Battleground States: Bihar

Election history, phase-wise details, key seats: All you need to know about this crucial state

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Elections 2024
03 June, 2024

In The Republic of Bihar, published in 1992, the journalist Arvind Narayan Das noted that the minimum annual wage for public works in ancient Magadh, according to the Arthashastra, was set at 210 grams of silver. “Even at today’s prevailing price of silver,” Das wrote, “it can be calculated that drudge labourers today, employed at public work sites, are paid almost the same amount in money as their forefathers were paid in silver two-and-a-half millennia ago!” Three decades later, things aren’t much different. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which has enrolled 18 million out of Bihar’s 131 million residents and sets the floor for wages in the countryside, offers a hundred days of work at a daily wage of Rs 228—equivalent to 243 grams of silver in a year, as per bullion prices in Patna on 2 June 2024.

While daily subsistence is significantly cheaper today than it was in the fourth century BCE, Bihar remains one of India’s poorest states. The union government think tank NITI Ayog reporting that over a quarter of its population lived in multidimensional poverty in 2022–23, and the Global Data Lab ranking it lowest among all states on the United Nations’ Human Development Index in 2021.

A key obstacle to development in Bihar has been the persistent strength of feudal forces in the countryside, where, as the political scientist Francine Frankel writes, “Brahmins, Bhumihars and Rajputs held sway over society for at least one thousand years.” Under colonial rule, a zamindar class emerged that held title over vast landholdings, reducing many peasants to penury after forcing them to grow cash crops, such as indigo or opium. (Their descendants today often have to make distress sales to a deregulated market, a model that the Narendra Modi government tried to impose nationwide through its 2020 farm laws, which was later junked.) This resulted in the state primarily functioning as a source of cheap labour, first in nearby Calcutta and then throughout the world. The vast mineral wealth of Jharkhand, part of Bihar until 2000, was never used to build a thriving welfare state.

If, as Jawaharlal Nehru once proclaimed in a fit of misguided hyperbole, Bengal thinks today what India thinks tomorrow, Bihar is where ideologies have historically been put into action. Most movements that deepened democracy in north India, by redistributing political power down the caste hierarchy, began in the state. Beginning in the 1920s, Yadavs, Kurmis and Kushwahas—agrarian castes, associated with herding, farming and horticulture, respectively, that occupied the middle stratum of rural society—improved their ritualistic status through Sanskritisation, resisted the dominance of the upper castes, secured political representation that reflected their share of the population and, through their control over the state apparatus, implemented affirmative-action measures for Other Backward Classes, setting a pattern emulated, to varying degrees of success, in the rest of the Hindi heartland.