In popular commentaries on Indian elections, the caste-versus-development story often occupies the centre of the analysis. These categories are seen as exclusives — and while there is no inherent tension between the politics of dignity and the politics of aspiration, in commentaries, caste politics acquires a primordial and regressive image, while development and economic issues are seen as something modern and progressive.
Both sides began their campaigns with development, but soon caste and religion became the focus of their rallies, slogans, and mobilisation. While the discussion around welfare policies and infrastructure development definitely played a key role in shaping voters’ decision, the data show that in comparison to the last assembly election, the 2015 poll saw an increase among respondents who said caste issues were more important for them in this election.
More importantly, there was a clear consolidation on caste lines behind one alliance or the other. While the upper castes overwhelmingly voted for the NDA, Yadavs, Muslims and Kurmis stood behind the maha gathbandhan. This polarisation on caste lines is reflective of deeper tensions in the state.
A clear class divide between rich and poor too was evident. Two-thirds of Bihar’s population are poor and lower middle class (based on assets, house type, and income), and the grand alliance had a massive advantage among this section. The NDA received significant support from the middle and upper middle classes. The verdict seems to communicate that a socially inclusive agenda that addresses downtrodden sections has greater appeal than a developmental model with lots of rhetoric and few details.
The election also saw invocation of issues such as cow slaughter and reservation for Muslims. Though a large proportion of the electorate agrees with the beef ban in principle, the data suggest this did not give the BJP a large electoral advantage. The NDA had just a 3 percentage point advantage among those who supported a beef ban while the maha gathbandhan’s advantage among those with other opinions was massive. Simply put, the cow did not deliver for the NDA.
The run-up to the Lok Sabha election last year and the 2015 election saw a large increase in communal incidents in the state. To see the effect this might have had on the outcome, we used district-wise data on communal incidents from 2013-15, which was published in The Indian Express in August. We classified the 243 seats into two categories — those in districts that saw more than 20 communal incidents from 2013-15, and those in districts that saw fewer incidents. We found that while the gap between the NDA and the grand alliance in the latter category was in double digits, the gap in the former category was just 4 percentage points. The NDA won more seats in districts that had saw many communal incidents than it did in districts that had seen fewer. However, even in the districts that saw more incidents, the NDA trailed behind the maha gathbandhan.
What may have worked in favour of the grand alliance was the perception that Bihar is no longer backward. Data show that in the last 10 years, more Biharis think their state has developed. When we asked voters to rate the development of their state on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being most developed and 10 being least developed, on 18% rated is as underdeveloped — a drastic decline from the figure of 65% that the 2005 CSDS survey in Bihar had captured. However, further analysis suggested that even the answer to this question had a caste dimension.
While verdict 2015 was undeniably about the politics of dignity, aspiration, welfare, and development; social identity nevertheless remained the lens through which these categories were ultimately viewed.
Rahul Verma and Shreyas Sardesai are with Lokniti CSDS
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