The landslide victory of the All India Trinamool Congress in the West Bengal Assembly elections and the pushback of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala have given rise to a pervasive belief that right-wing politics can be defeated by regional assertions. Undoubtedly, regional and cultural assertion in these States acted as an effective bulwark against the BJP’s expansionary plans in southern and eastern India. The regional-cultural tropes deployed by Mamata Banerjee, for example, worked so well that at one point, Home Minister and BJP leader Amit Shah was even forced to clarify that if the BJP is elected, someone from Bengal would be the Chief Minister. This underlines the effectiveness of regional culture and politics in trumping communal politics. However, this claim needs to be tempered by the realism that it cannot work in the Hindi heartland, which is dominated by caste and communal politics, and has so far not seen any serious ideological and political challenge to politics based on these identities.
Encompassing nine States whose official language is Hindi, namely Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh (U.P.) and Uttarakhand, this region retains a central position in the electoral strategies of the BJP and its larger political imagination. The party’s stunning show in these States propelled it to power in the 2014 and 2019 parliamentary elections . Its continued political dominance in the heartland will neutralise its losses now as well as in future in States where it has been bested by regional players. I will focus here on U.P. to illustrate the limits of the regional assertion.
Dimensions in the heartland
The Hindi heartland is clearly different. There are at least four important dimensions of this difference. First is the absence of regional identity in States such as U.P. This is evident from the debate on States reorganisation and the reorganisation of Uttar Pradesh in the 1950s. The compulsions of nation-oriented identity emerged very clearly from the discussions in the States Reorganisation Commission on suggestions for the division of U.P. for administrative convenience. U.P. leaders argued for a large and powerful State in the Gangetic valley as a guarantee of India’s unity.
In this sense, U.P. was considered the backbone of India and the centrepiece of political identity in modern India. Importantly, it was supposed to provide the chief bulwark against growing regionalisation and fragmentation elsewhere. Instilling a sense of regional pride, an essential part of Congress strategy in southern and coastal India, was not followed in U.P. U.P. was seen as the political heartland in contrast to Punjab and Bengal for instance, which were splintered and incorporated into two different nation states. As is well known, the bases of this post-colonial identity varied from its location in the freedom struggle to staking claim as the cultural homeland of Hindi and Hinduism. In both cases, it was centred in the idiom of the nation-state and strong central authority.
Second, although U.P.’s cultural homogeneity remains a matter of disagreement, the idea of the heartland had great resonance among the political elite who opposed the demand for U.P.’s reorganisation. The long-standing traditions of composite cultural identity and shared plural cultures began to yield place to a singular homogenised identity. The Hindi-Urdu divide, which mirrored the communal cleavage of U.P. society, played a crucial role in this process. Urdu was excluded as it was seen to symbolise Muslim cultural identity in independent India, while Hindi was boosted to promote the development of a Hindi-Hindu heritage for this region. The project of homogenisation of Indian/U.P. culture as Hindu culture was quickened in later decades. Even though it would be hard to assume a direct link between Hindi dominance and communal politics of subsequent decades, it is nevertheless a fact that all political parties in the State used it as an ingredient of social and cultural differentiation and a means to consolidate political dominance.
Role of communal politics
Third, it is clear that communal politics and communal movements have played a key role in U.P.’s modern history which in turn have diluted other identities.
In some respects, this process gained momentum in the wake of Partition which cast its long shadow upon political institutions and culture in U.P. and to a great extent affected the perspectives of Hindus and Muslims alike. Hindu nationalism was marginalised within the Congress party but many of its ideas were accepted in framing party policies. The State leadership was instrumental in forging a conservative consensus in the State under Chief Minister G.B. Pant who steered the affairs of the state for eight years after Independence.
The intensification of communal politics took a new turn with the mass mobilisation for the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya which was deftly used by the Hindu right to establish a major presence in U.P. and to facilitate the political reconstruction of U.P. through the promotion of a collective Hindu identity. The crusade for the appropriation of disputed shrines is central to the communalisation of politics and short circuiting the more complex process of political expansion for the BJP.
Importantly, this has laid the groundwork for building permanent electoral majorities through the deployment of ascriptive symbols in U.P. which, given its huge size, helps it to establish a strong base in the Hindi heartland to offset the appeal of countervailing identities elsewhere in India.
Caste politics too
Finally, caste politics which was expected to counter Hindutva expansion has failed to do so; in fact, caste politics has become a building block for the BJP’s expansion. The party has reached out to Dalits, actively mobilising them and other backward castes to assimilate them into the Hindutva meta-narrative. Instead of erasing caste from electoral politics, the BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has sought to court fragments of castes as a way of undermining broad-based political movements and opposition to it. It has used the wider appeal of Hindu nationalism to co-opt backward castes and Dalits who are keen to align themselves to the larger narrative of Hindu nationalism.
A reset is needed
While regional parties will continue to be significant in various States of the Union, the principal challenge of overcoming majoritarianism lies in the Hindi heartland, especially in U.P. Oppositional electoral alliances, notably the formation of a federal front, are important strategies in this battle but it is no less important to challenge the ideological foundations of the majoritarian project through progressive and inclusive politics. This requires a reset of the basic political mindset in U.P. which can only be done by reviving the splendid heritage of the national movement in which this region played a central role and in which Gandhiji and Nehru played a heroic part. Invoking the spirit of the Bhakti movement which was the first major challenge to the religious orthodoxy of Hinduism would also help in resetting the cultural clock. This must, however, combine with much greater concern for the fundamental social and economic issues of the State, and making the struggle between communal and secular forces the central issue through public campaigns that address the problems of religious traditionalism and the cultural underpinning that this provides to the push to make India a Hindu state.
Zoya Hasan is Professor Emerita, Jawaharlal Nehru University