Book discussion on: Last Among Equals: Power, Caste & Politics in Bihar’s Villages by M.R Sharan

Date and Time

January 20, 2022

6:00 pm to 7:30 pm


Online via Zoom

Anita Agnihotri

Former Secretary, Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment, Government of India

Sankarashan Thakur

National Affairs Editor, The Telegraph

Rahul Verma

Fellow, Centre for Policy Research

M.R Sharan

Assistant Professor, University of Maryland

Moderator Mekhala Krishnamurthy

Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research and Associate Professor, Ashoka University

The State Capacity Initiative, Centre for Policy Research (CPR) invites you to a virtual book discussion on: Last Among Equals: Power, Caste & Politics in Bihar’s Villages by M.R Sharan

About the author:

M.R Sharan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Maryland, College Park. His research centres around questions in development economics and political economy. He has worked as a researcher and policy economist, with research organizations, state governments and the central government in India. He holds a PhD from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center For Global Development.

About the book:

Sanjay Sahni was living an ‘araam zindagi’ in Delhi, working as an electrician, until a chance encounter with a computer sent him hurtling into the labyrinth that is the NREGA—one of the world’s largest rural poverty alleviation programmes—and the corruption within. It led him back to his village, where eventually, he and his comrades (primarily women from the Dalit and most backward castes) formed the anti-corruption group Manrega Watch.

Their tale is one strand of village politics, a story of resilience among citizens, those outside the system. But what of the ‘insiders’? The complex local-state unit of the village has at the top a mukhiya, who, like the one in Sanjay’s village, wields great power, even to do harm. Ward members—closest to their constituents and the most socially representative group in the panchayati raj system—are at the bottom of this structure.

Development economist M.R. Sharan brings these two interweaving strands of insiders and outsiders together to tell a tale of hope: that those on the margins can challenge entrenched hierarchies. Through government action—reservation, decentralisation, transparency measures—and through citizenly engagement, social movements and elections, change is possible, if not necessarily easy.

Last Among Equals eschews the usual sweeping narratives of national and state politics, reaching instead for the ‘swirling, vivid sub-narratives that escape easy categorisations’, the darkness of the material leavened with deep empathy. The result is a captivating, often searing narrative of how lives are lived in the villages of Bihar—and indeed in much of India.

About the State Capacity Initiative, CPR:

The State Capacity Initiative is an interdisciplinary research and practice programme focused on addressing the challenges of the 21st-century Indian state. The purpose of this initiative is to place the critical challenges of building state capacity at the heart of the field of policy research in India, where it has always belonged but remains surprisingly marginalised. We, therefore, start with first principles and ground ourselves in existing realities to deepen and expand the understanding of the challenges and possibilities of building state capacity in democratic and federal India. Our programme of work focuses on the changing roles of the Indian state; institutional design, implementation and administrative capacity especially at the state-level; the particular challenges of regulatory and fiscal capacity; and the complex and changing relations between society, politics and state capacity in India. The Initiative works across sectors and states to identify and address a number of critical, cross-cutting/transversal issues and is both interdisciplinary and comparative in its approach, learning as deeply, broadly, rigorously and responsively as required.