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Lower castes in Bihar have got political power, not economic progress

The post-Mandal rise of the Yadavs was confined to the electoral domain; it did not have much impact on their socio-economic status

Written by Christophe Jaffrelot , Kalaiyarasan A |
Updated: November 5, 2020 11:00:58 am
Voters stand in long queues to cast their votes at a polling station during the second phase of Assembly elections at Diyara in Danapur (PTI)

Bihar was the first laboratory of positive discrimination in the Hindi belt. The crucible of India’s version of socialism, it initiated ambitious reservation policies as early as the 1970s under Karpoori Thakur and others, including

B P Mandal who belonged to the same school of thought. Another socialist, Lalu Prasad, who joined politics in the context of the JP movement, governed Bihar for 15 years, directly or indirectly and — according to his upper-caste critics — “mandalised” the state. Did he? And has Nitish Kumar, another OBC leader, continued in the same vein?

In fact, in Bihar, political power is with lower castes while economic surplus and bureaucratic rule remain decisively with upper castes. Bihar was certainly the epicentre of the post-1990 “silent revolution” that resulted, across the Hindi belt, in the transfer of power from upper castes to OBCs. In the 1995 elections, OBCs were 44 per cent of the MLAs (including 26 per cent Yadavs), more than twice the proportion of the upper castes, who had always had more MLAs until then. In 2000, in Rabri Devi’s government, OBC ministers represented almost 50 per cent of the total, whereas there were not more than 13 per cent upper castes.

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Similarly, OBCs have benefited from job quotas. After Brahmins and other upper castes, Yadavs did better than any other caste group in jobs according to the Indian Human Development Survey of 2011-12. Ten per cent of them had salaried jobs and Kurmis were not lagging behind as 9 per cent of them had a salaried job. The achievement was a tad more than that of the Dalits, for whom affirmative action policies have been designed 40 years before: In Bihar, 8.9 per cent of Paswans and 7.7 per cent of Jatavs had salaried jobs.

If OBCs have benefited from the so-called “mandalisation” of Bihar in terms of political power and salaried jobs, they have not earned much in other domains. Upper castes continue to compensate for their numerical weakness by their ritual and socio-economic status. They control most of the land in a predominantly rural society — the urbanisation rate in Bihar is 11.3 per cent as of 2011, compared to an all-India rate of 31.2 per cent. The survey conducted by the Institute of Human Development revealed that in 2009, Bhumihars had the highest land per capita (0.56 acres) followed by Kurmis (0.45 acres). Bhumihars owned twice as much land as Yadavs and four times the average land owned by most backward castes.

According to the last round of IHDS, Brahmins topped in average per capita income with Rs 28,093, followed by other upper castes (Rs 20,655), while Kushwahas and Kurmis earned Rs 18,811and Rs 17,835 respectively. In contrast, Yadavs’ income is one of the lowest among OBCs at Rs 12,314, which is slightly less than the rest of OBCs (Rs 12,617) and not much more than the Jatavs (Rs 12,016). Similarly, while the percentage of graduates among Brahmins was 7.5 in 2011-12, followed by 7 per cent among other upper castes, it was only 5.3 per cent among Kurmis, 4.1 per cent among Kushwahas and 3 per cent among Yadavs.

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These data stand in stark contrast with the popular perception of “Yadav Raj” that was propagated after 15 years of the RJD government. Yadavs hardly controlled economic resources in the state despite being the largest caste group at about 15 per cent of the population in the state. In contrast, Kurmis have certainly gained under the Nitish Kumar regime. They are at the top in per capita assets (Rs 13,990), followed by Rs 12,989 for Bhumihars, while the figure for Yadavs at Rs 6,313 is less than half.

Upper castes still have decisive control of state power. While Yadavs have made progress in terms of access to salaried jobs, the bureaucracy in Bihar is still controlled by upper castes. An unpublished doctoral thesis by Poulomi Chakrabarti at Brown University shows that, on average, 74 per cent of the officers recruited to IAS from the state services are from upper castes followed by 11 per cent among OBCs and 4.3 per cent among SCs.

To sum up: The post-Mandal rise of the Yadavs was confined to the electoral domain; it did not have much impact on their socio-economic status. Second, the uneven mobility among OBCs has offered space for upper-caste manoeuvres to co-opt emerging castes within the caste dynamic, preserving the hierarchical caste structure. This tactic has been primarily implemented by the BJP.

In UP, it has found expression in the co-option of non-Yadav OBCs by the BJP. In Bihar, while it has cut down the seats offered to Yadavs to 15 in 2020 from 22 in 2015, the party does not have to start its co-option strategy from scratch as Nitish Kumar has already built a non-Yadav social coalition of extremely backward castes (EBCs) and Mahadalits for the NDA. It is not incidental that both Mukesh Sahani’s Vikassheel Insaan Party and Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha representing EBCs and Mahadalits are in the NDA. Besides this co-option, this year, the JD(U) has nominated 45 non-Yadav OBCs — 17 Koeris, 12 Kurmis and 19 EBCs. To counter this strategy, the RJD, too, has fielded as many as 25 EBC candidates against four in 2015, indicating that the party is going back to its 1995 model when it enjoyed support beyond the Yadav-Muslim combine.

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In parallel, the seat allocation of NDA clearly shows that the BJP is promoting the interests of upper-caste candidates. Of the 110 seats it is contesting, the BJP has nominated upper castes in 51 seats — or 46 per cent — to upper castes who constitute only 16 per cent of Bihar’s population. The BJP is positioned well to facilitate the return of upper castes, who have been impatient since the 1990s to take power back from the subalterns — all the more so as the dark horse, Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), the ally of the NDA at the Centre, has fielded its candidates in most of the seats that the JD(U) is contesting. Interestingly, the Congress’s calculation is similar. Sensing the upper caste retaliation, it has given 33 tickets — around 50 per cent of the 70 seats it is contesting — to upper castes: 11 Bhumihars, nine Rajputs, nine Brahmins and four Kayasthas.

The RJD remains a Yadav party to a great extent as is evident from the number of Yadav candidates — 58 of 144 or 33 per cent of the seats it is contesting. And, of course, both partners can rely on Muslim voters, 17 per cent of the state’s population. After all, 12 Congress candidates and 17 RJD candidates come from this large minority community.

Yet, this year, the RJD may primarily appear as an opposition party par excellence and cash in on the people’s anger with the regime. The state is one of the worst affected by the COVID-19 lockdown. Of its 38 districts, 32 suffer from reverse migration to add to its high unemployment rate.

This article first appeared in the print edition on November 4, 2020 under the title ‘What Mandal missed’. Jaffrelot is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, and professor of Indian politics and sociology at King’s India Institute. Kalaiyarasan is faculty at Institute for Studies in Industrial Development, Delhi

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