Heartland once morehttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/heartland-once-more/

Heartland once more

UP’s transformative result actually reflects pan-Indian changes

Uttar Pradesh has traditionally been the site where major shifts within the larger body politic are reflected. This has proved true in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections in a number of ways. The Congress party,perceived as being in deep decline in UP,obtained 21 seats,while the BJP could gain only one seat over 2004; the BSP’s failure to improve over its earlier position of 19 seats has not been commensurate with the hype that surrounded the party; and the SP has slipped from a high of 35 to 25 seats,though it remains the party with the highest number of seats. More important is the reversal of the locally bi-polar system that had emerged following the steep decline of both the national parties since 1998 with greater space being given to the SP and BSP. The 2009 elections have split the votes and accorded the Congress,for the first time since the ’80s,greater centrality in UP politics. 

The Congress’s spectacular performance is undoubtedly due to Rahul Gandhi’s effort over the last few years to rebuild the party organisation and its cadre. It also signals the revival of the Brahmin-Muslim-Dalit combine,based on which the Congress had ruled the state for many decades. The strategy of fighting the elections alone proved correct and sent a message to the electorate that the party was keen to emerge once again as a strong force. A section of the minority community also seems to have moved back to the Congress. Yet at the same time,the elections point to a fundamental grassroots reconfiguration of politics in UP,as well as in the country. The state had already,in the late ’90s,witnessed a decline in the sectarian primordial identities that had driven mass politics for over a decade,and its replacement by broad and aggregative identities and alliances constructed by all political parties. After that change,parties could no longer hope to obtain votes based solely on identity politics; they increasingly had to consider the electorate’s strong expectations for economic development and cleaner politics,as seen in the defeat of many “tainted” candidates. Nationally,it is witnessed in the fact that chief ministers perceived as having introduced development have not experienced anti-incumbency: Naveen Patnaik,Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Y.S.R. Reddy.     

This radical shift has impacted all political parties in the state. The BJP has found that its politics of Hindutva no longer works,best exemplified in the failure of Varun Gandhi’s planned “hate speech” to revive the party’s sagging fortunes. The failure of the BSP to introduce — despite its pronouncements on assuming power — inclusive development that could satisfy both the political/ economic expectations of upper castes and the demands of its Dalit core led to its defeat. The former,sensing the revival of the Congress,have been quick to return to the party they traditionally supported. The latter,having obtained self-respect and dignity,had hoped that with the BSP obtaining power on its own,it would work towards their economic uplift. Disappointed that Mayawati preferred to spend crores on memorials and parks rather than on education,health and infrastructure,a section seems to have gravitated towards the Congress,historically the party of the Dalits in the Hindi heartland.  

The SP,which represents the backward castes/ classes in UP,is facing an identity crisis that has affected this category throughout the Hindi heartland. During the ’90s,Mulayam Singh worked hard to weld his party’s base into a cohesive political community,but political change has been very rapid and the end of the decade witnessed the break-up of the backward-caste bloc and the emergence of a post-Mandal phase. The constructed identity of “backward” is unravelling due to urbanisation,education and political consciousness,

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exacerbating already existing divisions within it such as rural/ urban,affluent/ poor. The “most backward” segment has left the SP and moved towards the BSP and now perhaps the Congress,as it feels neglected by the SP and — as in Bihar — expects attention to its needs.  

In sum,the 2009 elections have revealed a more demanding electorate no longer satisfied with the identity politics of the past. With the Indian economy moving in recent years to a higher growth path,the message is clear: all sections of the population expect a share. Even communitarian parties such as the BSP and the SP are expected to usher in development; political empowerment does not suffice. Clearly a new politics is required if a resurgent Congress — in UP and in the country — is to satisfy a maturing electorate. 

The writer is professor,Centre for Political Studies,

Jawaharlal Nehru University express@expressindia.com