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Meet JSIS Director Leela Fernandes

August 25, 2020

Recently, grad assistant Shelby House interviewed Dr. Leela Fernandes, scholar of South Asia and incoming Director of the Jackson School of International Studies. Prior to joining UW, Fernandes served as Glenda Dickerson Collegiate Professor of Women’s Studies and Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan.

She is the author of India’s New Middle Class: Democratic Politics in an Era of Economic Reform; Transnational Feminism in the United States; Producing Workers: The Politics of Gender, Class and Culture in the Calcutta Jute Mills and Transforming Feminist Practice.


What are you working on these days? 

I am currently finishing a book on the governance of water in contemporary India. The book uses a historical institutionalist study of India’s water bureaucracy in order to understand how global models of institutional reform are remaking democratic institutions. Governance over water in India has become a formidable endeavor that implicates every facet of the Indian state. If water is an essential necessity for human life that is bound up with the rights of democratic citizenship and questions of equity, it is also a resource that is under demand from competing sectors of the economy. It is a resource that involves governmental action across all levels of India’s federal structure and consequently illuminates every facet of the Indian state. This multifarious nature of water provides the analytical and empirical terrain through which I disentangle the various facets of the Indian state and its democratic institutions.

I am also working on a second edition of a Routledge Handbook on Gender in South Asia, which brings together the work of over 30 scholars. Luckily, I had finished the fieldwork before COVID hit, so my research has not been impacted.

You’ve previously written about the “new Indian middle class” and its role in democratic politics. Do you think the role of the Indian middle class has changed in recent years? Or is the BJP’s rise to power connected to the rise of the middle class and its reshaping of the democratic political sphere?

The role of the middle class is complex because there is so much internal variation within the group. Oftentimes claims about the middle classes are based on upper caste presumptions. The upper caste and more privileged sections of the middle classes have indeed tended to support the BJP and have benefited from India’s economic reforms – this is not necessarily the case for broader segments that are much less privileged. Modi’s conception of the ‘neo-middle class’ was an effective political strategy at appealing to this broader section by both tapping into the aspirations of mobility for this broader group. For instance, in contrast to his focus on reforms he tied this conception to a promise of state-delivered public goods and services.

What, if anything, gives you hope in this moment?

The increasing intensity of repressive state measures, including within formal democracies, is a sign of the weakness of such leadership. In this context, social movements pressing for change can have a powerful impact. This is especially critical given the intensification of inequality and the concentration of wealth.

How are you taking care of yourself amid the COVID-19 pandemic?

Social distancing can be challenging. I take a fair amount of space for reflection and meditation, and one of the best decisions that I think I made was deleting my Facebook account about five years ago. I am also a ceramicist, and it’s a nice way of being grounded in all of the swirl of activities and communication.