Timely and Timeless, Indrajit Roy's 'Politics of the Poor' Tackles a Complex Social Role

India is the world’s largest democracy, but it is also home to the largest numbers of poor people in the world. Roy examines the dichotomy of such an existence.

One per cent of the world’s richest people own half the wealth of the world; while 80% of the people inhabiting the globe own 5% of this wealth.

In his lucidly argued and carefully researched book Politics of the Poor: Negotiating Democracy in Contemporary India (Cambridge University Press, 2018), political scientist Indrajit Roy observes that this sits awkwardly with the fact that more people live in democracies than ever before.

India is the world’s largest democracy, but it is also home to the largest numbers of poor people in the world. 

Poor people have themselves disproved the assumption that the poor are unsuited for or disinterested in democracy. Yogendra Yadav calculated that the odds that the very poor would vote rose from 0.89 in 1971 to 0.93 in 1998. By contrast, the odds for the “upper” class fell in the same period from 1.38 to 0.75.

‘Politics of the Poor: Negotiating Democracy in Contemporary India’, Indrajit Roy, Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Indeed, one of the abiding riddles of India’s democracy is the robust faith vested in it by India’s poorest people, those who democracy constantly betrays.

Roy confronts penetratingly the question of what living in a democracy means for poor people who simultaneously confront deprivations and disparities. It means of course being wooed, persuaded or intimidated in certain ways during elections. But it involves also processes of continuous negotiations of poor people with institutions and actors with power.

Roy believes that poor people negotiate in multiple ways in and with democracy – with politicians, bureaucrats, employers and each other. He illustrates this with his fieldwork among the poor in Bihar and Bengal.  

Roy reminds us that India adopted universal suffrage before accomplishing levels of economic growth and industrial development that Euro-American states accomplished before they gave the vote to all people. This helped pave the pathways for progressively incorporating more of India’s less privileged people into legislatures, which are much more socially diverse than the judiciary and even the bureaucracy.

Christophe Jaffrelot calls this India’s silent revolution.

Roy, however, argues against a simplistic functionalist connection with the representation in state legislatures of the poor and disadvantaged castes and sustained decline in poverty.

The Bihar assemblies did see a rise in the presence of “backward classes” after 1952, but Roy cautions that the share of privileged castes in the legislatures continued to outweigh their share in the population. Likewise the espousal of class politics by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM), that remained in uninterrupted power for 34 years, did little to reduce the dominance of privileged castes and classes in the legislature: Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, small and middle peasants, all remained poorly represented in the Bengal legislature.

Also read: States That Implemented Social Schemes Well Were Better at Reducing Poverty

Yet, the incidence of poverty did decline during the tenure of Lalu Yadav (and while he was in jail, of his wife Rabri Devi). Likewise, despite the unrepresentative character of the Bengal state assembly, few contest the significant dent to poverty made by Operation Barga, giving security of tenure to tenants by the Left government.

Roy concludes from this that universal suffrage, free and fair elections, and constitutional guarantees of freedom of association and expression and outlawing untouchability, all have provided significant opportunities to millions of the country’s poor. But institutional constraints remain formidable, including a majoritarian electoral system that comes in the way of substantive coalitions between the working and middle classes; and the patchy devolution of power to the PRIs. Therefore with gains in poverty alleviation, inequalities have also escalated, reflecting the realities of an unequal democracy.

A BJP campaign rally at Ferozepur Jhirka in Haryana’s Mewat. Photo: Twitter/@TahiraAzmet

In his sites of fieldwork in rural Bengal (Malda district) and Bihar (Araria) district, Roy’s accounts elucidates and makes clear the complexity of class classification and self-identification of various households in the categories of labourers, peasants and landlords. In a gram panchayat in Malda, for instance, he finds widespread landlessness, with three-fourths of households landless.

Just a tenth hire their labour out to local farmers; the rest migrate for work in brick kilns, construction sites, eateries and petty traders. In the panchayat in Araria, again 70% of the households are landless, and 40% of them find farm employment locally. A third travel 1,000 kilometres or more, to Delhi or Punjab, for work in construction, eateries and small retail shops. 

In his fascinating, granular account, Roy finds evidence of complex and diverse class alliances.

In what he calls Rahimpur in Malda, he finds the entrenched landlords make common cause with the landless workers against the labour-hiring peasant class. In the panchayat he calls Sargana in Araria, by contrast, it is the landless and peasants who join forces against the entrenched landlords. He finds that in self-identification, the categories of peasant and farmer are problematic, fluid, slippery; not surprisingly when two-thirds of all marginal, small and medium farmers in Rahimpur, for instance, derive their income mainly from off-farm work. Further, caste shapes the formation of class identities. And thirdly, he does not find classes in fixed relationship of adversity or alliance; contentious and collaborative relations exist simultaneously.

Also read: As Tales of Migration Misery Continue, Biharis Now Accept That as Their Destiny

Roy then goes on to describe the targeted character of most social assistance programmes in India, such as subsidised grain. These intrinsically require people to “supplicate” before their elected representatives, other politicians and political mediators, so that they can be enumerated to be eligible for the targeted assistance.

The greatest aspiration becomes to be official listed as BPL, or Below Poverty Line. Supplications are assertive when the poor collaborate with landlords and peasants, meek and reticent where these collaboration do not exist.

Overall, elected representatives are expected to mediate so as to make them less critically dependent on the dominant classes. It is programmes envisaging self-selection, like the MG National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme, that their dependence on clientelism reduces, and instead their begins the possibility of incipient self-hood, as workers demanding work from the state. 

MGNREGA workers on the outskirts of Ajmer, Rajasthan. Credit: PTI

MGNREGA workers on the outskirts of Ajmer, Rajasthan. Photo: PTI

Roy then notes the emergence of the politics of disputation.

A marginal landowner says to him, “I am poor today. Does that mean that my children should not lead a better life tomorrow?” Roy describes for instance their disputation of an electrification project, because of the location of the electric poles, and their negotiation of fresh locations for these. They find the spaces for these negotiations with their neighbours, politicians and political mediators in the social relations of power in which they are enmeshed.

They self-identify as the poor in ambivalent conflict with the powerful, and dispute projects of improvement which carry the danger of by-passing, displacing or impoverishing them. Through this, as Roy demonstrates, they negotiate meanings of democracy. 

Roy finally details the politics of egalitarian imagination of the poor, their egalitarian claims seeking to override the assertions of the entrenched classes. His account is complex, layered and nuanced. In these negotiations, where the poor graduate substantially from supplicants to citizens aspiring for greater equality and justice.

Also read: Why Bengal’s Elections Are Far More Complex than TMC’s Corruption and BJP’s Communal Drive

They seek a clear break from the past, yet draw strength from memories of past struggles. They do not discard but instead invoke in special ways local deities and legendary heroes. They deploy upon and deploy juridical processes, yet while doing so recall lessons of love, devotion and shared responsibilities.

Through all of this, they forge a new social imagination born out of the tangle of the juridical and the affective. These do draw from categories of caste, community and religion, but also invoke universal ideas of justice, equality and love.

As the country still reels under the trauma of the great abandonment of the poor during the COVID-19 crisis, Roy’s treatise is both timely and indeed timeless.

Roy’s compelling account of how the poor engage with, deepen, qualify, negotiate and accomplish a gradual accretion of authentic democracy, that includes but goes well beyond their right to vote, is essential reading for those who wish to comprehend the democracy we often valorise, but take for granted, and rarely interrogate.

I am left with the words of a landless labourer, Jamuna Rishi (name changed), to Roy, “Love, dignity, respect; no one should be deprived of these things. We may not have these in our lifetime, but we hope our children and our grandchildren do in theirs”. 

Harsh Mander is a social worker and writer.