What does caste profile of MLAs in Bihar tell us about politics?

Much has been said about the role caste plays – or not – in Bihar’s electoral politics. Between those who claim that Bihar’s politics is determined entirely by caste and those who hold that caste-party alignments have now become fluid and thus made caste irrelevant in the face of other factors, there is necessarily a large space wherein lies the truth. The data collected before and during the campaign by researchers at the Trivedi Centre for Political Data (TCPD) shows that while certain dominant groups remain over-represented over time, traditional caste-party alignments have changed significantly.

BJP-Congress are mainly upper caste parties, RJD and JD(U) prefer Yadavs and Kurmis

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress are primarily upper caste parties when it comes to distributing ticket. Our data shows that 47.3% of the BJP’s candidates were upper castes, predominantly Rajputs. Banias, who are considered as Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in Bihar, also find substantial representation compared to their demographic weight. The rest of the tickets distributed to OBC candidates are split in half between Yadav and non-Yadav OBCs. The fact that the BJP does not give tickets to Muslims, allows it to maintain the social balance among Hindus.

The Congress distributed 40% of its 70 tickets to upper-caste candidates and 17% to Muslim candidates, again across sub-regions.

The JD(U) continued to favour Kurmis among OBCs but gave equal representation to Yadav candidates. The remaining 25% of tickets given to non-Yadav and non-Kurmi candidates were divided between at least twelve other groups, each receiving a handful.

The RJD remained true to its base by distributing nearly a third of its tickets to Yadav candidates. The remaining 70% was distributed among a large array of castes, chosen according to local demography and local patterns of dominance. 12.5% of its tickets were given to Muslim candidates, across most sub-regions.

See Chart 1: Caste-wise break-up of candidates and MLAs of RJD-BJP-JD(U) and Congress

Bihar has 52% first time MLAs, but this did not affect the caste profile much

Our analysis shows that despite half of the assembly constituencies changing hands this time and majority of the MLAs being first-timers, the caste profile of the assembly has not changed radically. To be sure, there is an increase in the share of upper caste MLAs (23.9% to 29.2%) and fall in share of OBCs (48.6% to 40.7%) compared to 2015. The rise in share of upper castes is largely a function of improvement in the BJP’s performance.

See Chart 2: Long-term trend of social composition of Bihar assembly

Yadavs have lost share, but they are still the biggest group among OBCs

Not only has the RJD succeeded in getting majority of its Yadav candidates elected (26 out of 44), 16 other Yadav candidates affiliated to six different parties were also elected. While their overall representation in the Assembly has decreased – in the 2015 election, one MLA out of four was a Yadav – they still nearly make up the majority of OBC representation in the House. The simple fact that Yadav candidates find substantial representation in two major parties (as has been shown above) in addition to the RJD ensures that their presence and, indeed, domination in the Assembly and local politics remains unchallenged.

See Chart 3: Long-term composition of OBC MLAs across sub-castes in Bihar

Among upper castes, Rajputs are the biggest block in the assembly, and their total share; the highest ever at 52%, is more than that of other three major upper-caste groups: Brahmins, Bhumihars and Kayasthas.

See Chart 4: Long-term composition of upper caste MLAs in Bihar

Even if some old caste-party alignments subsist, there is more fluidity in inter-caste competition in Bihar than meets the eye. But the stability of representational patterns comes from the fact that caste-based representation of dominant groups is not completely determined by the performance of the parties that are meant or expected to represent them. Regardless of which party wins or loses, they find their way to the assembly.

This has wide-ranging implications for those who remain excluded from that kind of politics. The inclusive strategy that most parties claim to follow in Bihar does not ultimately translate into substantial political empowerment of non-dominant groups, which remain fragmented and divided. This is how inclusion obfuscates the resilience of dominance in local politics.

(Gilles Verniers is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University, Co-director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data and Visiting Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. Basim U Nissa, who collected the data, is Research Fellow at TCPD. Due to the pandemic, the data was collected remotely and verified by cross-checking multiple sources. Errors cannot be completely ruled out. Mohit Kumar and Neelesh Agrawal also contributed to the data. )

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