Junior Faculty Awardee Profile: Nikhar Gaikwad, PhD

Editor's note:

Jennifer Leach, Assistant Director for Faculty Advancement, recently sat down with Nikhar Gaikwad, PhD, Assistant Professor of Political Science and 2019 Junior Faculty Grant recipient, to talk about his work.

October 03, 2019

Tell me about your background and what led you here to Columbia.

I did my undergraduate education at Williams College, where I majored in Political Science and Economics. I then worked for several years at a firm called Cornerstone Research, conducting economics and financial research, with a focus on regulatory policies in the domain of financial services, antitrust, and corporate governance. I learned a great deal as a practitioner working in this area during and after the financial crisis, and that, in turn, sparked my interest in approaching these topics from a more theoretical and scholarly perspective. That motivated me to embark on a PhD in Political Science at Yale University, where I specialized in international and comparative political economy. Following a fellowship year at Princeton, I joined Columbia.


As far as how your research interests evolved, is there anything else that was an influence?

When I started my PhD, I was broadly interested in the politics of economic regulation. Over time, I became more focused on understanding how electoral politics shape regulatory outcomes in developing countries. That led me to specialize in the politics of India and Brazil---two large democracies and emerging economies that are similar in many institutional respects. As I was doing fieldwork in these countries, I became fascinated with investigating the micro-level electoral determinants of policies related to trade, migration, and climate change. Thus, my research interests evolved to the extent that I began to bring in an electoral dimension into the study of regulation. 

What broader problems do you hope to address or solve—or bring some light to—through your work?

Broadly, I am interested in investigating how electoral factors influence economic policy outcomes when political systems are divided along cultural lines. For example, in my work on migration, I study the political causes and consequences of the disenfranchisement of migrants, who typically embody a cultural “other” in ethnically diverse societies. In many developing countries, rural-to-urban migrants face a great degree of discrimination in destination cities, for example, by being excluded from public housing or public education. They typically live in shanty towns or slum colonies where they are invisible to the government. This systematic exclusion has a materially adverse impact on their welfare.

How can governmental and civil society organizations remedy the political, social, and economic exclusion faced by migrants? The argument that I have been developing is that electoral enfranchisement can provide one avenue of empowerment. Registering to vote in new cities can be a fairly complex process for most migrants. It is costly to de-register to vote at one’s home village or town, and then register to vote in a new location where one likely doesn’t speak the local language, know how the local bureaucracy works, or have the right social or political networks or resources to figure out how to take the first step to establish political residency. 

I am working on a series of projects to investigate the ways in which organizations can help migrants overcome the costs associated with registering to vote. I believe that this is a low-cost but potentially efficacious policy tool that can be used to make migrants legible to local bureaucrats and politicians. Elected officials should become more cognizant and responsive to the needs of enfranchised migrants because they now face clear electoral incentives to furnish migrants with basic amenities and benefits. This ties back to my broader research agenda on the role of electoral competition in shaping economic policy outcomes. In other work, I also look at these dynamics in the context of trade, climate change, and other forms of redistributive policymaking.

Elected officials should become more cognizant and responsive to the needs of enfranchised migrants because they now face clear electoral incentives to furnish migrants with basic amenities and benefits. This ties back to my broader research agenda on the role of electoral competition in shaping economic policy outcomes.

I can imagine that this is such a small change, but the implications can be so broad.

I think the power of this argument lies in its simplicity. Yet, it is surprising how there hasn’t been much work that focuses on the link between migration, enfranchisement, and welfare indicators. I also think that there are potentially important implications for our understanding of immigration politics, because in the United States and Western Europe immigrants tend to naturalize and vote at far lower rates than for which they are qualified. It is a plausible conjecture, I argue, that part of the welfare gap that we observe between immigrants and native-born citizens stems from this gap in political representation.

How will receiving the Provost’s Award affect your work?

The Provost’s Award will allow me to work on a book project on the politics of rural-to-urban migration in South Asia. The book reports evidence from a series of studies, including, most recently, a large, randomized control trial evaluating the efficacy of a voter registration drive for migrants in New Delhi and Lucknow, India. Both cities are emblematic of a broader class of cities in the developing world in which there have been rapid influxes of migrants as part and parcel of the process of urbanization and industrialization. In this study, NGO workers helped a randomly selected subset of migrants apply for voter identification cards, and guided migrants through the onerous process of registering to vote. We study the impact of this intervention on political representation and welfare. The broader book project synthesizes the findings of several related studies and develops a theoretical framework to explicate the electoral foundations of discrimination and representation for migrants in ethnically divided societies.

What courses are you teaching this semester?

This semester, I’m teaching two classes. One is an undergraduate lecture class. It’s called “Governing the Global Economy,” and it focuses on the politics of international economic policymaking. It’s a really fun class to teach because it employs an innovative case study-based pedagogical approach to teaching international political economy to undergraduate students. With the help of the Center for Teaching and Learning, I have developed a series of case study modules specifically for this course. In the course, students are first introduced to theories and empirical evidence related to substantive topics, such as trade and immigration, in international political economy. They then apply these theoretical insights to historical and contemporary case studies in which they have to assume the role of a policymaker and make tough decisions regarding actual economic policy dilemmas.

For example, in a case on immigration that I have co-authored, students are given Angela Merkel’s decision in 2015 to either allow or not allow Syrian migrants into Germany. They must analyze the economic consequences, political repercussions, and cultural ramifications of migration, evaluate Merkel’s electoral prospects, and consider how cooperation problems across various EU nations are central to the decision that Merkel must make. There’s a lot to think about in this case, and what I encourage students to do is to draw on theories and data to build analytical frameworks by which they can approach complex policymaking decisions.

I’m also teaching a PhD seminar, and it’s called “Colloquium on International Political Economy.” It introduces graduate students to cutting-edge research on topics related to global economic governance.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

I really enjoy both my research and teaching responsibilities here at Columbia, and think that they build on one another very well. For example, my research on migration closely informs the way in which I teach the politics of migration. At the same time, I continue to learn so much from my students, and their perspectives on topics related to global economic policymaking has helped me rethink and improve my research in meaningful ways.

What is one of the biggest challenges of your work?

I am a political scientist by training, but a lot of my work on the politics of international economic policymaking is interdisciplinary by nature. Staying abreast of developments in other fields and disciplines can sometimes be challenging. For example, there are a number of schools, departments, and interdisciplinary programs at Columbia in which scholars are conducting cutting-edge research on topics such as migration and climate change, on which I also work. I’d like to tap into these vibrant scholarly networks more in order to improve my research.

What opportunities for this interdisciplinary work might you envision?

Luckily, there are a lot of terrific opportunities at Columbia for these kinds of cross-disciplinary conversations. For example, I was recently invited to join the Committee on Global Thought, which is an excellent forum in which scholars from across the university engage with pressing issues related to globalization, traversing traditional disciplinary boundaries in the process. The Committee has helped me get to know other faculty and researchers from across the university who are working on topics related to the global economy, and that has been very helpful for my work. I am also on the advisory board for the Mumbai Global Center, and I am collaborating with that Center on a number of exciting research projects related to migration and climate change.

So, what do you like to do in your free time?

I’ve enjoyed getting to know Morningside Heights and its surrounding neighborhoods. It helps to have a dog, who has accompanied me on walks to explore places ranging from Riverside Park and Harlem to Morningside Heights and the Upper West Side. We at Columbia are lucky to be located in one of the most beautiful areas of New York City.

Do you have any book recommendations for us?

I just finished reading Democracies in Peril: Taxation and Redistribution in Globalizing Economies, and I would highly recommend it. It’s by Ida Bastiaens and Nita Rudra, and it offers very astute insights into the relationship between globalization and populism in many parts of the world. This past weekend, I also read The Optimist’s Telescope, by Bina Venkataraman. It provides good food for thought regarding what we as individuals can do to combat effectively long-term problems, especially those related to climate change.

To learn more about Dr. Gaikwad, visit his faculty profile or email him directly.