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Neopatrimonialism in India: the case of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar

Francis Fukuyama, the renowned political scientist notes in his book ‘Political Order and Political Decay’ that many Sub-Saharan African nations have devolved into ‘Neopatrimonialism’. This refers to a modern State that “while maintaining outward characteristics of a modern State… and pretentious of impersonality, the actual operation of the government remains at core a matter of sharing state resources [with supporters of the ruling dispensation]”. In simpler terms, a State that outwardly proclaims benefit for all, but in effect, serves the interest of the ruling party’s supporters. Thus, as Fukuyama notes that the State is a ‘prize’ to be ‘won’. The resources and powers of the States are not marshalled for the broader progress of the State but for its supporters to squeeze out and utilize. The three characteristics of such a State as per Fukuyama is personalism or the cult of the leader, the use of state resources to cultivate political support and underlying weakness of the State itself. Clientelism as a whole exists in all political dispensations, but this unique combination of personalism and weakness combined with explicit clientelism is the focus in Neopatrimonialism.

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Mobutu Sese Seko, the President of Zaire (now D.R. of Congo) was known to marshal State resources to benefit his supporters.

This is not the case broadly in India which despite having some features of clientelism, does not broadly devolve into such relationships. While this can certainly be argued, the broad coalitions that host the Union Government cannot rely on a single caste/ethnic basis. Considering the size and diversity of India, it is quite clear that such a term cannot be applied at the Union level.

However, can a specific case be made out for the existence of such relationships in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where certain caste-community based political parties have ruled?

To be specific, the Yadav and other ‘Other Backward Class’ communities (OBCs) mobilized under Samajwadi Party (SP) in Uttar Pradesh and by Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar. The Dalits and other “Bahujans” similarly mobilized under the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh as well. Similar caste-based or identity politics is present in all states as is common knowledge. The purpose of this specific identification is to discern whether ‘Neopatrimonialism’ exists in these situations which closely resemble those existing in Sub-Saharan Africa as described by Fukuyama.

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Lalu Prasad Yadav, the former Chief Minister of Bihar who rose on a wave of support by Yadavs. ruling from 1990 to 1997 and by proxy through from 1997 to 2005.

The SP and RJD both arose out of the broader Janata Dal movement that gave India’s first non-Congress Prime Minister in the post-emergency era. Both political parties were ostensibly socialist but its primary focus and ground was the assertion of numerically dominant Yadavs and other OBCs in the gangetic plains. This ultimately led to what can be called “Yadvization” of the administration. These parties also drew support from landholding communities that wished to secure their assets. All three parties also drew substantial support from the Muslim community whose interests were however contradictory to those of the primary voter based of these parties. The reasons for the coalescence of the Muslim-Yadav base would go beyond the scope of this analysis, however.

In Uttar Pradesh, under the leadership of Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son Akhilesh Yadav who both served as Chief Minister of the state, administrative promotions and postings favoured the members of the Yadav community. This was especially evident in the Law & Order Mechanism, with the Police being “Yadavized”. Criminals from the Yadav community were also allowed to go scot free. This problem seems to persist to this day, with the current UP CM, Yogi Adityanath promising to end Yadav domination of such services. The use of “Goonda raj” became synonymous with the rule of the Yadav based party.

The situation in Bihar was much worse with the members of the Yadav community taking their wherewithal to an unprecedented level. The “yadavization” of Bihar Politics under him was unprecedented, with transfers and postings made only on caste considerations by the then Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav. This was most apparent in law and order, which deteriorated to such an extent that it was called “jungle raj” with militias based on caste considerations regularly ransacking and harassing members of the general public, if not engaged in staging kidnappings or mass murders.

The BSP, founded by Kanshi Ram and led by Mayawati, too similarly attempted to utilize public resources for the Dalit community which was its primary voter base. Focusing rather on welfare programmes and deprioritizing education, health and infrastructure. Most extraordinarily the creation of statues of herself and of the party symbol, the elephant was erected at the cost of the state exchequer.

The presence of the ‘cult of the leader’ status is true to varying degrees in the case of Mulayam, Lalu and Mayawati. To an outside observer like me, the perception of such a personalism is stronger with Lalu and Mayawati. The second characteristic is evidently true, especially for the Yadav regimes. It should be noted that populism – which broadly represents the concerns of a broad majority in a democracy. Rather, these benefits are meant to specifically be distributed only among those favoured by the rulers: i.e., for private gain specifically. Underlying this is of course, the “weakness” of the State, which is self-evident in UP and Bihar, where the enforcement and implementation of laws continues to be haphazard.

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Mualayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav, whose reigns in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar was marked by what is arguably neopatrimonialistic reigns.

While analysing this it seems that the voters of both Bihar and UP have rejected to varying degrees this clientistic relationship. To analyse why would be impractical here, but it indicates that the Bihari and UPite would prefer a much more stable relation with the state. This is not the case in Africa, where it is arguably seen as a tactic for survival by the masses. Moreover, the fairness and possibilities of elections in such nations are vastly different from that of India. The term has been applied to countries such as Uzbekistan, where a similar clientistic relationship has been observed. Arguably, such networks are progressively weakened by its excesses which push the majority to vote the ruling dispensation out.

[Additionally, Fukuyama notes that Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) had 6 lakh names on Civil Service payrolls when the estimates were that it needed only 50,000. This form of patronage reminds me of the appointment of many in Public Sector Units in Kerala, as well as broadly government appointments at various levels. Though this can only be regarded as inevitable in my opinion]

While discussing this, many such examples of private gain by political parties and ruling dispensations can be pointed out, but I was making an effort to identify the most explicit examples.


Note: The references made are not meant to disrespect SP, BSP or RJD voters or those parties. Merely an analysis.

Special Thanks to Rohit Pathania for his inputs and gifting the book that led to this post. 

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