Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Peering Through The Telescope of Bihar Elections

When will caste system wither away: peering through the telescope of Bihar elections
by Ratnakar Tripathy


When will caste system wither away? This is the one question about the Indian society that has me stumped – I don’t even know how to begin to answer it. Way back as a callow Marxist when my campus mentors assured us that one day the state, the classes and inequality will wither away into the horizon like an aeroplane dissolving into the clouds on its flight, it seemed so trifling to ask the question – when? In thirty years, fifty years, five hundred years? But the suppressed question grew bigger in size over the months and finally disillusioned me of the empty rhetoric. The withering idea stayed as a nebulous dream which is how it should be.


As for the withering of the caste system, the answer came to me not from the tomes written by sociologist stalwarts but from a lay source in my late 30s when a twenty two year old cousin confided to me that he wanted to marry a girl outside the caste. His main argument was plain love of course. But he came up with a backup, a grand heroic defence to recruit me on his side. Aware of my radical inclinations he said the only way the caste system will come to an end is when boys and girls begin to marry out of love and defy their parents. The idea was so vivid! It conjured up images of a Musahar boy with his future Brahmin in laws in a living room or a Bhumihar family fussing over a Yadav bride to be over a well-laid table.

The trouble with many seminal institutions is they do not abolish or evaporate. They cannot even be removed through surgery. They just change, modify and transform, at times unrecognizably so which is when you may consider them abolished. Let me illustrate – just thirty years ago a Brahmin in my village in Champaran, Bihar could catch hold of a Dalit and beat him up at will without reason. Today it is unthinkable. In fact I enjoy great camaraderie with my sharecropper Chamar friend Bansi who calls me ‘bhaiya’, again unthinkable in my childhood, and I pre-empt his feet-touching by hugging him without an iota of condescension. As for commensality, Bansi never allows me to leave his doorsteps without a cup of tea and glucose biscuits every time I visit his household. I would be the first one to admit the enormity of change but I will also readily admit that this is not good enough. Brahmins and Dalits in my village do not sit together for a meal whether ceremonial or just plain celebratory. Clearly, social changes have not happened as fast as I would like them to. On the other hand they have indeed happened.

To come to the main business of the day, namely the Bihar elections, they are being fought with the passion and the desperation of a parliamentary election. Incredible as it may seem, having addressed four rallies in Bihar, Narendra Modi will attend a dozen more in the coming days. The Bihar arena has brought all kinds of parties into the fray – Owaisi from MIM is here, Mulayam’s SP is here, Sharad Pawar’s NCP is here, and quite incredibly Shiv Sena is also here. So what the heck is going on? And why so much global attention to poor little Bihar

The first thing one notices is the competitive mobilization of castes, sub-castes and communities through a process of micro-management never seen before – and this is common to both the NDA as well as the Nitish-Laloo alliance. I use the prefix ‘micro’ here because of two clear cut reasons. The mobilization has reached the sub-caste levels unheard of earlier. A good example is the consolidation of the relatively small Nishad community, mostly boatmen and fishermen comprising above twenty sub castes, named specifically in their manifestos and rallies. Isn’t that a lesson in Indian sociology? The numerically smaller and localized castes are now turning into substantial chunks to get due political attention. Does this remind you of the Patidar leader from Gujarat Hardik Patel trying to forge alliances with Kurmis all the way across in Barabanki, UP.?

The second factor may be the shadowy war rooms run by the BJP and the JDU, war rooms with hundreds of nameless ghost-like employees touring the countryside and also manning the computer hubs where data gets crunched on daily basis. Perhaps the only difference between the two set ups is – while the BJP’s outlook and stance is that of the upper castes, the JD[U]-RJD combine is clearly middle caste led, which also has enormous ideological implications. 

In this geography and demography of elections, there is little general talk of districts and constituencies – scientific precision dictates the party workers to talk in terms of polling booths, mohalla, lanes, and families, nothing less. Centralized planning also dictates that all this data should be available in the little rooms in Patna on excel sheets.

These are the main reasons why the two forces NDA and Nitish-Laloo alliance are running neck to neck in Bihar. This is also the reason why the Caste versus development rhetoric in the national press makes little sense. This is all about caste AND development – this is how the voter looks at the whole matter.  Nitish and Modi both talk of development incessantly with one major difference at both explicit and sub-liminal levels. Nitish speaks of development as a right, while Modi talks of it as a gift showered from the Delhi skies. But we do not know yet how much the common voter cares for this philosophical difference.

1 comment:

average joe said...

"Nitish speaks of development as a right, while Modi talks of it as a gift showered from the Delhi skies"brilliantly explains the difference. You have a way with words.