Real estate politicians in India: Land, Labour and Vote banks in the Global South

Real estate politicians in India: Land, Labour and Vote banks in the Global South


Written by:

Sai Balakrishnan and Narendar Pani

First Published:

24 Jul 2020, 11:22 am


Real estate politicians in India: Land, Labour and Vote banks in the Global South




Our article takes as its entry point a recent empirical phenomenon: across the world, countries have seen an explosion of what we call “real estate politicians,” viz. politicians whose main source of wealth is real estate. Exemplifying this trend is the rise of Trump, a real estate developer, to the highest echelons of U.S electoral politics. But the rise of real estate politicians in a country like India poses a puzzling trajectory: several of these winning politicians, who amass wealth for their election campaigns through land development, started off their careers in the 1970s as trade union leaders. Using the case of Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore), which has earned the epithet of the Silicon Valley of the East for its thriving information technology (IT) economy, we argue that the rise of real estate politicians in labour-surplus democratic societies like India reveals the capitalist-democratic contradictions of the state. The condition of electoral democracy makes it imperative for politicians to meet the consumption, including housing, needs of these labour-surplus constituents, and real estate politicians are adept at mediating the negotiated access of unorganised and surplus workers to informal land and housing. But the focus of the real estate politicians on mediated access to land, as opposed to labour and wage struggles, reveals the wider context of the new international division of labour and “jobless growth,” with these politicians having little structural leverage to oppose and reverse the growth of capital-intensive and labour-expulsive urbanisation, such as the IT economy in Bengaluru.   


The rise of real estate politicians in labour-surplus democratic societies produces a new spatial form of housing: unauthorised land developments. In the post-1970s decades, countries as varied as Brazil, Mexico and India saw the proliferation of unauthorised “insurgent” housing. These post-1970s unauthorised land developments reinvented citizenship: by occupying urban land, these unorganised workers exercised their democratic voice to make claims on the city. Most crucially, their political claims-making was primarily through struggles over land, and less so through labour. The 1970s was also the decade of the unraveling of import-substitution industrialisation, and the rise of flexible specialsation in these countries. In Bengaluru, if earlier public-sector trade unions combined wage and worker-housing struggles, we see in the 1970s and 80s a severing of these struggles with trade union leaders mediating access to unauthorised housing for the flexible labour force but acquiescing to these new flexible labour arrangements. This severing of labour and housing struggles culminates in the rise of the real estate politicians, several of whom have trade union origins but who have now altogether abandoned any labour struggles, and instead build constituencies around individualised and negotiated access to real estate.


To make our argument, our article relies on a range of mixed methods, including a survey of 2,268 Bengaluru households, qualitative interviews, and mapping. It is through these mixed methods that we unpack the workings of these real estate politicians who accumulated real estate wealth for electoral politics via unauthorised land development in the 1970s. It is these electoral-economic shifts that help us understand why, despite large-scale joblessness and visibly unequal allocation of urban resources, the urban working poor in Indian cities are neither agitating outright nor combining their housing and labour struggles. It also sounds a cautionary bell on why insurgent housing struggles might not always emerge as radical sites of labour struggles.   


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.