Disjunctions of democracy and liberalism: Agonistic imaginations of dignity in Bihar

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JournalSouth Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies
DateAccepted/In press - 7 Feb 2019
DateE-pub ahead of print - 3 Apr 2019
DatePublished (current) - 2019
Issue number2
Number of pages15
Pages (from-to)344-358
Early online date3/04/19
Original languageEnglish


In this paper, I make a case for appreciating the ‘agonistics of democracy’ by reflecting on political changes in the state of Bihar in eastern India since 1990. These changes compel us to appreciate the substantive deepening of democracy in Bihar despite the absence of values commonly associated with liberalism. I first highlight the emergence of ‘Backward Caste’ assertion in the state, which sought to construct the broadest possible alliance against the so-called ‘Forward Castes’ and culminated in the ascendancy of the Janata Dal government of Lalu Prasad Yadav in 1990. I next point to the inchoate antagonism harboured by poor people against the privileged who seek to assert their caste supremacy. Describing the vocabularies of dignity in which such supremacy is contested, I demonstrate that conflict is entwined with co-operation in poor people’s quotidian engagements with the privileged classes. In conclusion, I argue that an ‘agonistics of democracy’ allows us to step beyond the limitations of existing approaches to theorising democracy. I focus in particular on two such approaches: the liberalism-inspired approach dominant in many contemporary readings of democracy in India, and the critical alternatives offered by the political society-centred approach. The agonistic approach to democracy proposed in this paper enables scholars to leverage the strengths of both these approaches while avoiding their pitfalls.

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© 2019 South Asian Studies Association of Australia. This is an author-produced version of the published paper. Uploaded in accordance with the publisher’s self-archiving policy. Further copying may not be permitted; contact the publisher for details.

    Research areas

  • Agonism, Bihar, Caste, Democracy, Dignity, Liberalism

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