Updated: May 21, 2021 12:00:55 pm
Uttar Pradesh has the population the size of Brazil, and 80 Lok Sabha seats. But the nature of its potential dominance in Indian politics is not simply a function of size and demography. The national influence of UP politics is magnified when it is part of the hegemonic national dispensation, as it is currently. It is no accident that fear of UP domination abated when it was governed by local parties like the SP or BSP. But beyond party alignment, the nature of the political imagination driving UP politics also matters a great deal; the demographic dominance is magnified if it is aligned to an ideological project and a governance style that seeks to be nationally dominant.
We often speak loosely of the politics of the “Hindi heartland”. This might make sense as a crude contrast with the “South”. But this is a misnomer. There is the obvious fact that the nature of development and the social basis of politics in states like Rajasthan, UP, Bihar and MP is quite diverse. Conflating them is about as analytically useful as conflating Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Amongst these states, what makes UP a special challenge is that its ideological influence on national politics is pervasive in a way that is not quite true of the other states. With the ascent of Yogi Adityanath in UP, this ideological configuration is coming into shape in a starkly chilling form that has great implications for national politics.
UP has been critical to the public staging of the Hindutva project in a way that is not true of other states. The project of communalising all of India is central to the BJP. But the symbolic significance of Ayodhya, Kashi, Mathura as performances of Hindu Unity and as a wedge around which to consolidate a communal consciousness, cannot be underestimated. This is a project they will not leave uncompleted. None of the other states quite has this cache. Bihar, for all its other challenges, for almost three decades, managed to avoid the allure of a hegemonic Hindutva.
Uttar Pradesh now has a chief minister who is the fantasy of many rank and file votaries of the BJP. He is the kind of leader who satiates the allure for violence and aggressive fantasies much more directly. He has a commitment to a governance philosophy that is the purest distillation of the authoritarian-communal model that we have ever seen. It is a governance style that is penal at its core. It literally carpet-bombs all procedural safeguards and tolerates an unprecedented infrastructure of vigilantism.
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Narendra Modi and Amit Shah may share the same ideological ambitions as Adityanath. But their methods have had to deploy a bit more stealth and subterfuge. Modi’s characteristic fakery was at least a tacit acknowledgement that he needed to appear in different ways to different audiences. It is worth speculating whether it is Adityanath’s shadowy presence that has led Modi to drop even the occasional smattering of pretence that he was capable of mustering. Adityanath upped the stakes in the “don’t just be cruel but also make sure you are seen to be cruel” game. As this column (IE, ‘Yogic Madness’, March 20, 2017) had argued, Adityanath’s elevation was the consolidation of extremes.
Third, no politician from the Hindi heartland has had serious national ambitions, or rather ambitions to wreck the nation. For all the national significance that was foisted on heartland leaders, Mayawati or Nitish Kumar, they were essentially players more comfortable on their own turf. Adityanath has national ideological ambitions, the need to wade into every state’s politics. The most recent example was using the Punjab government’s decisions to create Malerkotla as a district as another occasion for a communal provocation.
But hang on, you might say. The combination of an authoritarian communal chief minister who also seeks to be hegemonic is exactly what will also be the BJP’s undoing in the Hindi heartland. It is hard to even fake a UP model as a successful model of development nationally. Adityanath has probably been a net liability in campaigns outside the state. The recent loss in the panchayat elections suggests cracks in his edifice. If Opposition forces were to better combine in UP, the BJP can be defeated. But this is precisely why UP might pose a special problem.
The peculiar challenge for Indian democracy is that the Adityanath brand of politics could be a threat both if it succeeds and if it fails. We are reaching a stage in Indian democracy when we should not be complacent about peaceful transitions of power. The BJP is attempting to subvert an overwhelming democratic mandate in West Bengal, first by trying to communalise the political violence, violence for which the TMC must bear some blame. But the attempt to use the CBI to have four ministers arrested, is a reminder that as the BJP begins to lose prestigious battles, its commitment to peaceful transitions will be tested. UP will be ground zero for testing this commitment, precisely because the stakes there are the highest. The motives are present. So are the means. The infrastructure of fomenting violence is present.
UP has a long history of social violence. But a moral psychology legitimising an unprecedented ruthlessness is now becoming the default of civil society in UP, thanks to the new governance style.
Perhaps, the UP government’s handling of the pandemic will make its power unredeemable. The scenes of hundreds of bodies on river banks, subject to the ultimate indignity, may finally move our conscience. These have come to our consciousness largely because of the incredible reporting of reporters like Barkha Dutt, or the ground reporting and statistical forensic work of newspapers like the Dainik Bhaskar.
Perhaps, the shroud of silence over UP will finally break. But we should not take this for granted. For one thing, the UP government is going to double down on its denials, perhaps also the hounding of those who report the truth. But so far, like with the central government, the response has not been compassion. It has rather been to underscore the fact that they think people are drawn to them because of an imperious cruelty.
India’s tragedy is that while we often never cared enough for the living, we at least mourned the dead. The Ganga was supposed to give in death what we did not get in life —some dignity. But you can be sure that when we stop caring for the dead even more contempt for the living will follow; especially if the living choose to exercise their democratic agency and destroy the UP model before it destroys India.
This column first appeared in the print edition on May 21, 2021 under the title ‘The UP problem’.
The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.
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