In Praise of Last Among Equals

In 1997, I experienced a life changing event.

I had gone with my parents to their friends’ house for dinner, and rather than being bored to death (which is the usual experience for all kids of that particular age), I spent the most fascinating evening of my life until that point.

They had, you see, a Compaq desktop. I don’t remember now which specific model it was, and I don’t remember which website I visited, but that was the first time I heard the unforgettable crackle, hiss and pop associated with a dial-up connection. I was online, for the very first time in my life.

It was a life changing event for me because I discovered a world I didn’t know existed back then.

Contrast my experience with that of Sanjay Sahni’s, when he first went online:

And then he spotted it. In a corner, sandwiched between ‘Munger’ and ‘Nalanda’, was a familiar name: Muzaffarpur. His heart racing, he clicked on it. He then saw another unfamiliar set of names in English, but soon he found his block (Kurhani) and then, with another click, he navigated to his panchayat (Ratnauli). One final click more and, suddenly, he saw names, not of places, but of people. The first name he saw—etched clearly in his mind almost a decade later—was ‘Mahender Paswan’. As he went down the list, he saw more names, all familiar: ‘It was like I was sitting in Delhi, but also in my village.’

Sharan, M.R.. Last Among Equals: Power, Caste & Politics in Bihar’s Villages (pp. 27-28). Kindle Edition.

Me, I discovered a world I didn’t know existed back then. Sanjay? He discovered that his world was also online, and therein lies the tale narrated in M.R. Saran’s excellent, excellent book: Last Among Equals. I have dropped the “h” in his last name deliberately, and to find out why, you’ll have to read the book.

What is the book about?

It is about Bihar, as the title suggests, but it is not a dry academic tome that you might have to force yourself to read. It is, instead, a warm, rich history of real people with real problems. It is a narrative that is instructive, engaging and thought-provoking. It is, above all, a wonderful way to start to learn about one of India’s largest states. Largest not in terms of area, but in terms of population, and that’s a good point to keep in mind as you read the book.

The book is about many things, all at once. It is about NREGA, it is about the fascinating journey of one man in particular, Sanjay Sahni, but it is also about the lives of people in Bihar’s villages. And what makes the book work is the choice that M.R. Sharan makes in shaping the form that the book takes:

In writing it, I tried to follow a style that the economist Albert Hirschman endorsed in his brilliant 1970 essay ‘The Search for Paradigms as a Hindrance to Understanding’. Following Hirschman, I eschewed exciting, novel ‘insights’ for facts, and forwent theory for stories. This was partly because I am not sure I am the type of scholar capable of formulating a theory of anything, let alone the entire rural political economy of Bihar. In addition, I believe it would be a travesty to rein Bihar in. To straitjacket its trajectory—full of chaos and brilliant humanity—into neat, summarisable boxes would be doing disservice to it.

Sharan, M.R.. Last Among Equals: Power, Caste & Politics in Bihar’s Villages (p. 12). Kindle Edition.

There are, indeed, no boxes, no tables, no dry statistics, and although there is a mention of a Regression Discontinuity Design, it is a harmless threat that breezes past the reader without the slightest inconvenience. Why, Sharan actually explains what an RDD is using the English language, which is a rare feat for folks from my tribe.

But stories there are aplenty. There are stories involving Sanjay Sahni, as I have mentioned, and there are stories involving the people he works with, works for, and works against. The book is eminently readable for this reason, but I do not recommend it just because of this factor. Sharan achieves what I would have thought was impossible: he narrates each of these stories with an adroit mixture of dispassionate analysis and passionate involvement, all of it backed up by minute observations. The word “ethnography” doesn’t come up once in the entire book, but if you are a student wondering what the word means, this book is a very good introductory answer.

But not just people! He also writes from the point of view of the state, and we get a sense of the state’s empathy, apathy and rage, all in just the one book. Keep an eye out for narratives involving BPGRA, Circular 6278, and the tale of a guy called Jeetendra Kumar to learn more about each of these, in that order.

For having done the work that he has in the state, and for having written the book, M.R. Sharan leaves us with five key takeaways as regards challenging (and distributing) the power of the mukhiya. But I would argue that these five points matter for more than just challenging and distributing the power of the mukhiya alone. These five points form a good framework to think about power and its distribution more generally in India:

  1. Reservations
  2. Decentralisation
  3. Building transparency
  4. Social movements
  5. Voting and elections

You don’t need to agree with all, or even one of them. In fact, as students, I hope you approach the book wanting to disagree with some or all of these points. But I also hope that you finish reading the book, and then ask yourself if your view regarding any of these has changed, and whatever your answer, the why behind it.

It’s a short book, spanning nine chapters and 244 pages, and it shouldn’t take you much time to read it. But I hope you spend much more time reflecting on it. And I also hope you use the bibliography to add to your reading list, as I have.

I was chatting with a student of mine yesterday about the book, and he mentioned that the book exuded “the kind of research I want to do” vibe. My sincere hope is that many more students read this book, and are inspired along similar lines.

The world will be a better place for it.