Two Talks: Bihar Elections, Caste-Based Affirmative Action

Intellectual life at Jawaharlal Nehru University is on fire. One usually never needs to venture off campus to get food for thought. After submitting three tutorials and a rough draft of two thousand words, I had some breathing space to attend many talks this past week. Four of them were especially interesting and I will reproduce some of the points below of the two which are most related: Bihar elections and Affirmative Action in India. Another post on informal labor and feminist organizing in India will follow soon after. Please note that I did not use a recording device and sometimes left early. This blog post is my takeaway of the talks. Readers can always find the people's original works to follow up on their opinions.

Public meeting at a mess in JNU, Prof. AK Ramakrishnan (the content of that meeting is not discussed in this post)

I went to a panel discussion on Bihar politics. I have also been drawn to this issue because two friends from Bihar, Abhay and Kishlay, are politically conscious youths from Bihar and have been closely following the events. I was puzzled by the extent to which politicians with constituents outside of Bihar even had to make the decision whether or not to enter the state election campaign. One friend said that the elections in Bihar had a coattail effect, akin to that of the president elections in the U.S. 
In acknowledging of this influence, The moderator / chair Prof. Manindranath Thakur said quite aptly that nowadays, most scholars now look to Bihar to understand Indian electoral politics. There are roughly four stages of Bihar politics, from 1952-1967, the Congress Party dominated the scene. From 1967 to 1972, the Congress Party was still central but had to form coalition governments with other parties. From 1972 to 1990, Congress Party had a comeback wile the chief minister changed with a volatile trend. Since 1990 to now, Bihar politics has been dominated by OBC activism by folksy and later corrupt politician Lalu Prasad Yadav and his party Janata Dal, later RJD. Before 1995 there were no special Dalit booths and afterwards their voter turnout increased significantly. Initially Lalu and Nitish Kumar started in politics together, then they split for decades with Nitesh heading the Janata Dal-United (JDU). Now BJP poses a larger threat in the region for this coming election and Nitish Kumar and Lalu have joined arms again against BJP and its NDA coalition. 

Among the four panelists, political analyst Ajit Kumar Jha gave one of the most forthright opinion on the matter. Unlike the elections in 1995, when only 1 survey poll was done by him and Yogendra Yadav, this year there have been around 10 survey polls. Only 3 of the 10 polls indicated that they favored the other parties over BJP. Thus Mr. Jha does not think the secular bloc can stop Modi, not because Modi is strong but because the previous government has bankrupted many constituents' goodwill. Mr. Jha sees Nitish Kumar frantically copying the styles of Narendra Modi's campaign, such as spending large sums on campaigning. Nitish has also built large museums like Modi, while Mr. Jha thinks it would have been better spent on infrastructure for his campaign. But Nitish has not established a successful campaign equivalent to Modia's Smart City for the village-dominated Bihar. Agriculture performance has been dismal and thus constitutes little leverage. Furthermore, according to his poll stats, more and more Dalits and upper castes are voting for the BJP. 

More reading

"Bihar politics is like Game of Thrones. There are no ideologies, no principles and certainly no ethics. Its pure politics, unadulterated and unsparing to the weak."

Ruled or Misruled: Story and Destiny of Bihar
by Santosh Singh
"Ruled or Misruled offers a 360 degree journey of Bihar politics since Independence, especially since the Congress’ downfall in 1990. An out and out reporter’s book, tells an interesting and tumultuous journey of the post-1990 legends of Bihar politics - Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad, Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitan Ram Manjhi with the legendary clash between Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi - with the untold version on the 2010 dinner cancellation and Nitish’s ambition, providing the third angle."
So how does the panel relate to the second talk I went to? Caste reservations and caste identity politics, such as the one we see in Bihar, go hand in hand. Many elites and middle class believe that caste politics have ruined Bihar. They often conflate the loud and seemingly rough politicians with the policies, and charge at caste reservations as ways of currying favor. But Professor Ashwini Deshpande's talk on affirmative action in India gives a nuanced and contextual study of Scheduled Castes and Other Backward caste reservations to debunk many of the myths held by the mainstream. In her words, "Everyone has an opinion [about Affirmative Action] but there are few rigorous studies."

Here is a breakdown of the several arguments she responds to and counters.

Common Argument 1: The benefits don't reach the poorest of the poor. 
Yes, that's true. But Affirmative Action is not an anti-poverty program, it only aims for public sector jobs and colleges. To get there they are already the privileged within their backward caste. It won't solve all caste inequalities, but Affirmative Action desegregates the elite and that is a huge development.

Common Argument 2: Job efficiency lowers after introducing Affirmative Action
Her study with Weisskopff of University of Michigan Does Affirmative Action Affect Productivity in the Indian Railways proves otherwise.

Common Argument 3: If lower castes do not get in with the same merit, their confidence decreases while their sense of inferiority increases.
The Shape of the River is a book about African Americans who were accepted in elite universities (Princeton and Ann Arbor); they said despite initial difficulties, it was worth it. Many college graduates reflected that they would go again even if they knew ahead of time about the humiliation they had to face.

Common Argument 4: The clustering effects bring the more privileged backward castes the benefits and positions, while replacing the economically poor upper castes. It's a regressive policy.
Empirical studies on the Indian case (Bertrand et al 2010) showed that in an engineering exam, the Dalits who got in the school were significantly better off than the other Dalits who didn't get in, while the upper castes who didn't get in sought other opportunities and were not so different than the upper caste students who enrolled. Thus the policy is not regressive.

Common Argument 5: Affirmative Action reinforces caste divisions rather than weaken them, such as the Patel agitation.
After the Right to Education Act, there have been reservations based on economic class as well. But the elites continue to complain. In Deshpande's opinion, having to share privilege is the main problem for these elites. 
One important point she made was that many discussions of caste reservations pertain only to the lower caste. The people under general category sounds like they don't have castes, while they do indeed benefit for being Brahmins or Kshatryias. 

I am very heartened to see defenders of progressive policies such as Prof. Deshpande. The same arguments are made by Chinese in the mainland against minorities as well as recent Chinese immigrants in countries that have even more progressive Affirmative Action policies. I hope that there would be more studies similar to Deshpande's angle done on minorities in mainland China as well.

More Reading:
Her book Affirmative Action in India. OUP, Oxford India Short Introductions series, 2013.