Bihar’s circulation of elites

Women from Dhokva village in Bihar's Damdaha Assembly constituency, complain about the absence of a school and roads.   | Photo Credit: Sobhana K. Nair

Democracy is meant to promote civic consciousness. Therefore, it should abolish all kinds of irrational identities including caste. Yet, electoral democracy in most parts of India works through caste and representation. The khas (special) and the raees (wealthy) get the highest preference in the distribution of power, while smaller communities tend to receive token representation.

This phenomenon is particularly relevant in Bihar where the khas groups have acquired direct access to state institutions and utilise them to perpetuate the dominance of the elite. This does not mean that khas groups are exclusive. There is a circulation of elites in Bihar that allows for newer dominant groups to replace the previously dominant ones. This means that there is a narrow pyramid of political power that has different elite sections but does not accommodate other marginalised groups over time.

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OBC mobilisation

Bihar comprises about 205 caste groups. Immediately post Independence, caste groups such as the Kayasthas, Brahmins, Bhumihars and Kshatriyas, which together constitute 20% of Bihar’s population, carved out a dominant space for themselves in politics and retained their hegemony for a few decades. Back in the colonial period, these groups had acquired sufficient education and jobs. They then led political communities in the State during the freedom movement. From 1952 onwards, for about three decades, they produced the largest number of MPs and MLAs under the aegis of the Congress. Numerically populous Other Backward Classes (OBC) groups such as the Yadavs, Kurmis and Koeries, besides Scheduled Castes (SC) such as the Chamars and Dusadhs, were allowed token representation. The OBC communities had also groomed aspirations for their share in state power during the colonial period — political organisations representing Yadav-Kurmi-Koeri interests were formed in the late 1930s.

Soon members of the OBCs also comprised raiyyat (wealthier) sections who had attained ownership of agricultural land after years of being tillers. The Green Revolution bestowed benefits on them and other governmental and banking schemes allowed them to become rural entrepreneurs. All this provided opportunities to them to avail of good education and government jobs and political power later on. These groups were initially mobilised around most non-Congress political outfits, the Socialist parties, as the Congress was predominantly hegemonised by the upper caste political elite. Later, the non-Congress outfits allowed for an OBC-elite dominated political forum which managed to supplant the upper caste-dominated political structure by getting accommodated into the structures of state power, beginning in the 1980s. Under this political regime of Yadav-Kurmi-Koeri-led political elites, however, only a few OBC groups got a political share. The rest, more than 90 OBC groups, are yet to be accommodated in structures of political power and lack the ability to take advantage of state patronage.

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Contradictions within

Upper caste elites supporting the Congress gradually shifted to the BJP in the 1980s. This process quickened during the Ramjanmabhoomi movement. The OBC elites got divided between the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal (United) by the 2000s — a process that occurred due to the competing aspirations of the Yadav-dominated OBC leadership on the one hand and the Kurmi-Koeris on the other. The internal contradictions among the OBCs and the consequent lowering of numerical superiority led to these parties providing for some representation for marginalised groups as well. Among the Dalits too, the numerically superior Chamars and Dusadhs managed to gain a share in state power over time and produced new political elites, while other Dalit communities did not gain a share. Essentially, distribution of various opportunities through government schemes and policies were still controlled by the dominant political elite.

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As Bihar’s political leadership transits from its Mandal generation – with Lalu Prasad in jail, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar diminishing in popularity, and the death of Ram Vilas Paswan – to a new crop of leaders, there is the expectation that the dependence on identity politics will give way to a more inclusive politics that tries to mobilise people across different segments. Yet, if the emphasis remains on representation in power structures being limited to the elite among a select set of not more than 20 castes, there will not be any true change. The marginal communities which lack the capacity to aspire towards and engage in this system and those who have not yet had access to education and wealth will continue to be invisible.

Badri Narayan is Director of the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2020 2:19:25 AM |

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