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AT THE HEART
- As Uttar Pradesh begins its long march to the polling booth, a reminder why it remains the heartland

in every sense of the word (or a beginner’s guide to heartland politics)

Why is everyone saying the battle for India will be won on the dusty plains of Uttar Pradesh?

What else will they say if eight of the 13 Prime Ministers independent India has had trace their political roots to Uttar Pradesh.

Neither can you ignore the hard numbers. Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state and one of its worst off in terms of per capita income, economic growth and social indicators. Its political importance lies in the sheer size of its footprint in the Lok Sabha. Of the 543 Lok Sabha seats going to the polls this time, 80 belong to Uttar Pradesh. The number was 85 until 2000, before a separate state — Uttarakhand — was carved out of Uttar Pradesh.

Conventional political wisdom had it that the party that won the maximum number of the Uttar Pradesh seats could, by virtual right, claim the Delhi throne.

Although the state is not rich in mineral resources and its industrial base is weak, history has made it a crucible of turning-point events. Uttar Pradesh was the theatre of the revolt of 1857.

The chronicles of the Independence movement are studded with names from the state, including people like Chandrashekhar Azad (Bhagat Singh’s mentor), Govind Ballabh Pant, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, Ram Manohar Lohia, Madan Mohan Malviya, Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri.

The confluence of events, personas and demographics has caused almost everyone born in Uttar Pradesh to assume that he or she was ordained to arbiter the country’s political fate.

If Uttar Pradesh is so important, how come the Congress, which is in a mess in the state, has managed to rule India for the past 10 years?

First, the Congress’s destiny is intertwined with the fortunes of the Nehru-Gandhi family that initially drew sustenance from the soil of Uttar Pradesh.

However, that does not mean that if the Congress fares indifferently or even poorly in the state, it goes out of power at the Centre. The Congress’s unique position of being able to rule despite a seat crunch in Uttar Pradesh is because it has pockets of strength all over India.

The BJP, on the other hand, is heavily heartland-reliant. A poor showing in the Hindi belt throws it out of the reckoning for the big throne.

For instance, in 1989, when the Congress suffered a setback after V.P. Singh revolted, it was still the single-largest party with the largest vote share. Of the 510 seats it contested that year, it won over 190 and cornered 39.53 per cent of the votes. How? By sweeping Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and even gaining 27 (in alliance with the AIADMK) of Tamil Nadu’s 39 seats.

In 1991, the Congress formed a minority government under P.V. Narasimha Rao, despite getting only five seats in Uttar Pradesh.

In 1998, the BJP peaked with an all-time high of 182 seats out of the 388 it fought in. The BJP harnessed 57 of Uttar Pradesh’s 85 seats.

In the 1999 election, the BJP bucked the heartland-dependent trend a bit. Its Uttar Pradesh tally fell to 29 but it retained its 182 seats because of gains in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

The 2009 election is a more effective illustration of how much Uttar Pradesh means to the Congress and the BJP. The Congress returned with a vastly improved tally of 206 over 145 in 2004 and, more critically, picked up 21 seats in Uttar Pradesh, breaking a 20-year jinx. The ballast to anchor the Congress as UPA leader was supplied by the sweeps in Rajasthan and Andhra.

Against this, the BJP was left with an all-time low of 10 (since the 1991 upward ascent) in Uttar Pradesh and just 116 seats.

The figures underline the heartland’s centrality in the BJP’s scheme and the Congress’s pan-Indian base to keep it afloat through bad and good times.

Why has Uttar Pradesh not done well on development indices even after politicians from there have held the whip hand?

Uttar Pradesh has been predominated by the “mai-baap” mindset that defined the master-serf equation between a politician and his voter.

Once a politician was elected to Parliament or to the state legislature, his mandate supposedly was to throw crumbs of favours that ranged from granting petty contracts, procuring gun licences, facilitating college and school admissions and wangling transfers and postings for hand-picked bureaucrats. The biggest largesse an MP could bestow on his constituency was getting a public sector unit set up, roads constructed and tube wells dug and hope to win again.

For instance, in the 10 years that he was an MP from Phulpur from 1952 to 1962, Nehru commissioned one plant in the area — the Indian Farmers’ Fertiliser Cooperative or Iffco. There was nothing else from him for Phulpur.

Sonia Gandhi’s Rae Bareli, her seat since 1999, ranks among Uttar Pradesh’s 10 poorest districts with 57.78 per cent of the rural population below the poverty line. The schemes and projects she commissioned during the UPA government have not been fully operationalised.

The caste straitjacket is also held culpable for the socio-economic backwardness. An elected MP or MLA, with notable exceptions, primarily sub-serves the interests of the caste that votes for him.

The state has not produced a politician with an expansive vision rising above caste, community, region and sub-region. The Nehru-Gandhis could have broken the template but their politics works in a feudal mould.

Isn’t politics homogenous in Uttar Pradesh? Why do pundits talk of eastern UP, western UP, etc?

Uttar Pradesh is divided into four regions: (Paschim) west, Avadh (central), Poorvanchal (east) and Bundelkhand (to the south-west, bordering Madhya Pradesh).

Spoken dialects vary, as do sartorial modes and food habits. The regions are also circumscribed by castes that dominate them, although most castes are spread across the geographical swathes, demarcated by the Ganga and the Yamuna. In the west, Brajboli and Khariboli are the traditional dialects; the central districts use Kannaujiya, Avadhi and Bagheli while, to the east, Bhojpuri dominates conversations.

In the west, little or no rice is eaten. Eastwards, rice is the preferred grain. Women in the western districts bordering Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan mostly wear salwar-kurtas; in the central and eastern parts, except for the Muslims, women are seen only in saris with their faces in a shroud. Also, women are more visible in the fields and roads of western Uttar Pradesh than in central and east Uttar Pradesh and Bundelkhand. There is virtually no migration from the west to Delhi and the other metros; most of the influx into Delhi, Mumbai and Surat spills over from the east and Bundelkhand, which conceals a back narrative of the deep economic disparities whose outward manifestations are all too visible.

The national highways stretching from Gautam Buddh Nagar to Agra and from Ghaziabad to Pilibhit are signposted with the offspring of economic liberalisation: realtors, industrial units, hotels, private schools and colleges, tutorial centres, shopping complexes and even amusement resorts. Southwards of Pilibhit and Agra, the markers become fewer and fewer (except in prominent cities like Lucknow and Kanpur) until they vanish in the backwoods of the east opening into Bihar.

Economic conditions determine the levels of political consciousness: the more penurious an individual, the higher his politicisation.

As a corollary, the political acuity and stakes differ. In the west, even sections of Dalits and the backward castes have got financially empowered over decades, thanks to a scrupulous enforcement of the land ceiling act, a booming leather business that is largely owned by the Dalit-Jatavs, diversification into real estate, contracts and hotels. Here very few invest too keenly in politics except when caste bonding is strong or economic interests must be sub-served.

In the central and eastern parts, especially to the east, politics is everything. It is a privilege, an entitlement and the ultimate passport to security.

In the absence of industry, people either depend on farming or on government jobs. Getting a hand-pump installed or a teacher’s post in a state school or even filing an FIR in a police station is arduous: connections have to be found. Most people prefer tapping a politician than petitioning a deaf administration. Local political networks become strong. Not only do they patronise helpless citizens, politicians don the mantle of protectors by creating a web in which they encourage small-time goons to become proxy land sharks or arms agents, terrorise private citizens and then offer themselves as saviours against the “oppressors”.

What about caste? How big a role does it play?

The shadow of caste looms so large over the politicalscape that data reveal that barring 1984, when the Congress swept the elections held after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Uttar Pradesh was never a cakewalk for the party. The Congress was perceived largely as a party of the upper castes and Muslims. While the Dalits voted for it because they did not have a clear option before the BSP came in, the backward castes chose the socialist parties in their various avatars. The Congress’s greatest failing in Uttar Pradesh was lack of outreach to the backward castes that account for nearly 35 per cent of the electorate.

The BJP’s biggest strength was alongside Hindutva, it caught and channelled the backward caste reservoir into votes by projecting caste leaders like Kalyan Singh, Vinay Katiyar, Uma Bharti and now Narendra Modi.

What are the key castes in Uttar Pradesh?

The key castes are the Brahmins, Rajputs (Thakurs), Banias, Jats, Yadavs, Kurmis, Lodh-Rajputs and the Dalit-Jatavs.

The upper castes, comprising the Brahmins, Rajputs, Banias and a small group of Kayasthas (powerful in that their representation in the bureaucracy, judiciary and education is big), are spread all over except in the west. However, with the empowerment of the backward castes and the Dalits and the evolution of a distinct political identity for these castes, the upper castes get outnumbered in an election and rarely tilt the balance of votes in a constituency.

The Yadavs are non-existent in the west but are significant everywhere else. To them, Mulayam is god, but the younger Yadavs, who have seen life outside Uttar Pradesh, are viewing Modi positively.

The Jats matter only in the west and are divided between the RLD and the BJP. The Kurmis count as a grouping in certain pockets of the west (notably Bareilly), central and east. The Lodh-Rajputs call the shots in a slew of Lok Sabha seats spread over the west, central and Bundelkhand. Among the major backward castes, they are the most committed to the BJP because of the Hindutva quotient.

The Jatavs, too, are present everywhere and swear by the BSP and Mayawati.

Why is the BJP so upbeat in Uttar Pradesh this time?

The BJP is upbeat because it believes Modi means many things to many people: the backward classes are supposedly drawn to him because he could be India’s first backward-class Prime Minister.

In the BJP’s traditional “Hindutva constituency”, the shadow of the 2002 riots that hangs over Modi, considered his biggest liability, apparently works to his advantage.

For a larger constituency of the upper castes/ upper classes, Modi’s overemphasis on governance and development is an effective counterpoint against the UPA’s “non-governance”.

The BJP thinks it has welded together its former axis of the upper castes and sections of the backward castes and Dalits in Modi’s name in Uttar Pradesh. Added to that is the chunk of new voters, and the BJP claims it is on a roll in Uttar Pradesh. Its cadre is active and the RSS is fully supportive.