Very few books on poverty in India are as nuanced as Indrajit Roy’s Politics of the poor: Negotiating Democracy in Contemporary India. From its very first page, Roy has his readers agog when he informs them that “the world is richer than it has been at any time in recorded history”.

This observation sets the stage for the relational perspective of poverty adopted in the book, which compels us to appreciate how poverty and inequality are enmeshed. Thus, even as the proportion of people living under US$2 a dollar a day is declining, the share of the bottom half in the world’s wealth is also falling. And yet, as Roy reminds us, more people live in democracies than ever before.

Coalitions and conflicts

What does living in a democracy mean for the poor? Roy answers this question by drawing on ethnographic evidence from the Indian States of Bihar and West Bengal. Democracy is of course not only about elections and institutional checks and balances: it is a relationship of equality and membership in the political community.

After outlining the broader context of democracy and development in India, Roy introduces us to an array of people in rural parts of these States and how they assert their equality, emphasise their membership in the political community, and navigate politicians, bureaucrats and social elites. The cast of characters readers will meet is staggering, and necessary, to understand the complex ways in which democracy makes meaning to rural Indians, some of who are among the poorest people on the planet.

A major achievement of the book is that it demonstrates the dynamic ways in which poor people negotiate democracy. The very same people who “supplicate” for Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards in Chapter 4 “demand” employment under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) in Chapter 5, “dispute” their elected ward member’s decisions in Chapter 6, and “imagine” an egalitarian world while claiming their local temple to be a public place in Chapter 7. The nature of public policy matters, of course: targeted social policy spawns deference while generalised policy prompts universal claims couched in the vocabularies of rights, citizenship and humanity.

Nevertheless, Roy is careful not to reduce poor people’s claims to the vagaries of state policy. And herein lies, in my opinion, the book’s most exciting contribution. Roy operates with a three-class model (more on that below) that constitutes: (i) entrenched classes: those at the top of the regional political economy; (ii) precarious classes: those in the middle; and (iii) the poor, or those at the bottom.

Coalitions and conflicts between these three classes shape what Roy calls the “political space” in the study locations. The poor, on their part, make what use they can of the social coalitions and conflicts within which they are embedded. They seek coalitions with the other classes, and navigate conflicts between the entrenched and the precarious classes.

Three-class model

The book’s empirical chapters bring these coalitions and conflicts to life. In West Bengal’s Rahimpur village (name changed), the poor found allies in the entrenched classes against the precarious classes. In Bihar’s Sargana village (name changed), by contrast, they aligned with the precarious classes against the entrenched classes. In both these villages, we see that poor people’s politics are more assertive, more confident.

Roy is careful to note the differences though: where the poor are enmeshed in alliances with the entrenched classes, their claims are confident, but subject to many limitations. However, where they are in alliance with the precarious classes, their negotiations are more assertive. They may not always bear fruit, but they are subject to fewer limitations.

Roy contrasts these cases by highlighting cases from the two States where the poor are marginalised by a coalition of entrenched and precarious classes. Here, claims are relatively meeker since they know they barely have a chance of being heard. The thick descriptions of coalitions and conflicts persuade us to pay careful attention to social dynamics that are full of surprising possibilities. They offer insights into what social coalitions work best for the poor and which ones don’t.

Although top-bottom coalitions against the middle may work for the poor in the short-run, they do little to change fundamental power hierarchies. Middle-bottom coalitions against those at the top take time, but when they do emerge, they fundamentally rupture power hierarchies, enabling the poor to live lives of dignity suggests Roy.

Finally, some thoughts on the value of the three-class model that Roy develops. While the nomenclature, definition and rationales may be hotly debated, the definition of class in terms of labour relations and caste status is innovative and important. The idea of entrenched classes tells us of the solidarity between caste considered higher and pure.

This innovation departs from merely observing the intersection of class and caste, which is increasingly commonplace, but emphasises how caste constitutes class in the Indian context. Roy defines class to account for the specificity of caste: thus, Dalit / Adivasi / OBC capitalists and Savarna capitalists belong to different classes (the former is precarious while the latter is entrenched), just as Bahujan subsistence peasants and Savarna subsistence peasants are not considered part of the same class formation.

Roy’s three class model can be problematised and contrasted with the case of Uttar Pradesh where BSP has had a difficult relationship with dominant lower castes like Yadavs – nevertheless it is an important argument to ponder on. This fundamentally Ambedkarite-Lohiaite understanding of class makes the book’s insights on poverty and inequality in India extremely refreshing and relevant to Indian realities and opens new directions for the study of social class in India.

Suryakant Waghmore is Professor of Sociology at IIT Bombay.

Politics of the Poor: Negotiating Democracy in Contemporary India, Indrajit Roy, Cambridge University Press.