Uttar Pradesh: India’s Key State

To understand Uttar Pradesh is to understand India. Located in the northern plains of India, Uttar Pradesh (UP), has a population of 199.5 million. This is 16.49% of the national population of 1.2bn, and makes UP the country’s most populous state. If Uttar Pradesh was a country, it would have the fifth highest population in the world.

Demography indicates that 80% of the inhabitants of Uttar Pradesh adhere to Hinduism and 18% to Islam. The remaining 2% of the population consists of minorities like Christians, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs.  

Subsequent upon India obtaining independence from the British in 1947, the Congress Party, the predominant political party at the time, took control of the political fortunes of the state.

The political importance of Uttar Pradesh can be ascertained from the fact that since India achieved independence in 1947, eight out of fourteen of its prime ministers have hailed from Uttar Pradesh.

Any initiation to the politics of Uttar Pradesh would be incomplete without an introduction to the caste system widely prevalent in India. To the uninitiated, the Hindus, who are in a majority in India, are divided into ”castes”, which in ancient times were associated with the profession a person prescribed to. With the passage of time, the professional aspect of the “caste system” deteriorated, and changing castes to suit one’s professional preferences was gradually prohibited.

The political strategists of the Congress party had conjured up a social miracle by getting both the Brahmins (considered to be of higher caste), and the Dalits (who were at the bottom of the caste ladder), to vote enmasse for the Congress Party. The political brew was exacerbated by the Muslims being manipulated as a captive vote bank for the Congress party.

In 1975, the then prime minister Indira Gandhi, in the face of a judicial stricture, committed a constitutional coup by declaring  a constitutional emergency in the country. The imposition of the emergency restricted the fundamental rights of the citizens as outlined in the Indian constitution.

The resentment of the common man against the draconian emergency ensured that the Congress Party – which with its political concoction of caste and religion had managed a political stranglehold over the state – met its comeuppance in 1977. It was also annihilated in most of the country by an alignment of opposing factions, known as the Janata Party.

However, internal disputes led to the downfall of the Janata Party in 1979, and allowed Indira Gandhi to get back into power.

An old Muslim woman, Shah Bano, ensured that 1986 became a watershed year for Indian politics. Unable to stand up to the ire of the Muslim fundamentalists over a court decision which granted alimony to the divorcee, Rajiv Gandhi introduced a policy measure of appeasement of the fundamentalists.

Rajiv Gandhi initially promised to stand up to the fundamentalist Muslims, who were up in arms against what they perceived to be interference by the courts into their personal religious affairs. But as the pressure from the fundamentalists continued to build, Rajiv Gandhi gave up on his policy for the sake of retaining the Muslim vote bank for the Congress party.

In order to appease the fundamentalist Muslims, the judicial decision in favor of Shah Bano was overturned by a retrogressive constitutional act. The national outcry against this appeasement of the Muslims unnerved Rajiv Gandhi who became apprehensive of losing favor with his Hindu voters.

In a bid to ingratiate Hindu voters, Rajiv opened the locks at the disputed Ram Janambhoomi temple complex in the holy city of Ayodhya situated in Uttar Pradesh. The locks at the disputed site which had led to communal tension between the Hindus and Muslims in the past had been in place since 1949.

The temple dispute has an uncanny resemblance to the Al Aqsa dispute in Jerusalem. The Hindus claim that the Mughal emperor Babur had built a mosque there by demolishing a temple which had been built to commemorate the birth place of Ram, revered by Hindus as a god, and considered to be a king of ancient Ayodhya.

Rajiv Gandhi however failed in his effort to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds.

Following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the right wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had been decimated in the 1984 general elections, staged a comeback to national politics by riding piggyback on its opposition to the appeasement policy for Muslims being followed by the Congress Party. It was further able to polarize Hindu support in its favor by launching a strident movement for building a temple at the disputed site.

Uttar Pradesh became a communal battleground with communal violence ensuring that most of the cities in the state endured long periods of curfew which were imposed to stop communal violence from spreading.

Uttar Pradesh, with its high percentage of Muslim inhabitants, thus became unwittingly involved on a political chessboard, with religion being used as a pawn.

In the aftermath of rising communal tension, combined with Rajiv Gandhi becoming embroiled in a financial scandal in the purchase of artillery guns from a Swedish company, the Congress Party again lost power in 1989. But as a legacy, the Congress Party had introduced the concept of religious appeasement into the democratic electoral polity.

Before Uttar Pradesh could recover from the communal cauldron, it became ground for another political experiment which threatened to tear apart the social fabric of India.

In 1990, Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh of the Janata Dal, a party which had replaced the Congress government, was under siege from his own deputy prime minister Devi Lal. V.P.Singh, and in true Machiavellian style introduced the “Mandal Commission” report for government jobs.

 The report which had been shelved by successive Congress governments, had recommended the introduction of 27% quotas in government jobs for the socially backwards classes known as the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The vast majority of those who would benefit from this were backward caste Hindus.

The introduction of the “Mandal Commission” was less in empathy for the OBCs and aimed more towards countering Devi Lal politically.  The economically affluent OBCs were also perceived to be a substantial vote bank due to their sheer numbers.

But V.P.Singh underestimated the dormant anger in upper caste Hindu students. The students, apprehensive of elusive government jobs being snatched away from them through quotas, took to self immolation to convey their frustration.

The ugly face of caste which had plagued Hindu and therefore the Indian society for ages, revisited Uttar Pradesh which now became divided into antithetical caste camps.

The acceptance of the BJPs on the political scene had been steadily increasing since the Shah Bano case. The party grew apprehensive of the Mandal Commission’s recommendations, creating a permanent schism on caste lines amongst its urban middle class Hindu supporters.

 As a political countermeasure the BJP raised its game for Hindu control of the disputed site at Ayodhya.

An already volatile situation spiraled out of control when the Babri mosque – the disputed structure at the Ayodhya temple site –  was demolished by a mob of Hindu fanatics in 1992. The flames of subsequent communal violence altered Hindu-Muslim relations dramatically.

The BJP temporarily reaped electoral benefit because of the communal polarization but gradually withered away in Uttar Pradesh with the rise of caste-based political parties in the state. The Mandal commission inadvertently gave rise to political parties whose raison d’etre is their affinity to a particular caste group.

The emergence of these caste-based parties, like the OBC dominated Samajwadi Party (SP) and the lower caste Dalit Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), has gradually ensured that national parties have been pushed into the background.

The political importance of Uttar Pradesh can be judged from the fact that with 403 assembly seats, it has the largest state-level assembly in India. The state also sends 80 parliamentarians the largest number, to the national parliament.

 There was a time when it was said that, “whoever ruled UP ruled India”. Though times have changed, there is no denying the fact that whichever party gains ascendance in Uttar Pradesh becomes a front runner for forming a government in New Delhi.

The local assembly election this month therefore also assumes the additional importance of being a precursor for the national polls due in 2014.

The election bugles have been sounded. The electoral warriors are sharpening their vocal weapons. The common man is maintaining his silence. The state waits with bated breath.

How Uttar Pradesh votes today, India will vote tomorrow.

Read more on this 360° series

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