Modern zamindari

Abysmal, tragic, rotten, archaic, misgoverned - these are only some of the terms used to describe Bihar. And that's by those who live there. But the people of Bihar are slowly turning the politics of the region on its head.

In the Hindi heartland, where north India meets east India, the democracy that is India is facing one of its most intriguing challenges, as Bihar goes to the polls. Often perceived as representing the worst in Indian governance, the state is characterised by complex social stratification, economic backwardness, and the comatose condition of its public institutions. The fact that identity has emerged as the essential basis for political mobilisation in Bihar has further added to the complexity.

It is ironic that the structures of state would be on the verge of collapse in a region where attempts were made to institutionalise the territory's control and social life as early as the 6th century BC. While its remarkably deep history makes Bihar's present all the more tragic, it is to modern history that we need to turn to understand why the people of the state find themselves in the situation they do today.

Most of the rampant stereotypes about Bihar's underdevelopment are actually true. The state is marked by deep-rooted poverty, little opportunity for upward mobility, a dismal education system, and a sky-high crime rate; extortion in particular has emerged as a major industry. All this is coupled with an unresponsive and corrupt civil administration. For nearly a half-century, Bihar has been consistent in one respect: poor ranking on almost all major social and economic indices. Education remains, simply put, a dead loss. With the great schools and colleges of the past having lost all strength and credibility, anyone who can afford it sends their charges to Delhi, Calcutta or elsewhere, as long as it is outside of Bihar. With young Bihari men and women clearing the country's most prestigious entry-level civil service exams year after year, it is obvious that the problems of Bihar lie not with its people.

The rotten state of Bihar's roads provides a window into the state's abysmal physical infrastructure. The lack of productive employment pushes unorganised labour to the metropolises in western India, Delhi and Calcutta, while organised labour within the state is used as cannon-fodder by the various political parties. The professional class in Patna is skeletal, with the best and the brightest having evacuated. A heavily compromised bureaucracy and judiciary are used to uphold the status quo. Faced with such a wall of inadequacy in governmental institutions, the people have decided to tune out and live their lives as best they can – in the manner of their ancestors, who similarly did not expect help from the state.

What little industrial base Bihar had was wrested away with the creation of Jharkhand State in November 2000. There is next to no mechanisation in the agriculture of a populous region inhabited by peasantry. Land reforms never took place in a sustained manner; the modem system of land controls remains archaic.

While there has been increased democratic participation by previously marginalised sections in the wake of the 'Mandal revolution', grassroots democracy and local self-government are almost non-existent. The last local panchayat elections happened in 2001, after a gap of more than two decades. Remarkably, the state's low economic development and welfare parameters never seem to figure as even minor issues in electoral politics. The apathy of the urban middle class, together with the strong parochial voting patterns, are enough to derail the system of regular elections as a means of providing good governance. In Bihar, elections have come to mean getting someone from your caste into the seat of power – be it a Yadav, a Bhumiyar, a Rajput or a Kurmi.

Looking Back

With the onset of colonial rule, Bihar became a part of the Calcutta Presidency and was subjected to economic exploitation along with most of the rest of Southasia. Unlike the other comparatively enlightened administrations of the maharajas of Baroda, Mysore and Gwalior, the princely states and zamindaris in Bihar seemed to have paid little attention to education. These elites, who remained in place as long as they paid revenue first to 'Company Bahadur' and then to the Crown, took no initiative in establishing cross-cultural centres of learning. Therefore, there were no traditional launch pads for modern education like in Allahabad, Benaras, Calcutta or Mysore.

The strong nationalist movement set in motion against colonialism was nurtured to a large extent in Bihar. Two particular personalities were key to the evolution of the region's political consciousness, and for bringing it into the national political milieu. When Mahatma Gandhi led a movement of indigo farmers in Bihar between 1916 and 1918 to protest an oppressive revenue system, he gave strength to the newfound sense of national integration. Rajendra Prasad, later independent India's first president, subsequently gave that energy concrete shape by building and strengthening the pan-Indian Congress Party in the state.

Along with the rest of the country, elections were held in Bihar in 1952. Until 1963, Bhumihars and upper-caste Brahmins dominated the representation in the Legislative Assembly and the executive branch. Caste subsequently began to emerge as an emotional, politicised issue, laying the groundwork for its future exploitation by politicians of all backgrounds – including the energetic assertion by the backward castes during the past two decades. Because the Bhumihars and Brahmins used caste as a strategy of electoral mobilisation from the late-1950s until the 1970s, it set in motion the use of parochial identities for electoral purposes by other communities, as they gained their own voices and confidence.

Failed revolution

While the decade leading up to the early-1970s witnessed political ferment both at the national and state levels, it was in Bihar that there emerged the first real movement against the Congress Party hegemony at the Centre and in the states. The increasing disillusionment with Indira Gandhi, reflected in student protests, coalesced around one particular person – who had character, commitment and a theoretical mind given to practical exhortations. That was Jay Prakash Narayan. Born in Sitabdiara in Bihar, 'JP' was a left-leaning Congressman who later became a Gandhian and challenged Indira Gandhi's autocratic proclivities. His actions instigated the latter to impose the Emergency of 1975-78, but he also helped to setup the first non-Congress government at the national level, that of the Janata Party. However, JP was also a very keen observer of Bihar, active in an entire arena from political mobilisation of the peasantry, to organising flood relief.

JP's movement centred on an ideological mix of individual liberty and devolution of power. For what he called (with some hyperbole) 'Total Revolution', he sought to mobilise students and youth, particularly in Bihar and Gujarat, to protest, oppose and launch a street movement against the Congress government. The 1972-73 economic crises, massive unemployment, and tenuous relations between the labour unions and the government (as reflected in a runaway railway strike in 1974), provided a ripe context for JP's anti-establishment dissent. While the declaration of Emergency soon after saw all opposition leaders in prison, the traces of Total Revolution remained.

This movement has had a deep impact on Bihar's politics, with reverberations being felt to this day. The leading lights of many of the current political combines – Laloo Yadav of the Rashtriya Janta Dal (RJD), Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United), and Sushil Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – all began their political careers under the auspices of the Total Revolution. JP's struggle, admired by many, had the effect of setting off a chain-reaction of half-baked ideas, while ushering a volatile mass of students into politics. In retrospect, there was little in the form of socioeconomic programmes proposed by the ageing, ailing, semi-retired JP or his followers; all that kept the forces together was the negative rhetoric whipped-up against Indira Gandhi and her state of emergency. Bihar is still reeling from the tragedy of a Total Revolution that was transformed into Total Failure.

Boss Laloo

Laloo Prasad Yadav, India's current Railway Minister, has been the boss of Bihar, directly and vicariously, for 15 long years. He was a formidable product of JP's movement. Then a student leader, Yadav emerged as the state's chief minister in 1990. He competed for political power at a time when national politics was marked by a resurgence of identity politics, and political mobilisation was based on caste and religion. Both the Shah Bano court case – the controversial litigation of a widow seeking maintenance that had orthodox Muslim leaders agitated – as well as the Mandal Commission report, providing reservations to the Other Backward Castes (OBCs), had deeply polarised the country as a whole. Communal riots during this period in Bhagalpur further created an environment of religion-based politics.

It was in this context that Yadav evolved his approach to electoral politics by focusing on two things: the assertion of identities of backward castes, as defined in opposition to the 'forward castes'; and securing the Muslim vote. This Muslim-Yadav (or 'MY') combination, appealing to a third of the state's population, was Yadav's core support-base. Muslims were successfully weaned away from the Congress. The Yadays were coalesced solidly behind him, along with other backward castes such as Kurmis. The massive majority he received in the 1995 elections reconfirmed his stature based on this political arithmetic.

For eight years, the Laloo Yadav formula worked – even as the state's education, health, public works and power supply collapsed under his command. But in mid-1997, the fodder scam struck, with accusations that bureaucrats and politicians had siphoned off unimaginable amounts of money meant for animal husbandry in the state. Being among the prime accused, an increasingly insecure and isolated Yadav tapped his own wife, Rabri Devi, to hold down the political fort and become chief minister. He himself concentrated on fighting his legal battles.

But the magic was already gone. The ultimate irony was to come around the 2000 state elections, after which the Congress supported Rabri (and her spouse) in forming the Patna government. Bihar thus saw Yadav – the former upper-caste baiter and Congress-hater – become the new power-thirsty collaborator with the former enemy party. The previous battle-lines were obliterated; fresh ones were drawn; and who exactly were the friends and foes was redefined. The notion of forward and backward castes as homogeneous vote-blocs was shattered. Brahmins and Bhumihars were divided among themselves, voting for Congress, BJP and JD (U). While Laloo Yadav had retained the majority Yadav vote, other regional leaders managed to break in and carve out a base for themselves among Yadays. Nitish Kumar emerged as a formidable Kurmi leader. Dalits split between Laloo and Ram Vilas Paswan. Among Muslims, the vote divided between Yadav, Paswan and the Congress Party.


The February 2005 elections resulted in a hung Legislative Assembly in Patna, paving the way for a fresh round of polls, currently underway (see box). Already, they have confirmed some political trends. The national parties (Congress and the BJP) now appear to be finished as powers in the state of Bihar, and require the regional parties to support them to maintain any pretence of influence. Laloo Yadav's hold on the backward castes has also generally weakened. He is now identified only as the leader for the Yadays. Muslims too are no longer exclusively devoted to his RJD party.

Most importantly, however, the February elections revealed that local politics in Bihar are now well entrenched in its own right; no longer are local politics a secondary appendage to the political zamindars, such as Laloo Yadav or Nitish Kumar. The idea of transferable vote-banks also seems to be over; no longer can the leaders handpick candidates for particular regions without considering the local electorate. Laloo has recently been observed bending over backwards for his party workers – hosting a series of 'tea parties' at his home and issuing public apologies to them. As forced and as late as this evolution may be, such changes do symbolise a process of deeper democratisation in Bihar.

But the state's current electoral cycle has also made it clear that political battles will continue to be fought along social lines. The entry into Bihar's politics of Mayawati, the former chief minister from Uttar Pradesh who commands a sizeable Dalit vote in north and central India, is symbolic of the possibilities of yet more political alignment and social alliances in the state.

Bihar's ongoing social engineering and identity assertion will continue, as will the cycle of social conflict. More groups, as they realise the potency of their numbers, will see the advantages of voting as an organised bloc. Ten years ago, Bhumihars and Brahmins fought the upcoming Yadays in democratic elections. Today, it is the Yadays versus the Kurmis, Paswans, Dalits and Other Backward Castes. Not too far in the future, it might be the Kurmis and Paswans versus the lowest of the low castes. Bihar's political and social reality, it seems, will remain the complex web that it has been for so much of its recent past.

Analysts and observers generally have given up hope on Bihar. But the state's people themselves are slowly coming to terms with their politics, utilising it to progress forward. Even while the rest of the world smiles patronisingly at Bihar and looks away, the Biharis themselves are on their way to doing away with the political zamindars who inherited a state from the feudal zamindars of old. A churning is underway in which personality-based politics have led to caste- and community-based politics; but this too will pass. The final success will be achieved when the zamindars are no more. Then, political bosses like Laloo Prasad Yadav – even for all that he may have done for the people of Bihar, perhaps unknowingly – will be a character of the past.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian