Uttar Pradesh: India's democratic landslip

29 May 2007

If Uttar Pradesh were a sovereign state, it would be the world's sixth most populous country. Instead, with its population of 175 million, it is India's most populous political unit, the most teeming of the thirty-odd constituent states that make up the federalistic Indian Union. A vast sprawl across north India's Gangetic plain - "Uttar Pradesh" literally means "Northern Province" - UP, as the state is referred to by Indians, contains about 15% of India's people and elects a similar proportion of the members of India's national parliament in New Delhi (eighty-one of the 542 members of the directly elected chamber of parliament, the Lok Sabha or "House of the People").

Although, like the rest of India, a predominantly rural and agricultural province, UP has seven cities with populations in excess of one million; one of those is Agra, home of the magnificent Taj Mahal, built in the mid-17th century on the orders of the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan. Uttar Pradesh has been both behemoth and bellwether of India's politics since independence in 1947.

A turbulent ride

Fifteen years ago Uttar Pradesh was at the centre of a maelstrom of conflict that threatened to destabilise India's democracy. In 1990, riots erupted and caste tensions soared when a short-lived populist government in New Delhi announced that it would implement the long-pending recommendations of a commission - the "Mandal commission", so known after the last name of its chairman - that had in the late 1970s proposed affirmative action in higher education and public employment for India's middle-ranking social castes.

This announcement provoked deep anxiety and anger among upper-caste groups, particularly Brahmins and Rajputs, who despite smaller numbers dominated politics in UP and other north Indian states for the first four decades of independent India. This domination was enabled by their preponderance in the Congress party, India's hegemonic party until the late 1980s.

Then, in the early 1990s, India's growing Hindu nationalist movement - dominated though not monopolised by the upper castes and politically represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP; "Indian People's Party") - launched a campaign of mass agitation directed at a disused 16th-century mosque located in Ayodhya, a small town in eastern Uttar Pradesh, which they claimed had been built by Muslim "invaders" who founded India's Mughal monarchy on the birth-site of the god Ram, a figure in ancient Indian mythology.

Among openDemocracy's articles from India on India and democracy:                            Rajeev & Tani Bhargava, "The Indian experience" 12 May 2006) – originally published on 13 May 2001, and openDemocracy's first article                             Rajeev Bhargava, "Words save lives: India, the BJP and the constitution"
(2 October 2002)                              Rajeev Bhargava, "India’s model: faith, secularism and democracy"
(3 November 2004)                            Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr, "The end of ideology in India?"
(10 June 2004)                                 Antara Dev Sen, "India’s benign earthquake"
(20 May 2004)                                  Rajeev Bhargava, "The magic of Indian democracy: questions for Antara Dev Sen"
(27 May 2004)

This campaign swiftly gathered momentum and culminated in the razing of the mosque by a mob of rightwing zealots on 6 December 1992, as police and paramilitary forces looked on. Religious violence erupted across India in the aftermath and several thousand people, mostly Muslims - who are about 13% of India's population and 18% in UP - were killed. As Uttar Pradesh descended into a festering cauldron of caste and religious antagonisms, while a secessionist Sikh insurgency continued in Punjab and a Muslim insurgency against Indian authority broke out in Kashmir, India faced its gravest period since independence. It seemed that the pessimism voiced by some western doomsayers in the 1950s and 1960s about India's prospects as a country and as a democracy - too big, too diverse, too poor - might even be belatedly coming true.

That improbably dire scenario was not realised. But India's politics has had a turbulent ride in the years since multiple crises gripped the country during the first half of the 1990s, and Uttar Pradesh remains, as always, central to the unfolding saga of the world's largest, most complicated and most unruly democracy. So when UP's 114 million voters went to the polls over the past few weeks to elect their 403-member legislative assembly (the state's parliament) and thereby choose who would govern their state - an exercise conducted every five years - the election riveted India's attention.

The importance of the election was heightened by the fact that it coincided with the completion of three years in office by an unwieldy Congress-led coalition government that has been in charge in New Delhi since May 2004 - having displaced a similarly polyglot and fractious BJP-led coalition government that ruled the country from 1998 to 2004 - which means that the countdown has begun to the next national (Lok Sabha) election, due at the latest by May 2009. The outcome of the UP election, announced on 11 May, highlights the great transformations that have occurred in India's politics since Congress hegemony ended almost two decades ago and the BJP's appeal peaked almost a decade ago.

Mayawati's winning edge

The victor in UP's 2007 battleground is Mayawati, a 51-year-old woman who is the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP; "Party of the Social Majority"). The BSP was formed in the mid-1980s by Kanshi Ram, Mayawati's now-deceased political mentor, to articulate the aspirations of the lowest castes - once the "untouchables" - of the social order.

Mahatma Gandhi, the famous leader of India's freedom struggle, had a particular concern for the oppression and indignities visited upon these people, whom he rechristened Harijans ("the people of God"). In the past two decades the "Harijan" label has been superseded by another - Dalit, literally meaning "the oppressed" - which is favoured by the community's ideologues and younger generation and serves as a badge of pride for many whose caste-status (or rather, lack thereof) traditionally condemned them to abuse and misery.

In its early years the BSP adopted shrill caste rhetoric, blaming the upper castes, Brahmins in particular, for centuries of iniquity and discrimination. According to the BSP, these upper castes, despite being a smallish minority in Indian society, had usurped social and political power to the detriment of the majority; hence the party's name. Over the past decade, however, the compulsions of fashioning a winning electoral strategy have led the BSP to steadily tone down this rhetoric and instead re-articulate its subaltern ideology in class rather than caste terms.

In 2007, this shift paid off handsomely as the BSP, confounding widespread predictions of an inconclusive election and a "hung" UP legislature, won just over half its seats (206 of 402) on the strength of a slim plurality, 31%, of the popular vote. Most of the BSP's votes came from its mass base among the Dalit communities, who comprise about 22% of UP's electorate. But its winning edge came from the support the BSP received from the poor people among the upper-caste (especially Brahmin) and Muslim communities. In other words, support from the most poverty-stricken and disadvantaged of UP's people (Dalits tend to be disproportionately poor anyway) - cutting across caste and religious divides - put the BSP on the road to victory.

Nation and region

What does this tell us about the evolution of India's democracy? The implications are several and significant. The Uttar Pradesh outcome is the latest and most striking example of how the democratic space can be effectively utilised by political entrepreneurs who have emerged from among India's poor and downtrodden - Mayawati comes from a Dalit family of very modest means - to give their subaltern following not just a voice, but a powerful voice, in the polity. The fact that Uttar Pradesh's new chief minister is not just a Dalit, but a Dalit woman, is perhaps equally significant since the condition of women in UP is among the worst in India.

The 2001 census of India revealed that 57% of UP women possessed no literacy at all, the proportion being even higher among Dalit women and poor women of all communities. And unlike most of India's leading women politicians, Mayawati was neither born nor married into privilege and power (in contrast to Sonia Gandhi, the Italian leader of the Congress party, whose husband, mother-in-law, and mother-in-law's father were all prime ministers, and ruled India for thirty-eight years between them).

The story of Uttar Pradesh is also a telling illustration of how India's party system - and with it, the nature and dynamics of its democracy - has changed beyond recognition over the past two decades. The runner-up in UP is the party that governed the state from 2003 to 2007 - the Samajwadi Party ("Socialist Party") or SP (an alphabet-soup is unfortunately unavoidable in any analysis of Indian democracy). The SP, although ousted from office, polled a respectable 26% of the vote - largely from its solid support base among middle-ranking castes and Muslims - and has become the principal opposition party with ninety-seven seats in the new legislature.

Like the BSP, the SP's base is concentrated in UP and its politics is centred on that province; in short, both these parties are exemplars of the phenomenon of growing "regionalisation" of the party system that has defined Indian politics since the early 1990s (in the current Lok Sabha, the two "national" parties, Congress and BJP, hold just over half the seats between them, and many of those seats are due to alliances struck by both with a variety of smaller "regional" parties representing specific ethnic, linguistic and caste identity and interest groups. These latter parties occupy the rest of the seats).

Between them, the BSP and the SP won 57% of the popular vote and three-fourths of the seats (303 of 402) in the UP legislature elected in May 2007. India's two "national parties", the Hindu-nationalist BJP and the "centrist" Congress, trailed far behind. The BJP tally in both votes and seats slumped, as it got 19% of the vote and just fifty seats. The Congress, the colossus of Indian and UP politics until the end of the 1980s but in drastic decline in UP and many other parts of India since, managed to secure only 8% of the vote - an all-time low - and twenty-one seats.

The shock of the new

The transformation in Indian politics is even deeper than these dramatic numbers and percentages suggest. Old appeals and strategies no longer work. The dinosaur-like Congress's star campaigner in this election was party president Sonia Gandhi's son Rahul, a fresh-faced 37-year-old who is among a handful of Congress members of the national Parliament in Delhi elected in 2004 from Uttar Pradesh. Rahul Gandhi toured the state extensively, evoking nostalgic memories of his political dynasty's past glories - he gave various members of his family credit for the independence of India in 1947, the break-up of Pakistan in 1971, and for India's growing prominence in the world in the early 21st century - and dished out vague promises of "development". In the 1980s, such a campaign may have led masses of awed subjects to vote Congress; in the transformed political environment, where voters have a consciousness that they are citizens not subjects, the pretender's pleas were in vain. The BJP, which has been adrift since its unexpected defeat in the national election of 2004, adopted a strategy of stoking anti-Muslim prejudice among the UP electorate.

During the 1990s, this was precisely the kind of strategy that paid off in UP and some other parts of India, but in 2007, hate-mongering fell flat. The ruling SP drafted in the Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan to front its campaign, which also received support from one of India's top tycoons, Anil Ambani. The glamour of showbiz and the backing of big business could not, in the end, compensate for the reputation the government headed by veteran SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav had acquired for caste-cronyism (favoring fellow-Yadavs, a middle-ranking caste) and shoddy governance. Voters were particularly disappointed by the spread of organized crime under the patronage of SP bosses. Mayawati and the BSP squeezed past and in the process, made history.

Mayawati - a matronly woman with fashionably coiffed hair who is hailed by her supporters as the "Dalit queen" - may well turn out to be a disappointment too. She has a reputation for autocratic behavior, and, during a brief previous term in office in 2002-03 as UP's chief minister in coalition with the BJP, she was allegedly complicit in financial improprieties. She may also have overly grandiose ambitions, having announced after her victory that her next target is to capture national power in Delhi. Time will tell. In the meantime, the great spectacle of India's democracy rolls on, and its representative character is greater today, sixty years after independence, than ever before.


Sumantra Bose is professor of international and comparative politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). His books include Bosnia after Dayton: Nationalist Partition and International Intervention (Oxford University Press, 2002) and Contested Lands: Israel-Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Cyprus, and Sri Lanka (Harvard University Press, 2007)                                                    Also by Sumantra Bose in openDemocracy: "Contested lands: paths to progress" (14 May 2007)


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