The one untold story of the Bihar election is that the anguish arising from nostalgia for the past and the anxieties about the future drive the Upper Caste to rally behind the Bharatiya Janata Party. Lacking the numbers to counter the assertion of Other Backward Classes and still perceived as exploiters to have lower castes band with them, the Upper Caste is unmindful of electoral strategies such as religious polarisation, hate rhetoric and fictionalisation of history to stoke caste pride (claiming that emperor Ashoka was a Kushwaha is an example) for creating a governing majority for themselves.

What is true of Bihar is perhaps also true of the Hindi heartland, particularly Uttar Pradesh. Indeed, the divisive edge of Indian polity will not be blunted unless the Upper Caste learns to tackle its anxiety-anguish and political parties address the nervousness that dogs its members. Obviously, attempts to reconcile the Upper Caste to the changing democratic reality of India can’t be at the expense of social justice, regardless of the many meanings this term has acquired.

This isn’t to say the Upper Caste is a homogeneous entity. Not only do economic disparities divide them, their members also subscribe to a multiplicity of ideas ranging from left-liberal to rightwing communal. If from their ranks were drawn members of the Ranvir Sena, they have also produced important communist and socialist leaders in Bihar. For long, they have been the advocates of the culture of pluralism and tolerance. Stereotyping them is as removed from reality as it is with that of any community.

That said, it is true that nostalgia about the dominance they enjoyed in the past persists among large sections of the Upper Caste, particularly among those settled in rural India. In their narrative, “the past”, to borrow the novelist LP Hartley’s remark, “is a foreign country; they do things differently there”. It was the time their socio-economic power was paramount – the lower castes were submissive, worked on their fields for low wages, did not contravene caste rules, called them sarkar, and took their cattle to graze, not become chief minister and make snide remarks at them.

Decline at the grassroots

Neither the advent of democracy after Independence nor legislations such as the Zamindari Abolition Act and the Land Ceiling Act undermined their dominance substantially. There were ample loopholes in the land legislations to circumvent them, with a little help from bureaucracy whose members too belonged to their caste. In addition, the Congress crafted a brand of politics which wedded welfare to preserving the socio-economic status quo, precisely the reason the Upper Caste backed the party for decades.

Mandal, as we all know, delivered a blow to the socio-political dominance of the Upper Caste. From comprising 46% of the Bihar Assembly in 1952, they accounted for only 23.1% of its members in 2000. The alliance between the BJP and Nitish Kumar did enable the Upper Caste to stage a comeback – they comprised 30% of MLAs in 2010.

But the coming together of Nitish and Lalu Prasad Yadav has seen them slide back to their lowest ever – they now constitute just 20% of the Assembly members. In fact, their current strength conceals their diminution in real terms, for Upper Caste MLAs belonging to the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal can’t but toe the party line that will increasingly reflect OBC interests.

Their steady decline in political representation, though still higher than their percentage of Bihar’s population, makes them pine for lost glory. This is because OBC assertion has weakened the Upper Caste’s control over block, bank and thana, the tripod on which rural India rests.

On the adjustments the Upper Caste has had to make under OBC chief minister over the last 25 years, Manish Jha and Pushpendra in Governing Caste and Managing Conflicts: Bihar, 1991-2011 write: “The culture of cultivating association with local administration and the police through a political ‘broker’ to maintain class dominance by the Upper Caste was present earlier also. This continued in the changed regime, only the caste character of the ‘broker’ now changed.”

Not only did this provide others greater access to local institutions, it perhaps became a relatively more costly endeavour (higher brokerage!) for the Upper Caste to maintain their dominance. Dependence on brokers belonging to castes lower to them was a reminder to them of the degree to which the social terrain had changed. Their decline at the grassroots became even sharper with Nitish Kumar expanding caste-based reservations in the panchayati institutions. Gone were the days when people voted as their Upper Caste patrons wanted them to, and local institutions were geared to work to their advantage.

Land: a symbol of power

Nostalgia for the past among the Upper Caste is also accompanied with their fear of the future – whether or not their economic power too will slide in the years to come. Nothing was more indicative of this than the fury the Upper Caste directed against the recommendations of the Bihar Land Reforms Commission, 2006-2008, which D Bandyopadhyay spearheaded. The commission proposed a modicum of land redistribution, including granting permanency in tenancy rights.

But under pressure from big landlords, predominantly Upper Caste, Nitish declared that the recommendations wouldn’t be implemented. He was heading the JD(U)-BJP coalition government then. To alienate the Upper Caste was to anger the BJP which depends on their support. It was because of their pressure that Nitish also disbanded the Amir Das Commission that had been constituted to probe the role of the Ranvir Sena in caste massacres.

Caste disparity in landholding is evident in the article, Lost Opportunity in Bihar, that D Bandyopadhyay wrote for the Economic and Political Weekly in 2009. According to him, marginal and small farmers constitute 96.5% of the landowning community and own 66% of lands. The remaining one-third is owned by medium and large farmers who constitute just 3.5% of the land-owning community.

“Of the latter,” Bandyopadhyay writes, “the large owners (constituting only 0.1% of the total) own 4.63% of total land. In absolute terms, this 0.1% of the large owners owned a little over 8 lakh hectares or 19.76 lakh acres of land – a colossal amount by Indian standards.”

Pointing out that 35% of cultivable land in Bihar is under the bataidari, or sharecropping, system, Bandyopadhyay observes acerbically, “It is the feudal syndrome of rent seeking which gives them (the 3.5% of medium and large farmers) both hassle-free income and social status. Land… is a symbol of power, influence and status. They cannot think of themselves as cultivating peasant farmer… Like sterile gold, it (land) lends lustre to their position in the society.”

He goes on to say that unless sharecroppers are given security of tenure and heritable right of cultivation, agriculture productivity won’t improve to make a substantial economic difference to Bihar. This is because the incentive in upgrading technology doesn’t exist – the incremental increase in productivity would be siphoned off by landowners.

Hold on government jobs

But the Bandyopadhyay Commission’s recommendations fanned the anxieties of the Upper Caste landlords, souring their relationship with Nitish Kumar. The relation nosedived as soon as Nitish broke his alliance with the BJP, for it meant a certain diminishing of the Upper Caste’s clout in the administration.

Nitish Kumar’s alliance with Lalu Prasad Yadav implied the former had been liberated from the restraining influence of the BJP. Couldn’t he now implement land reforms? It posed an existential threat to the Upper Caste, particularly the Bhumihars. They dominate the large farmer category, save for the Kosi belt, where there are a few Yadav landlords too. But largely, Yadavs and Kurmis are peasant proprietors.

In any attempt to tinker with land relations, there is no denying the Upper Caste will take a hit. It breeds in them anxieties about their future, more so because even large landholdings have undergone fragmentation and declining productivity. Psychologically, their method of handling their fear is to create and accept a political narrative, both divisive and volatile, to craft a majority.

But the Upper Caste’s uncertainty about the future extends to urban Bihar, as also urban India. Partly, their uncertainty is because of the government policy of reservations in jobs and educational institutes. Yet, in 2011, the Upper Caste accounted for 76.8% of officers in Group A Service, considered the most powerful and lucrative of government employment.

Over time, though, it is inevitable their presence in the government service is bound to decrease as OBC reservations in educational institutions offset the advantage the Upper Caste has had because of taking to modern education decades before any social group. Nevertheless, their percentage in such government jobs will still remain substantially higher than their percentage of the country’s population.

Employment generation

Perhaps this fear of the Upper Caste also arises from the fact that economic development hasn’t generated jobs in large numbers to absorb the growing army of the educated. This was manifest in the demand of the recent Patel movement in Gujarat. The Patels are not Upper Caste, but were excluded from the reservation pool as they were justifiably not deemed socially and educationally backward.

What riles them is what they perceive to be the double squeeze on them – economic development can’t accommodate their aspirations and they find that groups lower to them in the social-economy hierarchy have acquired mobility. What is true of the Patels in Gujarat is also true of the Upper Caste in Bihar and outside it, and also of Jats who, though of middle caste, are not in the reservation pool.

From this perspective, the anguish and anxiety of the Upper Caste arises because of the bridging of the gap between them and the rest. This is precisely why the Upper Caste and others who do not qualify for reservations endorse electoral strategies of the BJP to thwart the pressure from below, to accept Hindutva as a tool to skittle the solidarity of groups they perceive as upstarts challenging their social and economic superiority of a few centuries at least.

This is also why the inherently destabilising, volatile nature of Hindutva politics will continue to rock the society as long as the anguish and anxiety of the Upper Caste isn’t mediated in some way. However, it can’t be anyone’s solution that the socio-economic status quo should be maintained, or the yawning gap between social groups retained. The ideal of equality is an inextricable element of democracy. Perhaps members of the political class, particularly those of the Upper Caste, should articulate the idea that change is the sine qua non of democracy.

But what is undeniably of greater importance is that the social justice forces, after having coming of age, should seek to acquire the vocabulary, and policies, which transcend the politics of identity to embrace that of interests. It is the argument of shared class interests which could go a long way to convince a large section of the Upper Caste that transformative democratic politics isn’t titled against them because of who they are – a Brahmin, a Rajput, a Bania or Kayastha; that what it aims at is to redistribute the excess of privileges some among them possess.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.