Bihar Assembly Election 2020: Royal, zamindar families remain a marginal force

The landed elite, who dominated Bihar’s politics for decades, has remained a marginal force electorally in the state since the rise of so-called lower caste leaders in the 1970s. The trend continues in the 2020 Bihar assembly polls as the contestants from erstwhile royal and zamindar families remain few and far between. The contestants include Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Shreyasi Singh and Rashmi Verma and Shivang Vijay Singh, an Independent. Even among them, only Shreyasi Singh, an international shooting champion, has made her presence felt.

DM Diwakar, a former director of Patna’s AN Sinha Institute of Social Sciences, said things have changed a lot and it is now the era of Dalits and backward castes in the state politics. “The state assembly election is virtually a war between Dalits and backward castes,” he said.

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The forward castes overall are now seen to be just silent onlookers and have no significant role in the making of governments. “..In the first phase of [chief minister] Nitish Kumar government, the forward castes had a say. The most discussed line at that time was [lower caste] Kurmi Ka Taaj, [upper caste] Bhumihar Ka Raaj [Kurmi’s crown and Bhumihar’s rule].” He added by the time the second phase of the Nitish Kumar-led government started, their importance decreased. “…and in the last government, they were reduced to a marginal position.”

The face of the state politics changed after socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan (JP)’s anti-government Movement in the 1970s that catapulted lower caste leaders to prominence.

Diwakar said before that upper castes, which included erstwhile royal and zamindar (big landowning) families, had a strong say in politics. “…these royal families and big zamindars had started taking part in politics much before the Independence. Many of them joined the 1942 [Quit India] Movement as they anticipated an end of the British rule which protected them.” He added the provincial elections held in the 1930s based on limited suffrage gave landed elite a head-start in electoral politics. “…only those were allowed to vote who knew English or those who paid chaukidari [zamindari] tax. Obviously only the royal families and big zamindars participated in this election.”

The trend continued after Independence when royal families and landowners played a key role in politics. “It was the JP Movement, which paved the way for the poor in politics. It was the turning point in the history of the state politics as many backward castes and Dalit leaders came to the forefront and upstaged leaders from the upper castes, and [erstwhile] royal family leaders,” he said.

Imtiyaz Ahmad, a retired Patna University professor, said some of the erstwhile royals were also considered as kingmakers who shaped the state’s politics. “Shatru Mardan Shahi of Dumaria estate in West Champaran was an MLA [member of legislative assembly] in 1964 and in 1969. He became education minister after declining the post of chief minister…” he said.

Shiv Prakash Rai, a social activist, said most of the royal families and big zamindars have become so marginal in politics that parties do not want to give them tickets. “Shivang Vijay Singh from Dumraon Raj family is contesting as an Independent. His grandfather, Maharaja Kamal Singh, was an MP [member of Parliament] from Buxar.”

Rashmi Verma, who contested the 2015 election as an Independent candidate and is now a BJP nominee, said her family supported Mahatma Gandhi during his Satyagrah. After Independence Bipin Bihari Verma from her family became an MP in the first Lok Sabha election.

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