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Sarah Poff interviews Philip Oldenburg, Adjunct Associate Professor, Political Science

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

An Interview with Professor Philip Oldenburg

by Sarah Poff

Philip K. Oldenburg is Adjunct Associate Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. His research focuses primarily on Indian politics, and in particular local government and elections. The editor or co-editor of ten volumes in The Asia Society’s India Briefing series, and most recently India, Pakistan, and Democracy: Solving the Puzzle of Divergent Paths, his current project is tentatively called The Indian Politician.

Associate Editor Sarah Poff sat down to talk with Oldenburg on his research and teaching. The following transcript, compiled by Poff, has been sparingly edited for clarity.

Could you tell me about your recent research interests and what sparked them?

Since I am basically now retired, I have started a long term project which has a working title of The Indian Politician. My reason behind doing it is that there has not been a book on this topic of Indian politicians, which to me is amazing. It’s an interesting topic—why hasn’t anybody written it? That said, I have begun working on it.

Over the years, my research on other topics has led me to meet with many politicians in India. I have come to realize they differ immensely from the politicians depicted in the cartoons and newspaper clippings, which are generally very unflattering. The politicians that I’ve met have been extraordinarily hardworking: they don’t sleep at night because people knock on their doors at five in the morning until midnight on a day-to-day basis. I was very impressed by the stamina of these guys; I wanted to find out more about them.

Since you are in the early stages of this long term project, could you tell me about some of your objectives for The Indian Politician?

There many full-time politicians on every level in India, many of whom don’t even make a living out of politics. Thinking about all these people, I wanted to create a picture of what the characteristics of the Indian politician looks like. For example, to what extent is the Indian politician a man? A woman? I want to create a more rounded picture to replace the cartoon character that most people think of as the Indian politician. This was the idea.

Could you talk about the methodology you plan to use?

How does one go about studying this Indian politician? I’ve started by looking at where politicians emerge.

I will be spending four to five months in India for the next five years, observing elections and talking to politicians. So far I have been been clipping newspapers and articles and reading autobiographies, which has proven to be very interesting. I am yet to identify the questions that need to be solved for this book.

I am planning on interviewing politicians on every level. I am interested in asking essay questions with some sort of a sampling. The bottom line is that it is impossible to do the whole of India. I am confining myself to Hindi and Urdu speaking areas, which is around three-fourths of the population. I chose these regions because I plan to conduct all of my interviews myself, and I can speak and understand both of these languages. I will be confining myself to regions I am familiar with. Other people I plan to speak with are local journalists and swingers. These people know the politics of their particular neighborhood and should be able to identify who the politicians are.

Have you faced any challenges in your research thus far?

It will be a challenge to find out who the politicians are, and how I will gather a representative sample. Since India is so large and diverse even within regions, how does one sample all these different types of politicians, as well as the informal local representatives who are involved in politics full-time as middle men? How do I find these people will be a challenge.

Do you have any expectations for what the average Indian politician may look like?

It will be interesting to see what the most important characteristics are: for example, age, education, caste, or other work in civil society. I’ve met politicians of every variety so I don’t know. Ultimately, I cannot hope to believe I will have nailed it in the end. But I hope to raise the issues and make a portrait of what the Indian politician looks like. For example, to be able to say something like, “He is male ninety percent of the time, female ten percent of the time.” I suspect that certain characteristics will be prominent throughout as basic qualifications for being a politician, like stamina, intelligence, comparative wealth, gift of the gab. What else might emerge: that’s what I want to find out. Empathy? Ability to work with the opposition? Both may be valued in different places and different ways. Talking to journalists and interviewing politicians, I hope to get some sense of it.

How many of the classes that you teach are based on your past research?

A lot. Right after college I went to India and since then I have been studying the politics, language, and culture in different regions of the country. I wrote articles on elections and got interested in development research on the grassroots level. I’ve been teaching the course Political Systems in South Asia ever since. The other courses I taught were Contemporary Civilization, Political Change in the Third World, and Ethnicity in Politics in South and Southeast Asia. What I teach in my classes is based of of the work I have done in regards to my Indian and Southeast Asian research, and many of the people on our syllabus are people that I know well.

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