And so there are some opportunities to be leveraged. For example, we’re going to have more speakers from India than we normally would, because that's feasible economically and logistically now.

We're also trying to continue our research. We're just going to have to do it more slowly. And when things go back to being more normal, I think we can just hit the ground running and ramp up quickly. So we're focusing on having a more coherent and streamlined research agenda, really on the channel of urbanization and migration, which reflects not only my interest, but that of CASI's postdoctoral fellow and graduate students. Governance challenges, as I said before, but also mapping patterns of urban inequality, and thinking about the consequences of those.

I also want to forge additional partnerships in India. There's an explosion of innovative research centers and activities there, a lot of them headed by fairly young scholars who are doing cutting-edge work. I would love to see how CASI could help highlight their work, but also forge collaborations in India with them. That’s the part that I think is really going to change when things open up.


What are the plans for CASI’s student-focused programs?

I'm particularly interested in expanding CASI's student-facing activities during the school year. I think CASI has done a wonderful job of having this flagship summer internship program, where we send students every year to India. From all the conversations I've had with former students who've taken that program, they've really loved it. They are real internships with real experience.

I want to leverage that to have more year-round offerings where we engage our undergraduates. A lot of our academic seminars, because they're very specialized, are not accessible to undergrads. So we're going to plan at least two or three student facing-events on topics of interest to students. One example would be the run-up to the 2020 election. We're going to try to do this virtually, and have discussions about Indian Americans and the vote.


What are your other goals as director?

I'm particularly interested in increasing voices that are underrepresented, both in the U.S. academy and also within India. There've been lots of discussions and debates about the lack of diversity among academics working on India and South Asia in the U.S., most of whom come from privileged backgrounds. I think right now we should all take inspiration from the larger debates that are happening in the U.S. around questions of representation, including within higher education.

I'm particularly interested in increasing voices that are underrepresented, both in the U.S. academy and also within India.

Another goal is to continue to broaden the kinds of conversations we host at CASI. One of the aspects of the center I value most is the ability to convene wide-ranging discussions on India between academics, journalists, policy practitioner, and activists. Those kinds of conversations might not have a home in traditional departments. And our visiting scholar program affords us the ability to give many of these people an opportunity to spend time on our wonderful campus in Philadelphia, get some time away from their hectic lives to write, to engage with scholars on our campus or studying other parts of the world.

And likewise, CASI, through its relationships in India, is able to send undergraduates through our internship program. It's able to send graduate students with funding from our wonderful board and other people. And those are exactly the kinds of interactions that I feel are most valuable and that a center like this can provide. Interactions that go both ways between our campus and the communities we engage in India, that are symmetric, and that allow for the kind of personal bridge-building between scholars, activists, journalists, that I think can be really incredibly fruitful.