Uttar Pradesh (UP) has historically cast a gigantic shadow over national politics since Independence by virtue of its size, population and the number of Parliamentary constituencies it represents, even after Uttarakhand was carved out of the state in 2000. Assembly elections in UP also provoke great interest and concern in Delhi, as they are seen to impact on national equations of power and on the stability and composition of the ruling alliances at the centre.
The protracted Assembly elections schedule, seven phases over an entire month between April 7 and May 8, 2007, is itself an index of the extraordinary sensitivities and complexities that have come to dominate elections in this core state. Further, the passions that have been ignited in the pre-election phase, the eventually abortive calls for President's rule, the continuing scrutiny of the conduct of various political parties, particularly the ruling Samajwadi Party, and apprehensions of rigging, suggest an election that will be fraught with tensions. Worse, the outcome that is projected already indicates another unstable and ideologically tenuous alliance with either the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) or the Samajwadi Party (SP)—both seeking electoral mobilisation on caste-communal 'formulas'—at the helm, boding little that is good for this hulking state's future.
Unnoticed behind UP's extended political tragedy of misgovernance is a subtle transformation in the character of this state's and India's democracy. While this offers little hope of abruptly catapulting the state into the forefront of development and progress, it is of historical significance within the tentative processes of democratic transformation. Caste has, for long, played a defining role in national politics, with almost all political parties—including the dominant 'national' parties—deciding their candidates on the basis of the caste profile of particular constituencies. But this practice has acquired a particular virulence in UP, and electoral strategies have tended to be defined almost completely in terms of caste configurations.
Progressively, however, even the most narrowly conceived caste platforms are being forced by electoral arithmetic into a more inclusive mould, one that often stands traditional caste politics on its head (though it remains within the confines of caste politics). The BSP, for instance, was created on a platform of exclusive Dalit mobilisation and had viscerally rejected the 'Manuwadi parties' and upper caste formations in its ideological pronouncements. Working on purely mathematical grounds, Kanshi Ram had propounded the thesis that the Dalits and depressed castes, the 'bahujan', could seize power across India through a united caste front. With ruthless realism, however, Kanshi Ram did not hesitate in reaching out to the hated upper castes, among others, in order to capture power in UP. Thus, as far back as the 1996 election, the winning candidates of the BSP included nine 'upper castes', 12 Muslims, 26 backward castes, and just twenty Dalits. This tactic is now entrenched in Mayawati's BSP, and it is interesting to note that the BSP has even taken extraordinary measures specifically to attract and embrace the 'hated Brahmin'.
In June 2005, for instance, the BSP organised a 'Brahmin maha rally' after an extended campaign of 'Brahmin jodo sammelans' (Brahmin enrolment congregations). The BSP has also joined hands with both the BJP and the Congress—both reviled Manuvadi parties—to form governments in UP, clearly demonstrating the limits of exclusionary caste mobilisation within India's complex electoral politics. Similar efforts by all parties in the fray in UP, at once balancing caste and communal platforms with a progressively more inclusive strategy of mobilisation, are visible in the run-up to the Assembly elections, 2007.
The flip side of the dilution of exclusionary agendas of regional formations such as the BSP and SP, is the influence their politics has had on 'national' parties such as the Congress and the BJP, who have progressively been forced to acknowledge and internalise many of the issues and concerns highlighted by these formations, into their own organisational perspectives. This is most dramatically visible in the case of the BJP's Hindutva platform, widely perceived as being dominated by upper caste conservative elements and a homogenising ideology that sought to impose a single identity and culture on the entire nation.
The BJP's alliance with the BSP has been a powerful moderating influence on the party's upper caste orientation, and has forced it to recognise and acknowledge Dalit sensitivities. Thus, while 'nationalist' forces may rail against the 'divisive' agenda and 'petty politics' of regional, sub-national and caste-based formations, these 'petty' formations, in fact, impose many positive constraints on potential excesses of the homogenising 'nationalist' perspective that may threaten the freedoms and aspirations of small groups in the supposed 'larger' interest. To the extent that these sub-national formations impose rational constraints on irrational immoderation on the part of jingoists and ideologues who often speak from a faux nationalist or pretend patriotic platform, they are not only consistent with, but help significantly further, India's constitutional agenda.
India is an extraordinary experiment in human coexistence. Any political movement that bases itself on a denial of this country's infinite diversity is bound to hit a wall fairly quickly, however valid its outlook may be from a particular point of view, or within a particular population segment or region. Just as a pan-Hindu or pan-Islamist movement has little chances of success on this soil, so a pan-Indian caste-based movement will inevitably founder against the sheer diversity of peoples, interests and aspirations in the country.
Eventually, the aspirations that remain common to all are connected with developmental concerns—education, employment, health, food security, water, housing, among others. Religion, caste, or feigned nationalism, may help divert public attention for a while, and may win an occasional election, but cannot be permanent electoral strategies. As soon as some political parties recognise this in UP, and are able to translate it into a persuasive electoral campaign, the gridlock of unstable and ideologically incompatible coalitions will be overcome. The imperatives of administration may then, once again, begin to assert themselves and would, hopefully, at some stage, lead to a rationalisation and eventual division of UP into more manageable administrative units. This would not only help accelerate the pace of development, it would also put an end to the disproportionate and historically destructive influence UP's electoral politics has had, both within the state and at the centre.
K.P.S. Gill is a former DGP, Punjab. This piece originally appeared in The Pioneer