They are both Hindi heartland states, with similar trends in their recent history. They have similar social structures and religious diversity.
In this Lok Sabha election, they both witnessed polarisation and a high degree of ‘Hindu consolidation’ in favour of the BJP.
They both went through the Mandir-Mandal politics — Mandir standing for the rise of the Hindu right, while Mandal represented the assertion of the backward castes.
But Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are also different — as we have seen over the past one year.
Polarisation has translated into communal tensions and violence in UP — or alternately, tensions and violence have deepened the polarisation. The Muzaffarnagar riots were the starkest example, but even state government records admit to dozens of smaller riots.
The toxic rhetoric of the so-called ‘love jihad’ was assiduously spread by the Sangh Parivar machinery here. Dalit-Muslim ties are strained. Bihar did witness sporadic tensions last year, in places like Bettiah and Nalanda, after the break-up between the BJP and Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) government.
But comparatively, the communal consciousness has not translated into violence there, yet.
What explains this difference?
Shaibal Gupta, Bihar’s foremost social scientist, offers a historical perspective.
“Bihar was under the Bengal presidency, and land relations were governed by the permanent settlement. But that also led to radical peasant movements against the zamindari system.” He argues that ‘progressive politics’ has often found space in Bihar, citing the Naxalite and socialist movements as examples.
Manoj Jha, RJD spokesperson and a professor at Delhi University, agrees with Gupta and points to movements against inequality and for greater access to power, cutting across castes.
“There is greater civic engagement between communities in Bihar, and this has constituted a bulwark against communalism.”
UP, in contrast, Gupta suggests, has been the site of Hindu revivalism for a long time. “Just look at Banaras.
It has played a key role in constructing the Hindu identity of the nation as well as the Hindi heartland identity. It was here that the Hindi and Hindu identities got merged. UP gave birth to the Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan slogan.” Even the Congress in UP were not unaffected by this, and chief ministers tended to be from the right of the party spectrum.
Badri Narayan, a social historian with the GB Pant Institute, Allahabad and author of Kanshi Ram’s biography, attributes the difference to demography and economics. “There are over 20 Lok Sabha seats where Muslim population hovers between 25% and 49% in UP.
In places like western UP, there is a large concentration of Muslims. They are more visible and their electoral profile is higher here.”
He also links it to class composition. In western UP — which is a hub of small-scale industries — Muslims have done well. It is a paradox that their relative success, and power, has led to ‘communal jealousy and resentment’.
When asked about the role of leaders like Azam Khan in stoking polarisation, Narayan remarks, “Yes, that is one way of looking at it. But the fact that there is an Azam Khan in UP is a testament to the power of the UP Muslims. There is no Azam Khan-type figure in Bihar.”
“The RSS, too, is far more active in UP than Bihar,” says Narayan. The fact that there is an Azam Khan suits the politics of BJP hardliner Yogi Adityanath, who thrives by manufacturing fear of the other. Alternately, an Adityanath helps give rise to an Azam Khan.
“Even at times when political feuds were most intense, Bihar’s leaders did not lose the capacity to reach out to each other. Be it Nitish Kumar or Lalu Prasad, their roots were similar — the JP movement. Nitishji was most uncomfortable even when he was with the BJP about the role of the RSS.”
This has allowed them to come together, unlike a Mulayam Singh and Mayawati.
But Gupta offers a cautionary note, and says that just because the communal tradition is weaker in Bihar does not mean there is no communalisation. “In the last polls, we saw Muslim support almost became a liability because of the counter-consolidation by Hindus.”
And while the state may not be as fragile as UP, the battles could well turn more intense as elections approach.