As state power allegedly wanes, contemporary governments face the dramatic new challenge of climate change. My research explores how political institutions shape energy and climate policy, taking a humanistic approach grounded in extensive policymaker interviews. I focus especially on India, the world’s largest democracy and third-largest national emitter, alongside comparative perspectives on the United States, Britain, and Brazil.

Together my research projects make three contributions to scholarship on the contemporary state and environmental governance. Broadly, they place theories and evidence from the developed world in conversation with those from the Global South, drawing unusual linkages and comparisons. For India, they advance the neglected study of political institutions by uniting political economy and public administration. On energy and climate policy, they show the importance of interpretive approaches in understanding persistent policy underperformance. My research thus hopes to produce insights for more realistic, effective, and responsible policymaking on climate change and beyond.

You can find a copy of my CV here, or read other published and forthcoming pieces on academia.edu here.

The political economy of India

My ongoing contributions on India address a relative silence in South Asian political science on public institutions. While existing studies of the Indian state often extrapolate from social or industrial policy, my first book manuscript, The Public-Private State: Electricity and India’s Transforming Political Economy, provides a reinterpretation based on the crucial energy sector. Based on policymaker interviews and archival materials, I examines a quarter-century of reforms to the notoriously troubled power sector, and the political constraints that shaped them. I argue that India today has a new form of activist state that blurs the public-private boundary, but this attempt to create a liberalized developmental state has brought its own sources of dysfunction.

For earlier findings from this project, see my recent article “Reinventing State Capitalism in India” (Contemporary South Asia, 2017), winner of a prize from the British Association for South Asian Studies; it examines how state-owned enterprises have altered to imitate private-sector governance but remain political tools. Drawing on concepts from European public administration studies, “Dissipated Energy: Indian Electric Power and the Politics of Blame” (Contemporary South Asia, 2012) analyzes politics as a “blame game” in which actors are not resource-maximizing but blame-minimizing, and thus fail to address persistent policy crises. For more of my work on the evolving Indian power sector, you can also check out these book chapters from 2014 and 2017.

A third article, “The Politics of Electricity Reform: Evidence from West Bengal, India,” is forthcoming in World Development; it uses India’s subnational variation as a laboratory to examine how party-political competition affects public service delivery. This draws on my work as part of the international collaboration “Mapping Power,” sponsored by the Regulatory Assistance Project. As a team of researchers we provide policy-relevant analysis of electricity across fifteen major Indian states, home to 1.1 billion people.

My next project on India, Modi’s Government Revolution, will build on The Public-Private State’s diagnosis by examining the institutional reshaping carried out in response by Narendra Modi, who swept to power in 2014 at the head of India’s first majority government in three decades. Pundits likened him to Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan, yet I argue that Modi is best understood not as an economic revolutionary but an administrative reformer. This planned book-length work aims to interrogate the key characteristics and limitations of Modi’s attempted reinvention of the Indian state apparatus, again drawing on a combination of elite interviews and documentary research. This builds, too, on my work as co-editor of a forthcoming volume, Class and Conflict: Rethinking the Political Economy of India (Oxford University Press), which includes contributions from many of the field’s leading figures and examines key continuities into the Modi era. (Here are drafts of our introduction and my chapter on the state and bureaucracy.)

Comparative climate policy

Another evolving project takes my existing research on administrative dysfunction and energy policy in a comparative direction. As part of an interdisciplinary project on “The Limits of the Numerical,” I have been working with a team of climate researchers at UChicago and collaborators in Cambridge (on healthcare) and UC Santa Barbara (higher education) to understand the effects of numerical quantification in political, social, and ethical terms.

From the 2ºC climate target to the weekly £350 million promised by the “Brexit bus,” numbers are ubiquitous in contemporary politics. Existing scholarship stresses the rationalizing role that numbers play as tools of measurement and discipline. Yet 2ºC, the Brexit bus, and the persistently missed targets I observed in India do not fit this pattern: they were not technocratic attempts to reflect the world, but emerged in a far more haphazard and political fashion.

My new project Imaginary Numbers examines the political deployment of numbers as rhetorical rather than rationalizing tools. I have begun to develop “biographies” of climate targets in India, the United Nations, the United States, and Britain, alongside analysis of the populist numbers of the Brexit and 2016 American presidential campaigns. I plan to bring these strands together into a book-length treatment, comparing climate targets to immigration and economic growth targets. My hypothesis is that “irrational” or “imaginary” numbers are more significant than the literature recognizes—and not only in the “low-capacity” Global South or in the hands of populists. Such numbers are deployed as cheap signals of political intent, I suggest, but their detachment from technical expertise comes at the cost of clarity in implementation, and of a loss of popular trust. As with my India-focused work, the project uses humanistic approaches to shed new light on persistent policy underperformance, and to draw unexpected connections about the challenges to liberal democracy in the Global North and South.

I am the co-recipient of a Faculty Research Award from the University of Chicago’s Neubauer Collegium to develop this research. A theoretical paper from this project that I co-authored with the philosopher Greg Lusk, “Reasonable Doubt: Deliberation, Unreliable Experts, and the Problem of Public Ignorance,” is at the revise-and-resubmit stage.

Other projects

Electricity, the twentieth century’s great macro-technology, also provides a fresh perspective on an environmental buzzword: the Anthropocene. In a paper in progress, “Electrifying the Anthropocene: Rethinking Technologies, Regions, and Dynamics” (under review), I extend my first book’s analysis in spatial and chronological terms. Existing histories have revolved around early steam power, and thus the “fossil capitalism” of industrial Europe. Instead my work uses histories of electrification across Asia from the 1890s on to re-evaluate the Anthropocene’s key actors, dynamics, and geography as a widely shared project of “fossil developmentalism”—a thesis I plan to apply beyond Asia in future. For a glimpse of this work, see this paper I gave at Boston College in March 2017. In August 2018 I will be developing this at a five-day selective workshop at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, sponsored by the Luce Foundation and the Association for Asian Studies.

Alongside my academic career, I occasionally work as an expert energy consultant for Oxford Analytica, and have undertaken short consultancies for Oxfam GB (on urban poverty) and an emerging markets advisory group (on the Indian economy). Previously I interned with the Programme Policy Team at Oxfam GB, and spent several months in Karnataka and Delhi as a Unicef intern evaluating India’s national sanitation program.

In my spare time while at Oxford, I began blogging about the cultural history of procrastination and even held a seminar series and international conference on the topic (as reported in The New York Times and The Telegraph). Amazingly, no book on this topic yet exists—though mine, of course, is doomed to remain eternally unfinished. Recently I have turned this interest in more productive directions, co-editing a special issue of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society on the history of emotions in urban South Asia. Written with the historian Megan Eaton Robb and anthropologist Sneha Krishnan, here is our introduction to this rapidly growing field.