Uttar Pradesh exemplifies the hurdles and real challenges holding back India’s progress. India’s most populous state has been the crucible for political change over the past two decades. Not only does UP matter in terms of electoral arithmetic, it also plays a prominent role in shaping the ideological dimensions of electoral politics. Uttar Pradesh remains a laboratory for the shifting multi-caste alliances and political coalitions governing contemporary Indian politics.
The state’s electoral results are invariably volatile. Between 2007 and 2014, the electorate has rewarded and punished incumbents in every assembly and parliamentary election. Mayawati produced a surprise electoral victory for the BSP in 2007, but only after the BSP shed its avowed ideological commitment to anti-Brahmanism. The induction of Brahmins into the BSP ensured the party could reach out to other upper caste and forward caste communities in the socially conservative Hindi heartland. A popular political slogan doing the rounds in 2007 neatly captured the BSP’s ideological turnaround: ‘Brahmin shankh bajaega, hathi badhta jaega’.
The purely tactical nature of this electoral coalition between upper castes, Dalits, non-dominant OBC castes and a section of Muslims cannot be overstated. The state’s Dalit community remains ideologically committed to the BSP, while all other social groups in the BSP’s rainbow coalition remained wary and aloof from the BSPy’s overtly pro-Dalit agenda.
By 2012, the BSP’s coalition had unravelled and the Samajwadi Party stepped into the breach, promising a reformist, development-oriented government symbolised by Akhilesh Yadav, the youthful heir to Mulayam Singh’s political empire. At the same time, the SP skilfully revived a Yadav-Muslim political alliance, which produced a record 116 Muslim legislators in the state assembly in Lucknow. However, Akhilesh appears to have succumbed to all the old malaises associated with the Samajwadi Party.
The Samajwadi Party administration has struggled to protect the lives and livelihoods of Muslims, the very community that turned out for the party in record numbers in 2012. While Mayawati ensured a virtually riot-free administration and empowered the state police force, over a 100 riots have taken place under the Samajwadi Party government.
The most egregious of these, the Muzaffarnagar riots groups claimed over 50 lives and left 50,000 people homeless in western Uttar Pradesh. The recent violent clashes between police and encroachers on public land in Mathura, which left 26 civilians and two police officers dead, also highlights the deterioration of law and order under the Samajwadi Party.
In 2014, Narendra Modi was able to masterfully craft an alliance of upper castes, forward castes and OBCs under a power Hindu nationalist, development-oriented umbrella. The BJP may adopt the same strategy as it hopes for a repeat of its formidable performance in 2017.
The BJP is well-funded and empowered by an extensive grassroots network of cadre in the towns and cities of Uttar Pradesh. Whether non-dominant OBC communities, including Nishads, Kurmis and Kushwahas rediscover their Bahujan identity or stay wedded to the idea of a larger Hindu Rashtra is an open question. The BJP has a formidable political machinery and dedicated troops on the ground. The BJP offers the promise of economic advancement and Hindu nationalism as a panacea to the problems afflicting Uttar Pradesh. However, the BJP lacks a credible chief ministerial candidate who can contain the party’s own internal cleavages.
The BSP seeks to capitalise on the electorate’s perception of the Samajwadi Party as a party without a handle on the state’s administrative machinery. At the same time the BSP has sought to reach out to communities apathetic to the party’s Dalit agenda, including Muslims threatened by violence and resurgent Hindu militancy.
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The BSP, on the other hand, is showing signs of a tentative political revival. The party came first in the latest district panchayat polls, which were held in November . The BSP’s electoral fortunes were revived by victories in Agra, Ambedkar Nagar and Azamgarh. The BSP also ensured symbolic upset to the BJP in Jayapur, a village “adopted” by Prime Minister Modi in his parliamentary constituency of Varanasi. In this village BJP’s Arun Singh was defeated by BSP’s Ramesh Tiwari. Politicians associated with BSP leaders Ramvir Upadhaya and Lalji Verma also emerged victorious in Hathras and Ambedkar Nagar.
Fieldwork I conducted in western Uttar Pradesh points to a partial revival in nostalgia for Mayawati’s centralised and authoritarian administration, as compared to the anarchic factionalism of the Samajwadi Party.
According to one upper caste PhD scholar from Dadri, “The country needs authoritarian leadership. I did not approve of the BSP’s social agenda which sought to bring about social change too rapidly. You cannot end a 1,000- year-old caste system in five years. However, I cannot fault Mayawati as an administrator. She was a good administrator and understood the importance of a clear chain of command in order to run the bureaucracy. I believe the nation needs strong leadership. That is why I supported Modi for Prime Minister and Mayawati for chief minister of Uttar Pradesh”.
Nonetheless, the BSP’s ability to capitalise on these recent gains and avoid further electoral humiliation at the hands of the BJP or the SP remains an open question.
A lot will depend on which party is best able to construct a broad-based, multi-caste coalition encompassing loyal supporters as well as swing voters motivated by issues of personal security and economic development rather than narrow, identity-based politics.
Ravi Shankar Jayaram is a doctorate in political science from King’s College, London
The views expressed are personal