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The substance of the U.P. elections

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Om Prakash Rajbhar, who heads the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, was once a key actor in the non-Yadav Other Backward Classes (OBC) cast of characters in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition. He has been among those most vocal on why Uttar Pradesh is ripe for churn and change. Mr. Rajbhar’s slogan of ‘ Ghulami Chhodo, Samaj Jodo (Quit slavery and forge social unity’) is more than just a backdrop for his television interviews. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s three OBC Ministers have jumped ship, along with a steady trickle of other OBC leaders heading out, citing the same mantra in their resignation letters — neglect of backwards, Dalits, farmers and unemployed youth. These lines are contours of a much larger story which appears to be taking shape beyond the State elections that begin in February.

Big Bang spectacles in the form of the Kashi corridor and incendiary anti-Muslim rhetoric were effective devices to shut out all other conversation. But they were also clear articulations of the Hindutva vision for India, which wants saffron to replace the vision of a rainbow Indian nationalism. This has meant offering Backwards a space, but under a decidedly Hindu umbrella.

A generation has gone by since Mandal, and now OBC youngsters empowered by its fruits, have logically longed for more. The 2010 economic slowdown soured many dreams, but in Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a significant OBC section found a hero. OBCs made their presence felt in the 2014 election. There was a record turnout of 68% of 18 to 25 yearolds who represented 25% of voters — higher than the national average. The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) records that 34.4% of them supported Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which was three percentage points above the overall support for the party. It appeared they were willing to give up the hard-earned material benefits of ‘social justice’ for the emotional succour of ‘accommodation’ under the saffron umbrella. Mr. Modi, and then Mr. Adityanath, had been able to fold everyone into the ‘Kamandal’.

Historically, the land economy of Uttar Pradesh was centred on the exploitative and unreformed zamindari system. The thick overlap between land ownership, economic strength and social hierarchy made social reform next to impossible, unlike Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, which saw vibrant social movements led by the likes of Sree Narayana Guru, Periyar and Jyotiba Phule, respectively, leavening the soil for a more egalitarian order. What Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin has recently termed the ‘Dravidian model’, where social reform was successfully welded into economic uplift, or what Kerala saw in terms of multiple initiatives such as the People’s Plan, focussing on a bottom-up or capabilities approach, never made it to Uttar Pradesh.

There is economic distress

The downturn in the economy since 2016 has led to desperation in Uttar Pradesh; while not shown on television or most newspapers, a rapid fall in living standards has led to a churn being triggered off. Uttar Pradesh may have been BIMARU (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, a term to describe backwardness) but it has done successively worse and that has added to the misery. Labour force data has established that U.P.’s total working-age population has increased by over 2 crore over the past five years, but the total number of people with jobs shrunk by over 16 lakh. Youth unemployment has increased five times since 2012.

The Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) of U.P. grew at a compound growth rate of only 1.95% over 2017-21. In contrast, the rate was 6.92% over 2012-17 during the previous State government. Inflation, especially food inflation, has hurt the poorest who form the bulk of U.P.’s population. NITIAayog’s first Multi-Dimensional Poverty Index ratings have U.P. in the bottom three, with 37.79% being poor, far higher than the national average. The Aayog’s Health Index showed U.P. to be continuing to be the worst performer. This was for data before the novel coronavirus pandemic struck. The state of affairs of pandemic management in the State was made clear by bodies seen afloat in the Ganga, and later buried in shallow graves on the river banks.

The context

There is a clear social component to the economic slide, as demonetisation, the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and then the mishandling of COVID-19 have disproportionately affected the informal economy, which for a State like U.P. is in effect its only economy. This informal economy is where the majority of the population finds work and sustenance, and comprises, not by a coincidence, the socially backward. There was no relief as far as the crisis in agriculture was concerned and farmers in U.P. became more anxious with the enactment of the new farm laws; this is why the farmers’ agitation has been able to strike a deep chord in the State. Unease with a Chief Minister running a caste-conscious administration got full expression. The failing economy has fuelled the feel-bad sentiment in the State.

The refusal of the BJP to conduct a caste census or declare the numbers of the Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) conducted in 2011, has provoked more anger among numerically smaller castes and their leaders, who had so far subsumed themselves in the Hindutva tent. This has been exacerbated by upper caste dominance which has played out in five years. In 2017, the Vidhan Sabha in Lucknow consisted of 44.3% upper caste MLAs, their highest share in the State’s Assembly since 1980. The BJP set up a commission headed by Justice (retired) G. Rohini to sub-categorise castes to apportion reservation more fairly to under-represented castes. This commission was to submit its report in 2018, but is expecting to get its twelfth extension, according to a media report. A social justice committee headed by Allahabad High Court judge Justice (retired) Raghavendra Kumar in October 2018 submitted a report to the State government, but it is still being studied.

For a new model

The stage seems set for a change — of discourse and the all-important narrative — as voices from within the BJP fort are beginning to air radically different sentiments from what Hindutva proponents would want them to. Added to backward class angst and thwarted desires, along with the ruined economy, is the experience of Dalits in the State. Apart from being hit economically, by virtue of being at the bottom of the social hierarchy, they have also been at the receiving end of crimes in the State. Last year, according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, crimes against them in U.P. constituted 25% of all crimes recorded against Dalits in India. The Bahujan Samaj Party has gone into virtual silent mode and this has allowed the Samajwadi Party to try and extend its reach and construct a broader coalition encompassing Dalits too in a way that Rashtriya Janata Dal Lalu Prasad Yadav managed to in Bihar in the early 1990s.

This could be a time when U.P. sees itself emerging into its own, with its own version of Dravidian modelling, finally being able to hardwire politics with a call for real social and economic change. It would be a moment for U.P. to savour if it can make true the Socialist Lohiaite call for ‘ Picchde paanve sau mein saath ’ (Backwards must get 60%, as they are 60% of the population’) widening the definition of backwards into non-forwards. This 60% is not just about reservation in government jobs but about their due share in the economy, politics and other institutions of the State. It is not caste assertion but about their rights, both constitutional and socio-economic.

The BJP’s idea is of benefaction from the Leader, while the clear desire which is being expressed now is to accord them what is theirs by right. Devising its own comprehensive model may be the answer to U.P.’s ferment, one where economics, participation and representation is driven by people-propelled policies; not those diverted by demonising “internal enemies”, or in the name of ancient India, a respect for the ‘status-quo’ caste hierarchy which has served its people very poorly. These tremors, the counter-cry of 85 versus 15 (referring to the notional Backward and Forward numbers) challenging the 80 versus 20 Hindutva discourse and the politics of one-leader, one-nation, call for politics in India’s most populated State, and therefore India, to move into another gear.

These are noises which no conch shell sounds can drown out. It will haunt whoever comes to power in March. Uttar Pradesh is on the cusp of change. There seems to be a clamour for real change, real power and empowerment. As Mr. Rajbhar’s slogan puts it pithily, it is about no ‘ghulami’, or no slavery; backwards not being content with playing the Kevat or Shabari to Lord Ram on a saffron stage, but wanting to write their own Epic. Like the farmers’ stir provided a road map to all sections of society by making sure they do not get steam-rolled, voices gathering in India’s most populated State, may well provide a grammar and a vocabulary to resist the national discourse in place since 2014. That is the significance of the U.P. elections; not necessarily its result.

Seema Chishti is a journalist-writer based in New Delhi


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Printable version | May 20, 2022 7:49:04 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-substance-of-the-up-elections/article38330553.ece