At the time of Independence, UP (United Provinces until 1950, when it was renamed as Uttar Pradesh) was described as one of the best governed states, with tall leaders and some of the finest IAS officers. Today, it is the most important state in national politics, but remains poor and backward. Regional inequalities between the states in southern and western India and those in the Hindi heartland have shown increasing ‘divergence’ rather than ‘convergence’ in recent years. The reasons lie not just in the feudal, caste-based society that reinforces economic backwardness, but also in the state’s competitive and divisive politics of governance.
Social change was slow in the colonial and immediate post-colonial period in UP. The Congress, which enjoyed a majority until the late 1980s, failed to use the state’s enormous physical and social resources to bring about socio-economic development. UP was described in the mid-1960s as the “sleeping giant” and later as suffering from “the burden of inertia”. During the ’80s, for the first time, there was a slight shift away from agriculture to industry and economic growth surpassed the national average mainly due to the green revolution in eastern UP. Poverty was reduced, fuelling the assertion of the backward castes and Dalits.
This proved to be short-lived, though, with UP getting caught in a downward spiral in the 1990s. The collapse of the Congress in 1989 had made space for the politics of self-respect and dignity. Democratisation was accelerated with heightened consciousness of caste or communal identities and the rise of parties such as the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. The BJP, too, was mobilising the electorate using its Hindutva ideology, leading to communal riots and the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Throughout the 1990s, UP had hung assemblies and short-lived coalition governments. Competitive populist policies led to steep deterioration in the state’s fiscal health and growth rate, leading to a debt trap.
Two developments in the 2000s created hope of improvement—the weakening of identity politics and the emergence of majority governments. During the same period, however, UP witnessed a new wave of riots: Mau in 2005, Gorakhpur in 2007 and Muzaffarnagar in 2013. While the Mayawati government (2007-12) had introduced an inclusive economic agenda and witnessed no riot, UP has been seeing rapes, lynchings, riots and poor quality of public policy since 2012. Much of this has been due to communal politics and breakdown of law and order. The Akhilesh Yadav government, hoping to gain Muslim votes, did little to prevent communal incidents, and was accused of communalising the police and the administration.
The decline of the social justice parties has given room to the BJP and its new ideology of ‘non-Brahminical Hindutva’, aimed at bringing the lower castes into its fold. This explains the shift from the politics of social justice to that of aspiration among the upwardly mobile OBCs and Dalits, who are getting attracted to the promises of development made by Narendra Modi. This, and the BJP’s communally charged campaign were responsible for its massive victory during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and again in the assembly polls this year. Although CM Yogi Adityanath has promised “development of all, appeasement of none” and no discrimination based on caste, religion and gender, his government has not been able to rein in cow-protection vigilantes and lynchings. Instead of focussing on development, Adityanath has introduced divisive policies such as the ban on “illegal” slaughterhouses and new rules governing the sale of cattle, which have created economic difficulties for Muslims and others dependent on the trade.
There is indeed a close relationship between the divisive politics of identity and UP’s continuing trajectory of economic backwardness. The state epitomises the Hindi heartland—caste and communal mobilisation by political parties in their desire to capture power, riots, breakdown of law and order, negligent and poor governance—and needs a new leadership to bring in political order and development so that it can resume its position among the better-governed states.
(The writer is a national fellow at ICSSR and former professor at JNU, New Delhi.)