It is a sign of the stakes in Uttar Pradesh that all political parties already seem to be in election mode. But UP politics will be particularly intense, because like the state itself, the character of politics has very little organic identity left. At one level, there is considerable evidence that voting patterns in UP are a lot more fluid than standard analysis that tries to correlate social identity with voting patterns allows for. For instance, part of Mayawati’s Dalit base has on occasion deserted her, particularly during the 2014 elections, and there is growing evidence of fluidity in the Muslim vote as well. This is also a state where the distinction between national and local elections is often quite clear. In 2009, Congress did well in the national elections, but failed to convert it into a state victory. In 2014, the BJP did spectacularly well. How much of those gains can endure? The state is characterised by deep genuine multi-party competition, with little likelihood of it congealing into a competition of two blocks. Each of the four major parties — the SP, BJP, BSP and Congress — aspires to form a government on their own.
In UP, almost all parties have conspired to put a lid on the politics of inequality within the state. There is considerable variation in the development experience of eastern, central and western UP. But most unconscionably, whole regions like Bundelkhand that have suffered immensely have been sidelined by all political parties. One measure of that marginalisation is the fact that all demands for the trifurcation of UP have been taken off the political agenda. Small states are not a panacea. But the case for breaking up UP is quite compelling.
Any party half-serious about UP’s development would at least try and make trifurcation a political issue; Mayawati had once proposed it but has backed off. The Congress lost considerable political credibility by raising concerns over Bundelkhand, only to avoid the issue of statehood. The deep question of regional inequality within the state cannot be addressed within the existing state framework. The suppression of the trifurcation argument is a suppression of the debate over UP’s development itself, and the character of its politics will not change unless the state is itself broken up.
But in this election in UP, the politics of memory will probably dominate the politics of hope. All the four political parties carry too much of the weight of the past. The debate will not be over which party can bring about a decisive transformation; it will be over which party’s baggage weighs the least. Mayawati, to her credit, did stabilise law and order in UP. But even her core constituents felt a sharp sense that the promised transformation in the state did not come. In retrospect, though, Mayawati should gain from grudging acknowledgment of her achievement. Akhilesh Yadav was elected with considerable hope; he seemed to exacerbate all the vices of the Samajawadi Party rather than accentuate its virtues.
The Congress is still struggling with its betrayal of the minorities during the ’80s. It has no achievement to point to, no ground on which it can stand. It is struggling in other ways too: It does not have credibility, identity, leader or organisation. In some ways, a Congress-Mayawati political accommodation would make a lot of political sense. Even though both would sacrifice something in the short run, a defeat for the BJP in UP will potentially open up spaces for both parties.
The BJP did spectacularly in the 2014 election. But in UP, the party’s most reactionary and communal core is also dominant. This core does give the party a certain organisational energy; and it will be foolish of other parties to underestimate the BJP machine’s capacity for political outreach to new constituencies, particularly Dalits. But the BJP is suffering from two handicaps. The first is that almost all its UP related project, like cleaning the Ganga, as ambitious as they were, may not be implemented in time; in short, the implementation capabilities of the government may not give sufficient wind to its campaign. Second, the party does not have an obvious leader who is without considerable baggage. Rajnath Singh is a seasoned politician. But no one has a memory of him, either at the Centre or at the state, of firing up administration. Smriti Irani will bring energy and freshness, but what she stands for will be unclear; and the rest of the lot have long track records of being openly communal.
Two contrasts between Bihar and UP are also instructive. Bihar has been the graveyard of every social revolution, but its politics has always aspired to a sense of being composed of genuine social movements. Except for fleeting moments, UP politics has been more nakedly a politics of patronage and faction, with not even the fig leaf of ideology. Second, in Bihar, “communal” versus “secular” has been a central axis of politics. In UP it would be historically odd to describe any of the parties as staking the secular ground in any deep way. The Congress’s active de-Muslimisation of the state administration in the ’50s, to flirting with communalism in the ’80s; the SP’s constant use of the communal card; the BJP’s obvious roots in communal politics; Mayawati’s relative indifference to these issues; and even the old Jat-Muslim divide that was reflected in Charan Singh’s politics — all make for a state politics that is at base far more deeply cynical and potentially communal.
UP has not been immune from economic change. The fragmentation, volatility and uncertainty in UP politics is a consequence of these changes. You get a sense of an electorate that is desperate to experiment; equally, you get the sense that none of the political formations are up to responding to these big challenges. The congealed structures of violence in UP mean that any party that comes to power will have an immense challenge in reforming the state. We also know one thing: Historically, reforming the state in a development direction requires a government that has a broad social coalition behind it, one that takes the edge off social conflicts and concentrates on governance.
Unfortunately, unless there are dramatic developments, it is unlikely that any eventual victor will have that broad base behind it. It is all the more reason for all parties that are genuinely interested in the people of UP to at least once again bring the trifurcation of UP on the political agenda. It might create a forward-looking politics with new possibilities, rather than a backward-looking reactionary configuration.