Last week’s unexpected landslide victory in Uttar Pradesh by the party of prime minister Narendra Modi has fuelled a debate about whether politics is changing in North India’s populous heartland state. What looked like a close, three-sided contest between Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, the Samajwadi–Congress alliance and the Bahujan Samaj Party ended with the BJP taking 312 of 402 seats in the state’s legislature. The Indian media has been flooded with analyses of this remarkable victory, with some commentators suggesting it represents the triumph of development over communal and identity politics.
Elections in Uttar Pradesh have generally been won by the parties that successfully engineer caste and religious alliances to gain a numerical advantage. (The state’s first-past-the-post electoral system means that as few as 35 per cent of voters can decide the result in individual constituencies.) But since this month’s result, many commentators are highlighting the BJP’s pledge to bring economic development to one of India’s poorest states. Did this allow the BJP to remould voter behaviour in favour of development and broadly nationalist sentiment?
Politics based on caste and religion became increasingly important in Uttar Pradesh in the 1990s, when the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party emerged as political forces. The Samajwadi Party, led by Mulayam Singh Yadav, was the largest party in state elections in 2002 and 2004, having mobilised the support of the Yadav community, Muslims and groups that the government refers to as “other backward classes.” Then, in 2007, the Bahujan Samaj Party, led by Mayawati, won an outright majority by winning a majority of votes from Dalits, other backward classes, and Brahmins. The Samajwadi Party returned to power in 2012, again with the support of the Yadav and Muslim communities.
Enter Narendra Modi, who has travelled the world drumming up business for India since he became prime minister in 2014, and has promoted the BJP’s Make in India campaign at home with great fanfare. In Gujarat, where Modi was chief minister, electricity and other basic services are relatively reliable, but the state is in the middle rank of Indian states on human development indicators. Incidents of communal violence and tension are still frequent throughout India, and Modi and the BJP have been slow to express condemnation. The BJP’s role in the caste-related suicide of a Dalit scholar in Hyderabad in January last year brought the party’s communal image in sharp focus.
Some commentators explain the BJP’s victory last week by arguing that the electoral prowess of the Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party–Congress had been exaggerated. Others point to the BJP’s carefully crafted communal rhetoric, which used nationalism and a refusal to “appease minorities” (code for Muslims) to appeal to non-Yadav, non-Jatav backward classes and Dalits. But many have argued that it was the promise of economic development, promoted intensively by the ever-present Modi, that was crucial. The prime minister strongly pressed the case that the BJP was uniquely able to deliver development to Uttar Pradesh, and that it was not a casteist party. He frequently chided Akhilesh Yadav, leader of the incumbent Samajwadi Party government, for his failure to deliver reliable electricity to the state.
But Modi notoriously took a more communal tone as well, arguing, for example, that for every kabristan (Muslim graveyard) in a village, there needed to be a shamshanghat (Hindu cremation ground), and making the loaded assertion, “If there is electricity during Ramadan then it should be available during Diwali too.” This was part of an unequivocally pro-Hindu, anti-Muslim strategy. Yogi Adityanath, who became chief minister after the election, warned in one speech that the situation in Western Uttar Pradesh was like that of Kashmir in the 1990s, suggesting that if the BJP didn’t win, that Hindus would be pushed out of their homes by Muslims.
While economic development may eventually determine the BJP’s continued sway over Uttar Pradesh, the party’s communal, non-secular credentials might also herald a reconfiguration of identity politics and social justice in the state. Events following the victory of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance at the national election in 2014 certainly suggest this possibility. Since then, numerous instances of “cow vigilantism” throughout India have led to violence against Dalits and Muslims. In 2016, in Uttar Pradesh itself, news emerged from a village called Dadri that a Muslim resident had been lynched after being falsely accused of storing beef in his refrigerator; in Una, Gujarat, lower-caste Dalit men were flogged by cow vigilantes for doing their job of skinning dead cows, work that no other caste groups will do. Modi and the BJP were slow to condemn these events.
Nor does the election of Yogi Adityanath as chief minister augur well for Uttar Pradesh’s caste and communal minorities. A priest-politician from the town of Gorakhpur in the state’s east, Adityanath is a staunch proponent of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, and a proponent of the construction of the Ram Temple on the disputed site of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. His role in inciting communal violence in Uttar Pradesh in 2007, as well as a 2005 drive to convert Christians to Hinduism as a form of ghar wapsi (home return to the Hindu nation), testifies to his communal credentials.
The leather industry in Uttar Pradesh will be an important test of development versus communalism. The state is home to a large number of tanneries and leather businesses. Recent media reporting has traced the decline of leather trade in one of Uttar Pradesh’s larger cities, Kanpur. The trade in leather, one of the products on Modi’s “Make in India” list, has suffered not only because of government regulations on industrial pollution but also because of cow vigilantism under the BJP’s rule. Cow protection groups don’t distinguish between cow slaughter and the skinning of a dead cow, and they attack the transporters of hides as well as the Dalits and Muslims who skin dead cows. This cultural movement has haphazardly directed its fury at those in the lowest socioeconomic stratum.
With the threat that vigilantism in Uttar Pradesh will put already marginalised workers at risk, the intersection of cultural nationalism and economic security will prove to be critical to the fortunes of the new government. Amit Shah, the BJP’s national president, has already vowed to shut down slaughterhouses in western Uttar Pradesh and ban the slaughter of cows, oxen and bulls. The livelihoods of people who depend on cow slaughter are likely to become even more precarious if cow vigilantism and slaughterhouse closures become the law of the land. Kanpur may lose its flourishing leather trade and Lucknow, an Islamic cultural centre famous for its tundey kebabs (made with beef or mutton), may also come under the scrutiny of the vigilantes.
Once the euphoria surrounding the BJP’s unprecedented win dies down, Uttar Pradesh will find out how secular the delivery of economic growth and development will be. A recognition that cultural politics can have profound economic ramifications for Muslim and Dalit workers needs to inform the new government’s plans. Otherwise, the BJP will feed the potentially explosive identity politics in India’s most populous state. •