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Meet the dabangs of Indian democracy

In Bihar, ‘dabang’ is a phenomenon that holds democracy to ransom. Dabang is one who captures booths for political parties. A daba...

Written by Rahul Ramagundam |
February 16, 2005

In Bihar, ‘dabang’ is a phenomenon that holds democracy to ransom. Dabang is one who captures booths for political parties. A dabang is central to the democratic exercise of elections in Bihar but not necessarily a peculiarly Bihari phenomenon. It’s not a new social development either, but in a society that’s constantly in flux it’s certainly a most settled one. A dabang is a substitute for a more elaborate democratic process of electioneering. A dabang is also a substitute for apathy in electorates. It is a short shrift to democracy.

Dabang is a Hindi word that connotes a person who is domineering and mostly undemocratic. A dabang comes on his own during the popular expression of democracy, the elections. His position has become more entrenched with the gradual demise of grassroots mobilisation and collapse of the formal political organisation. In fact, he is the newest form of political worker, one who owes no ideological affiliation to the political parties but is recruited by them for his personal capabilities. He is in the scheme of the political parties not because of ideological affinity but because of his ability to appropriate popular will in his action and words. It is assumed that his appropriation of the popular will shall be transferred as electoral support to the contesting political parties. A dabang by virtue of being one represents in his personality the unspoken choice of the local population.

That population could comprise people from a village, tola, or even a mohalla. A dabang carries an informal authority in him, which is informally recognised even by formal institutions and authorities. He draws his power in community from his shared caste-community background or his capacity to bend formal authority to subserve personal or communal interests. It therefore is a partisan authority in an informal arena. His strength and stature come either from youthful audacity, family lineage, financial muscle or linkages in government machinery. He could be a petty player aspiring to become a big time block-office broker, someone who facilitates the price disbursal of governmental largesse such as Indira Awas Yojna or a BPL nomination. The age profile of a dabang varies from 18 to 30 or even 35. A dabang might upgrade to bahubali, the ‘criminal-politician’, with a larger field of play.

A dabang is the building block of a political super-structure. He is enlivened by political patronage and politics increasingly cannot exist without him. The dabang’s shifting allegiance could make or break fortunes of political parties. Therefore, political parties invest greater energy and resources in recruiting dabangs to their rank. As dabangs exist only because of crisis in formal institutions, his services are open for everyone to hire. The ruling party with its capacity to dispense direct patronage and protection tends to have an edge in being the largest recruiter of dabangs.

In a dabang-oriented democracy three situations commonly are possible. One, where there is dominance of one group and hence of one dabang. Second, where dominance is contested because of the heterogeneity in dabangs. Finally, there are situations where dabangs do not exist. At most polling booths, votes are either shared amicably if balance of power between the contending dabangs, supporting different contestants, is disputed, or cast blatantly in favour of one party where single-party dominance exists. In both instances, the electoral machinery is captured. In areas where dominance is contested, violence sometimes is the only means to resolve the question of electoral supremacy. Violence is also the means to invite repoll and consequently a greater presence of state’s coercive apparatus whose lethal presence makes polling not peaceful but subdued and therefore benefits none. In a scenario where the dabang is absent, voters’ apathy is telling.

At Mathiyani, a village in Bodh Gaya constituency, positioned beside the state highway, only six out of 1,020 eligible votes were polled on February 3. The village did not vote as none of the 16 candidates in fray came campaigning. The village has almost all the castes, from Paswan to Yadav and yet there was no division of opinion. The low turnout was less a protest at being taken for granted than an uninterested response. The village also lacked a dabang.

Can the phenomenon of dabangs threaten the spread of democracy? It possibly can. When a dabang organises votes of local electorates and appropriates in his person the right to poll all votes by himself or with the assistance of his chosen cohorts, gradually apathy to electoral mechanism as means of popular authorisation of the government could take place and genuine electorate participation could decline drastically. At a time when the Supreme Court is advising making a provision for registering ‘none’, presence of the dabang badgers popular opinion. A dabang-engineered polling could be seen as an extension of popular opinion as a whole village might nurture similar political view-point given the caste-based campaigning. But such dabang-engineered polling is certain to give rise to misgivings about the deepening of democracy and popular base of the government and that might finally have a say on the policy decisions. A dabang negates plurality and subjectivity of opinion. It is basically a makeover of the feudal social norm into the electoral arena. But it is also a product of the failure of democracy to deliver constructive leadership. A dabang nurtures a deep-rooted resentment against the exiting debauchery in the present political order. A dabang represents a streak of anti-politics within the arena of electoral politics.

The writer is an independent researcher and this article is written with the support of Charkha Features

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