In Bihar, how caste shapes politics and governance
What does the Bihar election say about the social balance of power? Though most parties attempted to reach out beyond their core social base, there were some predictable patterns. About half the candidates fielded by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) belonged to the forward castes and, according to the Lokniti-CSDS post-poll, most upper-caste voters supported the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
Half the tickets in the RJD went to Yadavs and Muslims who overwhelmingly voted for it. The Kurmis and Extreme Backward Classes (EBCs) supported the Janata Dal (United). It is no surprise that caste matters in elections, but should it matter in what the sarkar does? Do historical trends teach us something about the kind of policies that the next government is likely to prioritise?
In the first few decades after Independence, the forward castes in the Congress dominated Bihar politics. Upper caste landlords consistently made up more than 40% of the ruling alliance until the 1990 elections. More than a third of the state budget in these decades, perhaps not surprisingly, went into investments in agriculture and irrigation.
An Other Backward Caste (OBC) middle-class began to emerge from the 1950s after the abolition of zamindari and due to the gains of the Green Revolution. As the stronghold of upper caste landlords weakened, Yadavs, Kurmis and Koeris asserted themselves politically. This was first reflected in caste conflict within the Congress.
As Samuel Huntington predicted, the inability of existing institutions to absorb the rising social mobilisation resulted in political chaos. Between 1967 and 1972, Bihar went through nine different changes in government and three periods of President’s Rule.
The decline of the Congress in 1967 created the space for smaller parties to emerge. This period further witnessed the emergence of the Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) movement.
Most contemporary OBC political leaders, including Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar, trace their political career to the JP movement. The first non-Congress government, led by Karpoori Thakur, won in 1977. And, in 1990, the first OBC-majority government led by Prasad assumed power. This election marked an end to upper caste dominance in Bihar.
The RJD’s poor record in governance is no secret. The state’s development expenditure declined in both absolute terms as well as in proportion to its overall budget. As the rest of the country reaped the benefits of economic liberalisation, Bihar’s per capita income declined. But this period proved to be transformational for lower caste empowerment.
For the first time, social justice was explicitly discussed in the state assembly. In fact, about 20% of the policy speeches were devoted to identity-based issues.
Appointment of lower caste officials in positions of power became the key agenda of the government. Based on my primary research, though the higher bureaucracy remained dominated by upper castes, Yadav and Muslim state civil officers were five times more likely to be promoted to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) under the RJD. More importantly, at the local level, the proportion of OBC and Dalit BDOs and SHOs doubled in this period. In the process though, chain of command and official procedures were broken. Power came to be centralised in the Chief Minister’s Office. To avoid perpetuating upper caste dominance in the bureaucracy, positions remain vacant. State capacity deteriorated as a result.
The next 15 years, under Nitish Kumar, represents yet another distinct phase in the state’s politics. A Brahmin CM would be unimaginable in contemporary Bihar, but upper caste representation in the government increased once again under the BJP-JD(U) alliance. According to the data from the Trivedi Centre for Political Data, the proportion of upper castes in 2020 is even higher than the last election. This has implications for policy.
While State capacity during the RJD tenure was low, spending patterns shifted towards social sectors. Under the JD(U)-BJP alliance, the state witnessed a proportional increase in economic spending, with the most dramatic increases in roads. Absolute spending in social sectors too increased, in large part due to greater availability of resources from the Centre.
While it is difficult to predict the policy agenda of the government in the next five years, past trends strongly suggest two outcomes. One, the presence of BJP at both the Centre and the state will help Bihar fiscally through central transfers. And two, a larger share of these resources is likely to be devoted to economic sectors.
Research suggests that greater representation of upper castes leads to sharper focus on growth-oriented, rather than redistributive policies, even after we account for other factors such as political ideology, participation, income, and State capacity.
In short, caste and caste-based representation matter in not just understanding the outcome of elections, but also matter for policy. Who is in power in the state has a bearing on what the state does.