A small note on liberal buoyancy
As Trump probably clutches the golden curtains of the White House in a desperate attempt to not vacate the office, the Indian liberal class’ buoyance to the exit poll predictions of Bihar’s election is not to be dismissed in a light manner. There are not many things that link Bihar and the U.S. organically except perhaps a very old joke on an imaginary meeting between Laloo Prasad Yadav and the then president, Bill Clinton. The joke is not even funny any longer but for those who have forgotten it, it went like this: if Laloo and Bill were left locked in a room for a month with each other, it was believed or rather hoped that Laloo would emerge from this one-month seclusion speaking impeccable English. The joke’s punchline was that Clinton almost mastered his non-existing Bhojpuri in that period.
(screenshot of image taken from https://thedailyguardian.com/understanding-the-caste-factor-in-bihar-elections/)
The nature of election campaigning done by NDA in Bihar 2020 election was mostly around the concerns of the Jungle Raj – the tag that ‘defines’ Laloo’s era in Bihar. Not being able to speak English was part of that concern. The shame and mockery characterised the response of Biharis when confronted with, what at that time, seemed modern. In particular, the middle class of the 1990s did not know where to look at. They were caught in the whirlpool of aspirations pedalled by the characters of Raj and Rahul who grew up in London and romanced in Switzerland, but somehow felt dumped in the league of Raja Hindustanis and Raja Babus whose lives were sown in the tiny and teeny distance from angna to duwari.
There was of course a class and caste basis to designating that period as Jungle Raj. A very interesting discussion took place on The Wire a few days ago questioning not the politics of the period only but ways of remembering as well. And this caste- and class-based aversion has had a long afterlife. The repeated mention of the Jungle Raj during the campaigning was done precisely to reinvent the wheels of the fear of the past. Obviously, the present had nothing substantial of its own to make a case for itself.
As pundits and ground reporters have shown and argued in the last few days, this fear did not work. Fair enough. I would tend to agree that in the subsequent phases of the campaign, the RJD’s campaign focus did well to not let the dirt of the Jungle Raj stick on them. This was in spite of the fact that its lead (and sole) campaigner Tejashwi Yadav was put under this question by almost every anchor and journalist who got the chance to interview him. This has led a sizeable section of these pundits to declare a set of claims, which I find best to list for the sake of clarity:
1. Places like Bihar and U.P have incorrigibly and since ‘time immemorial’ fought elections on the basis of caste equations.
2. That this mode of approaching the electorate through caste is a sign of backwardness.
3. Bihar 2020 election, because of the primacy given to rozgaar (employment), signifies a new era of politics in Bihar.
4. The nature of this new politics is post-caste. Caste-agnostic is one term I came across on Twitter, which really caught my imagination.
5. There is a large demography of first-time voters in Bihar who wish to look beyond both caste and Jungle Raj.
This note has no self-acclaimed value of an astrologer’s prediction but reinventing the wheels of the past could be as misleading as pedalling a new futuristic myth. With a sobering glance at these well-intentioned propositions, their hollowing limits might appear visible.
In particular, I am reminded of the corporate and media buoyancy between 2010 and 2014, when similar arguments were made before the national elections of 2014. Did we not hear then from mainstream media anchors and opinion makers that India has a young demography whose more than half of the voting population is born after 1992. That they cared little for the politics of mandir and masjid; all they aspired for was development and prosperity.
In hindsight, it appears that these pundits were a little too quick and forgetful of the fact that the shifts in the electorate’s behaviour in any particular election is not a guarantee to structural shifts in ways politics itself is organised, crafted, and now in the age of ‘godi-media’ literally sold. If at all there is any merit in predicting politics, we might see the national 2024 elections fought precisely on the notion of ‘Hindu pride’. The nation will witness the construction of a grand temple whose foundation stone has already been laid. The faith will consolidate in the cradle of politics whose ideological construction took a flight after the 1992 demolition. So much for a generation that was raised dreaming of H1B1 visa! (Those who view this desire for visa in conflict with flourishing of politicised faith will make the same mistake as a majority of pundits did before 2014 election).
Now, more particularly on the relationship between caste and Bihar. I still struggle to understand one fundamental thing: if caste is a social living reality of not only Bihar but of many other places and regions within India, then why should elections be not fought on the basis of caste? In case of Bihar, I particularly feel that the region has been ‘externalised’ on the notion of caste. Is caste really not a factor in other regions of the country, especially in the ‘progressive’ south which is littered with IT parks? In a country where people chose their life partners on the basis of caste (in fact sub-castes), why does it offend us so much when they also chose their political representatives on the same basis? For those who genuinely say both are wrong, and there are many of them, I sincerely respect their view. But that idealism does not give us much handle to understand the reality of the everyday and the role of caste in it.
A part of this line of questioning is indeed rhetorical but the reason behind it is to drive home a simple point that economic development (rozgaar, for instance) and caste are not necessarily two mutually opposite ends of lived social reality for a majority of people. An election mudda of rozgaar neither obliterates the possibilities of caste-based politics nor does it necessarily make them ‘backward’. The externalisation of caste onto a region is a product of a blatant homogenous thinking that divides spaces along ‘modern’ and ‘backward’. The argument goes here in circle: a region is backward because it thinks through caste; and because the people of that region think through caste, they are backward. No wonder good roads and long bridges fail to straighten the line of that circle!
Further, this externalisation of caste as a symptom of backwardness (of people and region) while accepting its presence in lived reality, caters to another myth when this line of argument is imposed on the political imagination of the people belonging to these regions. It unveils a continuous process of claim-making that urban/modern/upper caste/upper class/educated people are ‘casteless’. The liberal sentiments latch on to this view thus inadvertently othering the caste itself while trying to criticise casteism.
If social deprivation, dispossession, and lack of human dignity works around the notions of caste in everyday life, then the vehicle of any brand of politics that promises to alleviate this social situation must also necessarily address the question of caste. In course of that, if it has morphed into a tool of mobilisation without any gainful results (and in many cases it did so), then is the problem lying in the caste-based kind of politics or in the intention and design of those who turned it into the formula of ‘social engineering’ for electoral purposes?
The question, perhaps a more relevant one, is then this: can the historical reality of caste and its constant mutating nature (due to politics, migration, aspirations, resistance) be itself harnessed as a tool of ‘liberal politics’? Rather than seeing it as an anti-thesis of liberal values which has led to a kind of celebration that for the first time Bihar has done a post-caste voting, can it become the vehicle of egalitarian politics without the pitfalls of externalisation and negation? Even anecdotally, we would accept that the nature of employment, household, migration, rural-urban linkages, gender relations, and other parameters in which everyday power and authority reside have changed in the last thirty years or so. Must have then caste also mutated its form and loci either to remain relevant as a set of practices that shape social relationships or as a form of identity that becomes electorally relevant.
In the current long-wave of global populism and elected authoritarianism, it is all very well understandable, and in fact desirable, that the fall of a Trump or his equivalent becomes a matter of rejoice. However, the liberal tendency to make quick and pious predictions are perhaps needed to be taken with a handful of salt. If one election can wipe out the relevance, significance, and distortion of caste-based politics so easily, then hola! I am eagerly waiting to enter into this dawn of new age with my favourite single-malt by my side, and with a song playing in the background: hum to thehre pardesi…