Importance of being an upper caste in Bengal House

West Bengal's Left Front government is the lone state government to have made a representation to the Centre asking for a caste-based census. This was what Minister of State for Home Affairs Ajay Maken told the House in his written response to an un-starred question in the Lok Sabha recently. The possibilities are tantalising: Could the plea for enumerating castes in West Bengal be a step towards the Left parties finally making peace with what they have all along disdained as 'casteism' even as they have forged alliances with caste-based political parties like the SP earlier and most recently entering into an unnamed pact with Bahujan Samajwadi Party chief Mayawati ahead of the 2009 Lok Sabha polls?

Its enthusiasm to count castes in its shaky bastion may or may not presage a larger rethink by India's Left on one of Indian politics' most enduring questions. But it does shine the light on a little known aspect of Left rule in the state: West Bengal is the only state where the percentage of upper caste MLAs has increased over the 20-year period between 1972 and 1996, from 38 per cent to 50 per cent. The trend was reversed in 2001, when the percentage of upper caste MLAs fell just below 38 per cent, but upper caste ministers were still more than 51 per cent in the state government.

In fact, representation of intermediary castes in the West Bengal Assembly peaked in 1977 and has been weak and fluctuating ever since incidentally, 1977 was the year when the Left Front began its uninterrupted rule in the state.

The resilience of upper caste domination in West Bengal is uncommon. It stands in particular contrast to the "silent revolution" that swept through some states in India since the late 1970s, characterised by the rise of the OBC and diminishing sway of the upper castes in positions of

political power.

In a recent book, Rise of the Plebeians? The changing face of Indian legislative assemblies, edited by Christophe Jaffrelot and Sanjay Kumar, (Routledge: 2009), Jaffrelot describes the trajectory in the Hindi belt. In 1952, upper caste MPs represented 64 per cent of the total MPs from this belt. They remained in the majority till 1977, when the spectacular rout of the Congress became the occasion for the first significant dip in the percentage of upper caste representatives to Parliament, from almost 54 per cent to about 48 per cent. They remained above 40 per cent till 1989, when the Congress was defeated for the second time at the Centre.

In successive elections in the 1990s, the percentage of upper caste MPs continued to decrease, touching 33 per cent in 2004. The share of OBC MPs, on the other hand, grew across parties. This process of the transfer of power from upper caste to OBC politicians was even more pronounced at the state level, points out Jaffrelot. In assemblies of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, the proportion of upper caste MLAs has declined from about 40-55 per cent in the 1950s to about 25-35 per cent in the 2000s while the share of the OBCs grew from 10-20 per cent to about 20-40 per cent.

But not in West Bengal. In her profile of West Bengal MLAs over the last 50 years in the same book, Stephanie Tawa Lama-Rewal writes that its most striking feature is the consistent over-representation of the upper castes. "Even though the importance of upper castes in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly fluctuates between 37.5 per cent (in 1972) and 50 per cent (in 1957) of all MLAs, it remains consistently out of proportion with their demographic importance."

While intermediary castes formed an estimated 35 per cent of the total population in West Bengal in 1991, they have remained a weak presence in the state Assembly, fluctuating between 4.6 per cent in 1952 and 6.1 per cent in 2001, peaking at 9.5 per cent in 1977, the year the Left Front came to power in the state.

According to the study, while upper castes formed 10 per cent of the West Bengal population in 1991, their representation in the Assembly has ranged from 45.9 per cent in 1977 to 49 per cent in 1996, coming down to 37.8 per cent in 2001. The dominance of upper caste bhadralok is even more pronounced in Left Front Cabinets since 1977, peaking at 81.8 per cent in 1982.

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