Episode 65 – Book Review Roundtable: Migrants and Machine Politics

As the Global South rapidly urbanizes, millions of people have migrated from the countryside to urban slums, which now house one billion people worldwide. The transformative potential of urbanization hinges on whether and how poor migrants are integrated into city politics. Popular and scholarly accounts paint migrant slums as exhausted by dispossession, subdued by local dons, bought off by wily politicians, or polarized by ethnic appeals. Migrants and Machine Politics shows how slum residents in India routinely defy such portrayals, actively constructing and wielding political machine networks to demand important, albeit imperfect, representation and responsiveness within the country’s expanding cities.

Drawing on years of pioneering fieldwork in India’s slums, including ethnographic observation, interviews, surveys, and experiments, Adam Michael Auerbach and Tariq Thachil reveal how migrants harness forces of political competition—as residents, voters, community leaders, and party workers—to sow unexpected seeds of accountability within city politics. This multifaceted agency provokes new questions about how political networks form during urbanization. In answering these questions, this book overturns longstanding assumptions about how political machines exploit the urban poor to stifle competition, foster ethnic favoritism, and entrench vote buying.

By documenting how poor migrants actively shape urban politics in counterintuitive ways, Migrants and Machine Politics sheds new light on the political consequences of urbanization across India and the Global South.

Episode transcript


Nitin Bathla

Nitin is a lecturer and postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Architecture, ETH Zürich, where he works as part of the transdisciplinary project on agri-urbanisms at the Chair of Sociology. He also coordinates the Doctoral Programme at the Institute of Landscape and Urban Studies at the Department. His research practice actively combines academic research with artistic practices of filmmaking, and socially-engaged art. He is the director of award-wining film Not Just Roads, which premiered at several important film festivals across the world. 
Twitter – @nitin_bathla

Our Guests:

Adam Auerbach

Adam is an associate professor in the School of International Service at American University, Washington DC. His research focuses on local governance, urban politics, and the political economy of development, with a regional focus on South Asia and India in particular. Auerbach is the author of Demanding Development: The Politics of Public Goods Provision in India’s Urban Slums (Cambridge University Press, 2020) and co-author (with Tariq Thachil) of Migrants and Machine Politics: How India’s Urban Poor Seek Representation and Responsiveness (Princeton University Press, 2023). 
Twitter – @adam_m_auerbach

Sofie Heintz

Sofie is a PhD student in Political Science and Modern South Asian Studies at the University of Zurich. In her dissertation project, she aims to investigate whether and how the governance model of the Aam Aadmi Party has changed the dynamics of public service delivery in Delhi across different governance levels, how this affects citizens’ access to and expectations towards the state, and what the connected political implications of this might be.
Twitter – @HeintzSofie

Nicolás Palacios Crisóstomo

Nicolás is a doctoral candidate at the Spatial Development and Urban Policy chair at ETH Zürich. Born and raised in Chile, Nicolás has a background in political science and human geography, with a strong interest in the intersections of research and activism. He is currently working on his PhD project focused on the role of migrant platform labour in the production of space, as well as the urban experience of these workers in Berlin and Barcelona. Twitter – @Nicopalacios