UP elections 2022: Caste, not religion, key to Uttar Pradesh polls

With India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) licking its wounds after the debacle it suffered during the recently-concluded West Bengal assembly elections, attention is now turning towards India’s most populous state — Uttar Pradesh, which goes to the polls early next year.

UP, as the state is commonly referred to, is a behemoth by any standards. With a population of over 200 million, it would have been the world’s fifth-largest nation if it were a separate country.

With an area of 240,928 square km, UP covers 7.3 per cent of India’s land mass, and is roughly the size of the United Kingdom, according to Wikipedia. The Uttar Pradesh Police is the largest police force in the world.

It is thus a natural consequence that the state, true to its size, has an enormous influence on national politics. UP sends an astounding 70 members to the country’s Lower House of Parliament, the single-largest among the states, almost 13 per cent of its total membership.

As many as nine Prime Ministers of India have connections to the state, including the incumbent PM, Narendra Modi, who is the elected MP from Varanasi.

Geographically, UP is home to one of the most fertile stretches of land on the planet. It houses the Doab, the rich fertile plain between the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, and is home to several perennial, snow-fed streams. Sugar cane remains the chief crop, and farming is the mainstay of the state’s people, 66 per cent of whom are engaged in the occupation.

Paradoxically, however, UP also typifies everything that is wrong with India. Estimates by the Reserve Bank of India in 2011—12 showed that the state had 59 million people below the poverty line, the highest in the country.

The literacy rate of the state at the 2011 census was 67.7 per cent, which was below the national average of 74 per cent. Despite two-thirds of the state’s population being engaged in agriculture, 44.8 per cent of the state’s GDP comes from service industries.

According to the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC), Uttar Pradesh tops the list of states of encounter killings and custodial deaths. In 2014, the state recorded 365 judicial deaths out of a total 1,530 deaths recorded in the country.

An uphill battle

It is in this context that we need to look at the impending assembly polls in UP. The ruling BJP, which rode the Modi wave to a thumping victory in the last polls, is facing an uphill battle this time.

The state government, under Yogi Adityanath as its chief minister, has come under tremendous pressure over the last couple of months due to its failure to handle the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pictures of bodies floating in the rivers, rows of funeral pyres, remain vivid in the public mind, even as the intensity of the infections has abated somewhat. In addition, where the farm lobby has traditionally been the party’s stronghold, the promulgation of the new farm laws has led to discontent among the farmers, especially in the western parts of the state.

With Muslims comprising almost a fifth of the state population, the BJP had successfully played the religion card to consolidate the Hindu vote bank in the last polls, more so with the Ramjanambhoomi-Babri Masjid issue that had resulted the most gory communal riots in the 1990s. As per the latest court ruling, the construction of the temple is on. Whether the wounds will heal, is a different matter.

However, the biggest issue that plagues UP — and by extension the country — is that of caste politics. And in this election, as has been in previous ones, this one issue is going to remain the dominant factor.

When the architect of India’s constitution, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, introduced a reservation of 22 per cent for the Scheduled Castes and a further 7 per cent for the Scheduled Tribes in government jobs, his noble mission was to set right the millennia of oppression that these people, the lowest rung of India’s strict hierarchy, had suffered.

India’s festering wound

Unfortunately, what was to be a temporary measure for the initial 10 years, has now become a permanent festering wound in India’s politics. Caste politics is now the overwhelming factor in most elections, and as a result, like India’s labyrinthine caste system, a myriad of caste-based parties now operate across the political spectrum, each claiming to champion the caste it represents. Never mind if that is to the detriment to the larger nation.

The ruling BJP has traditionally been regarding as a party of the Brahmins, the highest caste in India’s hierarchy. The Brahmins, while comprising around 15 per cent of the state’s population, wield influence over the more than 25 per cent of the electorate, thus remaining a major vote bank.

In this regard, the BJP has scored an early victory in engineering the defection of Jitin Prasada, the son of late veteran Congress leader Jitendra Prasada, who is expected to be able to draw more support from this caste grouping.

As per estimations based on 2011 census, Dalits constitute 21.1 per cent of Uttar Pradesh population. Other Backward Classes (OBCs) constitute 40 per cent of Uttar Pradesh’s population. Yadavs form the single largest group among the OBCs, constituting around 40 per cent, and forming 15 per cent of the state’s population.

With these motley groups spread across the state, the parties that represent them are also equally varied. The principal parties — the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Rashtriya Lok Dal — all claim to be champions of these respective groups’ causes.

These mishmash of parties had resulted in close to two decades of coalition governments in power, leading to further policy paralysis.

Adityanath’s victory in the last election at least gave some stability to governance. However, the complete collapse of the health care system during the last month has amply shown that this has not led to any substantial positive improvement on the ground.

Thus, while it is early days yet, it seems at this juncture that a keen poll battle will be on the cards. Whether the BJP can use its fabled internet army to erase the public memory about the farmers’ protests and the COVID-19 pandemic is still to be seen.

The BJP has been an early mover, but other parties are also getting ready. The myriad political landscape of the state gives the ruling party an edge in the form of a fractured opposition.

To what level the opposition will be able to come together and pose a significant challenge to the ruling party will now be keenly watched.

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