Uttar Pradesh’s pivotal importance to Indian politics is hard to exaggerate. Anyone who wishes to rule India must control this State. The Bhartiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) biggest win in 2014 came from U.P., which was instrumental in providing Narendra Modi with a clear majority in the Lok Sabha. The party won 73 (with its ally) of the State’s 80 seats, while its nearest rivals, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Congress, got only five and two seats, respectively. The BJP repeated this performance in the 2017 Assembly election, winning 325 seats (with its ally) in the 403-member State Assembly, which is about 80% of the seats. No party has ever registered such a colossal tally, not even Indira Gandhi, whose party, the Congress, had won 309 seats in the then 425-member Assembly in 1980.
But barely a year after its stunning victory the situation has changed significantly. The strongest sign of the changing public mood is the growing alienation of Dalits from the government. Even though many Dalits voted for the BJP in 2014, they feel excluded from access to power and the benefits it brings. Attacks on Dalits have not ceased even after the national furore over the Saharanpur violence in May 2017. A Dalit student of Allahabad University was lynched in February. Some of the BJP’s Scheduled Caste MPs from U.P. wrote to the Prime Minister to express their anguish over these incidents. One of them accused the government of only paying lip service and not doing anything for the benefit of the community. This unusual development had occurred just days after the BJP lost in its bastions, Gorakhpur and Phulpur (which is part of Allahabad district), to the SP-Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) alliance in the by-elections pushing scores of Dalits towards the anti-BJP camp.
Elements of a strategy
The growing conflict between Dalits and Hindutva must be seen in the context of the paradigm shift in U.P.’s politics which is increasingly defined in narrow majoritarian terms, even as the BJP is seeking to co-opt the oppressed groups within its electoral umbrella. Two key elements of the BJP’s electoral strategy are inclusion/visibility of Dalits and exclusion/invisibility of Muslims. It has shown that it can win elections without Muslims even though they constitute a fifth of the State’s population, which is larger than the population of several Muslim-majority countries. By contrast, it has made every effort to demonstrate its love for Dalits. But they are unhappy with the terms of endearment since they want greater Dalit representation to address their concerns regarding social exclusion, food preferences, education, employment, housing, and so on.
The BJP has consistently used religious polarisation to trump the caste divide in U.P., but it hasn’t succeeded; in fact, the divide has been exacerbated by the cold caste and sub-caste calculations of its top leadership to undercut old forms of caste mobilisation. Moreover, the attempts to assimilate Dalits within the fold by invoking the legacy of B.R. Ambedkar or the symbolism of communal inter-dining is not enough to cool tempers of Dalits who face discrimination and atrocities despite the stringent provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The instrumental use of both gestures is obvious to everyone; not surprisingly, these gestures have failed to quell the growing tide of discontent, with many Dalit voters losing patience with the ruling dispensation.
Dalit inclusion will work when their core concerns are addressed and when there is overall development, which the State badly needs. Development and economic growth has, of course, been a constant leitmotif in the electoral campaigns of the BJP since 2014. But there is no evidence to show that Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is the leader who can deliver development for the State. In fact, the very idea of development was sidelined by his controversial appointment. He was installed as Chief Minister to polarise public opinion on Hindu-Muslim lines, and not to promote integration through development. His elevation signalled a decisive shift from the dual strategy of combining Hindutva and development to a singular embrace of Hindutva which has been used as a weapon of mass mobilisation to offset the fissures of caste, class, language and culture. Asked about Opposition parties linking his speeches and work to Hindutva and not development, the Chief Minister replied that “Hindutva and development are complementary to each other… Those who are opposing Hindutva are in fact opposing development and Bharatiyata”. In other words, even the optics of development and the claims of taking everyone along through development will be sacrificed at the altar of Hindu nationalism ahead of the 2019 election.
Going by the policy decisions of his government, the cow appears to be the fulcrum of the U.P. model. It took centre stage in the government’s budget with a record ₹233 crore allotted for the welfare of cow and dairy development. In a similar vein, social sector spending has been reduced while religious tourism is being given a boost. Mr. Adityanath made a plethora of promises such as building houses, toilets, laying roads and providing 24-hour electricity supply. But these promises are unlikely to be fulfilled, which is causing restlessness even among people who voted to bring the BJP to power in 2017. This is evident from several events in the past few months. In October 2017, sugarcane farmers burned their crop in front of the U.P. Assembly after the government increased the minimum support price by only ₹10; in January, farmers unhappy with the minimum support price for their potato harvest dumped the crop in front of the houses of VVIPs in Lucknow; and the much-hyped farm loan waiver turned into a farce as many of the beneficiaries received waivers of amounts as small as ₹1 to ₹500. The employment situation remains grim, as large-scale government recruitments — the major source of public employment in the State — are not regular and even previously conducted exams, for instance, for clearing the backlog in police jobs have been cancelled. An extravagant ‘UP Investors Summit 2018’ held in February to boost investment in the hope of creating employment cannot promote industrialisation and job creation unless the structural constraints of underdevelopment are removed.
Closing the gap
What seems to be working for the BJP is the disarray in the Opposition camp. However, this can change as political majorities are constituted and reconstituted in changing historical and political circumstances. Political majorities are contingent and do not last, at least in part because the Opposition parties make adjustments to capitalise on opportunities. The Mandal (caste) and Mandir (religion) interregnum of the early 1990s signified the arrival of identity politics, which upstaged religious politics that was catapulted by the Ayodhya movement to take centrestage. The ensuing upper caste-backward caste confrontation displaced the Congress from its position of dominance in U.P. and prevented the BJP from reinforcing its political clout despite unprecedented public support for Hindutva in north India for the first time since Independence. Twenty-five years later, in 2104, the BJP closed the gap between the economic and the political sphere with its mantra of development to secure a popular mandate. Currently, the Opposition is making tactical adjustments to counter the overarching narrative of Hindu nationalism. The by-election results demonstrate that if the two main Opposition parties combine, they can give the BJP a run for its money. If there is one State where Opposition unity can upset the BJP’s plans for majority rule in 2019, it is U.P.
Zoya Hasan is Professor Emerita, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University