Political change in Uttar Pradesh is usually interpreted in terms of change in the caste composition of the state assembly. The representation of various caste groups is deemed to be an indicator of caste political empowerment as well as a marker of parties’ identities. Regional parties in particular have built their core support base by providing them with preferential representation — through ticket distribution — or preferential programmatic benefits. Over time, these parties have become more inclusive, with the result that more groups are being represented in the assembly. The Uttar Pradesh state assembly is today more representative of various castes than it used to be in the past.
However, a closer look at the socio-economic profile of Uttar Pradesh’s MLAs offers a different picture, which challenges the view that the political class of Uttar Pradesh has actually become more diverse. A major trend that has marked the state’s electoral politics over the past 20 years is the increasing number of candidates and MLAs declaring a business activity.
This is a departure from the past, when most MLAs either declared themselves to be farmers or members of some liberal profession, more often than not, law. Through the 1950s and 1960s, farmers accounted for slightly below 40 per cent of the assembly, a ratio that increased to 50 per cent in the 1980s, at the height of kisan politics. Since then, the number of self-declared farmers in the assembly has dropped by nearly half, standing at 28.4 per cent in 2012.
According to the assembly’s Who’s Who, lawyers were traditionally the second most represented profession, making up an average of 18 per cent of the MLAs until the 1990s. In 2012, only three per cent of the MLAs declared law as a profession.
Today, candidates with a business background have largely replaced these erstwhile dominant categories.
In the 1980s, 7 to 8 per cent of the MLAs declared business as their occupation, a proportion that doubled in the following decade. In 2012, there were 33.4 per cent self-declared businessmen in the assembly. And, if with this category, one clubs those who declare themselves as industrialists (3.5 per cent), builders, contractors and property dealers (8.7 per cent), and traders (1.75 per cent), that ratio increases to 47.4 per cent of the MLAs.
There are interesting variations between parties. The BSP is the party with the highest share of businessmen among its MLAs (66.3 per cent), mostly in the construction and real estate sectors. It also has the smallest share of farmers (15 per cent). The BJP, too, has few farmers (17 per cent), which is not surprising given that most of its MLAs are elected in urban or semi-urban segments. It also has the highest ratio of self-declared politicians or social workers (15 per cent). The Congress, which also has the smallest number of MLAs, counts no builders within its ranks. Both the BSP and the SP have fewer representatives practising the liberal professions than the national parties.
In terms of occupation distribution among castes in 2012, we see that businessmen are most represented among the Jats (60 per cent), the OBCs (53.8 per cent) and the Muslims (51.5 per cent). There are slightly fewer businessmen among the upper castes (46.8 per cent) and the least among the SC MLAs (36 per cent).
The rise of businessmen in politics makes sense if one considers the ever-rising cost of entry into politics. In most parties, candidates are expected to defray the costs of their campaign, contribute to party funding, and must spend money — sometimes years in advance — in order to build the patronage networks necessary to garner popular support.
The centrality of money in electoral politics also pushes many politicians to develop business activities once elected. Between 2007 and 2012, among the 95 re-elected MLAs, 41 had shifted from a non-business related profession (agriculture, teaching, medical doctor) to a business-related occupation. Thirty-six MLAs who registered themselves in 2007 as agriculturists declared another occupation five years later. In short, nearly half of the incumbent MLAs shifted to some business activity after their first election. Generating money is seen as a necessary condition for re-election.
Most of the businessmen-politicians encountered belonged to specific sectors of economic activity: Construction, real estate, transport companies, brick kiln ownership, liquor production and distribution. This is not coincidental, as these sectors are strongly dependent on the state (through public contracts or the licensing system). These sectors of economic activity are also among the most criminalised. Politics offers them many incentives and opportunities to expand their business activities. It also provides protection from both the state and the competition, besides enhancing social status.
However, these self-declared professional categories should be treated with caution. For one, they are quite broad and vague. The “farmer” category does not distinguish between small and large landowners. Second, some candidates simply choose not to declare any occupation. Third, it is frequent that a declared profession conceals other sources of income. In the course of years of fieldwork, a number of lawyer-politicians were encountered who owned factories, ran private schools, contributed to their partners’ or friends’ businesses. For most of them, legal fees were a minor part of their income. Finally, legislation regarding offices of profit pushes many politicians to transfer ownership of their businesses to a family member and declare themselves as social workers. These complexities lead one to think that the actual number of businessmen in politics is probably underestimated.
The main lesson here is that at a time when the political class has become more diverse in terms of caste, it has also become more homogeneous in terms of economic background. The success of regional parties in recent years has been based on their ability to attract candidates drawn from local elite groups. This calls into question both the claim that backward politics is emancipatory in nature and that regional parties offer greater diversity and representativeness.