How does India’s most populous state perceive itself? How do these self-images—vivid and paradoxical—impact its polity and polls, and more importantly, Indian democracy? Why couldn’t the lower castes’ movement in the state, which saw the surge of OBC politics and made a Dalit woman chief minister, dampen the majoritarian temple movement? These questions may offer a few clues towards decoding the ongoing elections in Uttar Pradesh, where a mosque that barely existed in the cultural memory of Mathura has become an electoral issue, and a Dalit family in Hathras is forced to cast their vote under heavy security.
To begin with, most residents of UP barely have the sense of belonging to the entire province that is so often seen in other states. Let alone the cultural and linguistic exclusiveness of non-Hindi speaking states—like Kerala, West Bengal and Assam—even residents of Hindi-speaking states have a distinct identity—Haryanvi, Bihari, Chhattisgarhia, Jharkhandi. Residents of UP primarily carry the regional identities of Purvanchali, Awadhi and Ruhelkhandi, but rarely a singular, monolithic image. Even the often-used term in public discourse, Western UP, is a mere geographical convenience and signifies little cultural bonding. Agra and Shamli are technically in Western UP, but Agra’s kinship mostly remains with the other towns of the Brij region, like Mathura and Hathras.