Heartland politics

Published : May 09, 1998 00:00 IST

Quest for Power: Oppositional Movements and Post-Congress Politics in Uttar Pradesh by Zoya Hasan; Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1998; pages 280, price Rs.445.

THE metaphor of the "heartland" is readily accepted as a description of the State of Uttar Pradesh in its relation to the Indian polity. Larger in population than all but a handful of the world's nations, U.P. was for long the crucible of Indian politics, an arena where some of the most decisive political encounters since Independence have been witnessed.

Viewed in the contemporary context, the heartland meta-phor would seem devoid of all benign connotations. U.P. today embodies a crisis of governability that bears distinctly threatening overtones for the rest of the country. In no other State are the uncertainties and tensions of the breakdown of the post-Indepen-dence consensus more apparent.

Zoya Hasan's study of the politics of U.P. in the post-Congress phase offers no prognoses, though it does provide acute description and diagnosis. It draws out the distinctive features of the political evolution of U.P., which have today reduced the State to a seething cauldron - of political aspirations devoid of a durable medium of expression, of social conflicts that threaten to fracture the delicate institutional underpinnings of a fledgling democracy, of electoral contests motivated by little else than the urge to pack an already bloated administrative machinery with partisans of a particular cause.

All this must seem an ironic postscript to early forecasts of local politicians, that in its size and linguistic coherence, U.P. would provide a stable anchorage to the entire country, guarding it against the fissiparous threats of regionalism. Few other States enshrined the maintenance of the status quo as a governing virtue of policy quite in the manner that U.P. did. And in few other States was the Congress party - the main instrument and vehicle of Indian nationalism - quite as oblivious to the irresistible forces that had been set in motion by Independence and by the adoption of the processes and institutions of an electoral democracy.

Zoya Hasan develops her narrative at two levels - first focussing on the unique forms of organisation of the Congress party in U.P., and then taking up the varieties of opposition mobilisation that challenged the Congress hegemony. The context is provided by changes in the agrarian sector, partly policy induced, though in large part the spontaneous outcome of existing institutional modes.

The abolition of zamindari, an early expression of the Congress' social commitment, created the conditions for the emergence of a vigorous agrarian lobby that soon found itself running up against the constraints imposed by the entrenched power groups in the ruling party. Working from within the Congress, the new class of peasant proprietors managed to stall and finally scupper all efforts to accelerate the pace of agrarian reform. Land reform legislation remained unimplemented, preventing the Congress from recruiting a larger social constituency to its cause. And in the wake of the Green Revolution, when the new agrarian elite began to perceive the Congress as an inadequate vehicle for its aspirations, it began to court alternative political formations.

The benefits of economic change remained confined to a narrow social group on account of a failure of institutional reform. Radical rhetoric was allowed to substitute entirely for the hard work of evolving policies of redistribution and putting in place mechanisms for their implementation. There were, in spite of all this, a few groups that managed to attain a degree of upward economic mobility despite their exclusion from the Congress' system of power and patronage. But political mobility did not follow as a corollary for these caste groupings - most notably the Yadavs and Kurmis. The Congress remained the sole mediation between state and society, and the entry of these groups was blocked by the entrenched presence within of rival social classes.

A transient identity of interests was established between the peasant proprietors who parted company with the Congress in the wake of the Green Revolution, and the backward classes which had never found a place within it. This early challenge was met by reinvoking the theme of radical redistribution that practical exigencies had forced the Congress to abandon. By the early 1980s, however, this strategy was also beginning to wear thin. With its traditional constituencies such as Dalits and Muslims being disillusioned by the failure to deliver on promises of material betterment, the Congress was in a state of internal disarray. Even Rajiv Gandhi's famous electoral triumph of 1984 did not assuage these insecurities, since the Assembly elections that followed a few months later yielded decidedly more modest results for the Congress.

The party fashioned an antidote for these woes in majoritarian mobilisation, aptly described as "a political idiom which sought to build permanent electoral majorities based on the census definition of Hindus through the deployment of ascriptive symbols." Zoya Hasan establishes, with a wealth of illustrations, that the Congress in U.P. was always strongly predisposed towards this strategy - an attitude particularly strongly reflected in its hostile stand towards Urdu as a medium of communication and education. In contrast to other States, the Congress leadership in U.P. tended to look upon Urdu as an alien linguistic presence which cut at the very foundations of national identity.

Majoritarianism as a strategy required careful calibration, since it threatened the allegiance of several of the Congress' traditional voters while always providing an opening for the more avowedly communal programme of the Bharatiya Janata Party. In the event, the "pragmatic communalism" of the Congress was overwhelmed by the "programmatic communalism" of the BJP, which has since 1991 been the dominant political formation in U.P.

The consolidation of backward class, minority and Dalit votes could pose a viable challenge to the BJP. But this potential remains largely unrealised precisely because there is no strong identity of interests among these diverse sections. Kurmis and Lodhs, two of the more powerful "backward" social groupings, are suspicious of Yadav intentions. And the one interlude of backward class-Dalit rule that U.P. has seen was abruptly terminated when the Dalit component pulled out of the alliance in resentment at the unsubtle dominance of Yadavs.

In Zoya Hasan's reading, U.P. epitomises the political changes flowing from two fundamental sources of tension in the Indian polity. In a milieu of slowly expanding opportunity, the conflict between different groups over access to the levers of the state has sharpened. And the formal system of political equality that universal adult franchise institutes, continually tends to enter into collision with an inherited system of socio-economic inequality. This dual-textured conflict is fairly pervasive across India. In failing to provide any clues to its resolution, U.P. has failed to live up to its epithet as the heartland. And yet, the years ahead may well bring about a reversal of fortunes, since nowhere are the ruinous consequences more apparent than here.

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