Book Review: Manish K. Jha and Pushpendra (eds), Traversing Bihar: The Politics of Development and Social Justice

Published date01 December 2016
Date01 December 2016
Subject MatterBook Reviews
Book Reviews 251
Manish K. Jha and Pushpendra (eds), Traversing Bihar: The Politics of Development and Social Justice.
New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan. 2014. 368 pages. `925.
DOI: 10.1177/2321023016665666
This volume provides an excellent account of the political economy of contemporary Bihar organized
around the themes ‘development’ and ‘social justice’. The editors state that these two themes ‘have
dominated the political discourse in Bihar since 1990s’ (p. 2). I completely agree. If a politics of caste-
based social justice was at the centre of political discourse during the rule of Lalu Yadav and his wife
Rabri Devi (1990 to 2005), Nitish Kumar’s model of development dominated political life over the
subsequent decade. While the former period was marked by a weakening of state institutions that were
seen by lower-caste political leaders as controlled by upper-caste elites, the later period was marked by
Nitish Kumar’s ‘resurrection of the state’ in the name of good governance. With the victorious alliance
between Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav in the 2015 assembly elections, these two themes have now come
together in an unprecedented way. This book offers some important insights into what the merging of
these two narratives might mean for the future of governance in Bihar.
While the ‘different theoretical standpoints’ used by the authors at times are distracting, there is a
great deal of valuable empirical material that more than makes up for this. The introduction by Manish
K. Jha and Pushpendra provides a comprehensive account of Bihar’s post-independence political history.
While ‘there is no analytical closure attempted’ (p. 17), it provides a useful and analytically sound
context for the proceeding chapters.
The section organized around the theme of ‘development’ begins with an excellent chapter on land
reforms by Dipankar Battacharya. The chapter provides a concise and insightful analysis of the failure
of land reforms and the constraints that this imposes on Bihar’s agrarian economy. This is followed by
Pushpendra’s fascinating study of agrarian class relations based on a village census that shows continui-
ties as well as important changes, resulting in the emergence of a class of ‘petty-producers-cum-laborers
without depeasantisation and proleterianisation’ (p. 62). These chapters illustrate the deep structural
issues related to land that neither Lalu Yadav’s politics of social justice nor Nitish Kumar’s model of
development have been able to address. It is therefore little surprise that land reforms were not a major
issue in the 2015 elections.
Other chapters examine Nitish Kumar’s rhetoric of development that has often been more hype than
reality (Anamika Priyadarshini). Sadan Jha provides an excellent, comprehensive historical analysis of
the endemic problem of flooding in north Bihar that has no easy solutions, and Meera Tiwari analyzes
social inclusion that juxtaposes two interventions, the ‘Super 30’ group that prepares poor students to
pass the IIT exam and ‘JEEViKA’, a large Word Bank-funded livelihood development project.
The section organized around the theme of ‘social justice’, begins with Manish K. Jha’s important and
ethnographically rich study of how CPI(ML) activism transformed a village in Jehanabad district. This
is followed by a more general overview of Naxalism in Bihar (Gaurang Sahay), a study of women
representatives of panchayat institutions (Manjula Bharthy) and an essay examining the leadership style
of Nitish Kumar compared with Lalu Yadav (Ashutosh Kumar). The following two essays are especially
empirically rich. Sanjay Kumar uses many years of survey data to examine voter perceptions in Bihar,
documenting perceptions of improvement under Nitish Kumar (making a convincing case that Nitish’s
development model did deliver at least some substantial benefits), and Mohammad Sajjid provides a
comprehensive historical account of Muslim politics in Bihar, especially struggles for empowering
‘backward’ Muslims. These chapters emphasize that meaningful empowerment requires sustained
struggle and must go beyond the limitations of a caste-based ‘social justice’—ignoring class and gender
—led by politicians and political parties.

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